Theatrical Evolution: The Birth of Opposable Thumb Theatre

We are hugely excited to hear about Dik Downey and Adam Blake’s new company Opposable Thumb Theatre. Described as subversive physical theatre, OTT promises to build on Dik & Adam’s success with ‘Coulrophobia (fear of clowns)’ – 80 minutes of slapstick, mime, puppetry, existential angst and big shoes’. The show is still going strong and touring the world on into 2020. Josh Elwell catches up with Dik Downey to unearth more about this exciting new manifestation and to discover in what direction it may be careering next.

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After 20 years of running Pickled Image this is a new and exciting direction for you and your work. What is it that has led you to the conception of Opposable Thumb Theatre and what is it for you that makes it a new and different adventure?

I formed Pickled Image in 2000 with Vicky Andrews, who had a background in sculpture and theatre design. We made fantastic shows and have garnered a reputation for making quality puppets shows. Pickled Image perform many different types of show from family entertainment, street theatre, cabaret and adult performances, all with many types of puppetry, but after 20 years I felt I wanted a change and to concentrate on making bronze sculptures and to look at making more challenging, subversive theatre. Although Coulrophobia was a Pickled Image production, it typifies the style of work I’m passionate about. It’s anarchic and silly, but it has hidden depths. We are using it as a launch pad to get Opposable Thumb on the map until we make our new show, which we are currently in negotiation with NVT to co-produce.

Meanwhile Vicky is taking Pickled Image to greater heights (& audiences) with her brilliant shows ‘Yana and the Yeti’ and ‘ Woodland Tales with Granddad’.

You have seen huge success with Coulrophobia and have played to packed houses, rave reviews and standing ovations since 2014! The show is part of The London International Mime Festival in January and then you are back home to the Wardrobe Theatre in the Spring. What else lies in store for this acclaimed production?

We have just been taken on by Ali Robertson ( formally from the Tobacco Factory Theatre & Kneehigh) as our producer and he’s really on the ball, inviting potential bookers, collaborators and co-producers to LIMF to see Coulrophobia, plus we’ve also got bookings for festivals in Spain, Norway, Estonia, Bulgaria, Portugal and others in the pipeline. It’s great that the show has this type of popularity and, despite being in English, it still works where it isn’t widely spoken. The show is visual enough to speak for itself.

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Coulrophobia skilfully combines slapstick, clowning, puppetry and anarchic comedy. How important to you are these elements? Can you tell us a bit about your creative process and where you find the fuel to feed this fierce creative fire?

Coulrophobia was a show that had been gnawing away at the back of my mind for a fair while before I was actually ready to make it. I had made ‘The Shop of Little Horrors’ for Pickled Image in 2013 and had drafted in Adam Blake as a performer/puppeteer to work with me on the show. Adam hadn’t had a vast amount of theatre experience, but had done quite a few clown workshops and was a natural performer, very funny and quick to learn puppetry. It seemed like a logical step to make another show together. For ‘The Shop of Little Horrors’ we played with classic horror tropes and ventriloquism, but we wanted the new show to be more extreme, physically and emotionally. Initially we toyed with the idea of violence, towards each other and the audience. We went to stage-fighting classes, trained with swords and guns but then decided that wasn’t really who we were. We just wanted to be silly instead. I have been working with puppets for about 28 years, but mixing it up with latex masked characters, so replacing the mask with clown makeup wasn’t a big step. I wanted to keep puppets within the show, but didn’t want to make a ‘puppet show’. An early tagline was ‘crap clowns do puppets’. The mime just wrote itself in, existential angst is always lurking and the big shoes I painstakingly made.

Adam & I discovered that we were a pretty good team whilst working on ‘Shop’. Our characters accidentally reflected us in life, Adam young and keen and I old and grumpy, but together we seemed to bring out the best in each other. Once we decided that we were going to make a new show, we knew we were going to play on our differing characteristics, exaggerating them to comic extremes. I knew John from seeing Peepolykus shows since the mid 90’s and getting to know him in Bristol (everyone knows everyone here). I really love John’s humour and his style of theatre and he seemed like a natural fit for Coulrophobia. The devising process consisted of us locked in a room attempting to make him laugh. Adam & I threw ideas at him and he would turn them on their heads. We played lots of status games, satirising traditional circus routines (we worked for days on a crap juggling routine, but you have to be good at a skill to convincingly make it look bad, so that went out the window). We worked a few days with a choreographer and even spent some time with a magician. John’s main task was to take the huge amount of material we came up with and hone it into a cohesive show.   

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Im sure readers will be keen to know what lies round the corner for Opposable Thumb? Is there a new show brewing behind the scenes? Are there other aspects of the work that we can look forward to in the coming year?

We are currently in discussion with Nordland Visual Theatre, Norway, where we made Coulrophobia, Yana and 3 other shows, about a new co-production in 2021. The working title is ‘Big Boys Don’t Cry’. I’m not saying more until we have the go ahead, but it will be a very different show to Coulrophobia, but with many many familiar traits. Also Adam & I are talking about making a cabaret show using bits of old stuff, new stuff and stuff we make up on the spot, but as Adam has just had his 2nd child and has quite a lot of other work with WyldWood, we’ll have to fit in around his super busy schedule.

Coulrophobia will be appearing at Jackson’s Lane as part of The London International Mime Festival. The show will also be back in Bristol at The Wardrobe Theatre in the spring 2020.

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