I grew up doing “muppet” style hand puppets in my Dad’s church, writing sketches etc. I then went to the University of Kent to study Drama & Theatre and then a Masters in Contemporary Performance. As part of this, I discovered Bunraku and War Horse, etc. and fell in love with making things move. I have always been a builder, and designing and constructing things that move is the most interesting form of this for me. That live moment when an audience fully invests in the puppet and world constructed around it is really special and something I really like to explore. I love the dishonesty of everyone pretending a puppet is alive. There is something really communal and honest about it. Half a String came about after Avi Simmons, a singer/songwriter and physical performer, collaborated to create ‘A Heart at Sea‘. We wanted to create a puppetry and live music show that could be performed anywhere and things snowballed from there. I run Half a String now, creating and touring shows as well as designing for other productions.
Half a String started as a collaboration between you and Musician and Performer Avi Simmons. You have a beautiful design style and Avi writes equally stunning music. How did you find each other and how does the creative relationship work?
I met Avi when I co-ran Knuckle and Joint, another puppetry company. We got her involved puppeteering an outdoor show with giant bird puppets. I heard her music after that and we started collaborating. We actually went to the same university and did the same course but a few years apart so missed each other then. The creative relationship differs from project to project. I take the lead on producing all of Half a String’s work. Avi is usually there at the beginning; helping with forming the idea, funding applications and writing music etc. A lot of ideas come in the tour van for new projects! For ‘A Heart at Sea’ we sat and wrote the story together, then she went away and wrote the songs and music and I went away and built. We would come back and share, then go away and repeat until we had a show. ‘Boulder’ was led by myself more as a director, so I wrote a loose script and a fantastic devising team worked on it in rehearsal, with Avi taking the lead on the music and song-writing during the rehearsal process. For ‘Under the Frozen Moon’, I collaborated with a poet called Alice Bryant to write the script and story and Avi came a little later into the process to rehearse and add songs to this. So we are quite fluid in the way we work project to project.
Can you say a little bit about your shows ‘A Heart at Sea’, ‘Boulder’, and ‘BEE’? How has the current situation affected this work?
‘A Heart at Sea’ was the first show that we created. It was an epic folktale about a boy who bottles his heart up and throws it out to sea. Lots of wooden puppets and a mechanical transforming box that turns into different set pieces, and which does steal the show. This was a very intimate show that had a lot of our personalty in it, so the songs were personal to Avi and very much her style. The puppets and set were very much what I wanted to build out of wood and design. ‘Boulder’ was a more ambitious project and a lot harder to produce. A bigger cast, projection, animation; lots of different scales to the puppets and big set pieces. This was based on the myth of Sisyphus, the guy pushing a boulder up a hill, and the show explored this in quite a real way. We looked lots into philosophy and got quite dark as points. It was really great working with that fantastic team of puppeteers and a cellist, and it had a more epic nature.
‘BEE’ is an outdoor show with a 10 foot man and a giant bee puppet that wonders around festivals, more pure puppetry this one and a lot of fun. More of a design challenge for me than anything else. We are starting to book ‘BEE’ more now because of the focus on outdoor work, which was something I hadn’t been putting a huge focus on previously due to other projects. This year was meant to be the final year of touring ‘A Heart at Sea’ and we had a few dates, one being the studio in the Royal Albert Hall and a festival up in Orkney, which was really exciting but of course all got cancelled. Hopefully there will be some kind of ending for the show that’s a little more triumphant. ‘Boulder’ was meant to go out touring as well. With the larger cast it’s a lot trickier to tour without funding, which is what we usually aim for. We are thinking of new ways our work can reach people, which might mean shelving the more intimate indoor work for a while. There has all been a lot of blue sky thinking about how to present our work in the future, all to be confirmed though!
‘Under the Frozen Moon’ is taking bookings for Christmas and beyond. What are your plans for this piece?
We have a tour booked this Christmas, a little reduced due to the situation, and we’re keeping fingers crossed that it will go ahead. We are also beginning to look at next year, but currently trying to get this year sorted really. It was really fun touring this winter show last year and we hope to be doing it for a couple of years yet. It’s a very magical and visual show with a lots of room for puppetry and moments of silliness. We also have big plans for the book that we produced with the show – a fully illustrated story book – and plan to try and get that out into some kind of book shop or other outlet, as we do still sell it on our website.
As a response to live performance being shut down you have created a series of charming online films. How did those come about and where do you see that work going in the future?
We have been wanting to create work online for a while actually, something to compliment our live performances and keep the conversation going. So the opportunity to make Seedling with First Art, who funded the piece, was amazing and something we were really grateful for as an outlet for our work at this time. The idea came from a project we were already and still are planning and rehearsing called ‘Breathe’, which is about trees and finding space in a busy world. We were really amazed by the different effects on nature the lockdown was having with animals and plants reclaiming places they would otherwise be isolated from. Our Seedling was our envoy from nature to see what was going on.
So the collaboration from Suitman Jungle and Avi Simmons will continue and we hope to launch ‘Breathe’ the live show Spring/Summer next year.
Interview with Josh Elwell