Wild Things Sing at Melbourne's Summersalt Festival

A new event in Melbourne's ever growing repertoire, Summersalt is an outdoor festival, set on the streets of Southbank, where theatre and art "hit the streets". Taking place over five weekends, I was lucky enough to be involved with an incredible show within the festival; a self proclaimed "urban puppet safari" titled, "Where the Wild Things Sing". Combining opera and puppetry, this show was presented by Black Hole Theatre and really was something incredibly special.

Big Henri operated by yours truly.

Big Henri operated by yours truly.

bAround Christmas 2014, I received a phone call from Nancy Black, artistic director of Black Hole Theatre. I had met Nancy once before, during a workshop with Duda Paiva hosted by Black Hole (see previous post Duda Paiva Masterclass). I knew of Nancy's work and so was very pleased when she offered the opportunity to work with her on this upcoming show. Based on a scratch night she had co-ordinated at the Northcote Town Hall in 2014, the show entailed a series of short performances by different puppeteers, each collaborating with an opera singer/s. Many of the artist's involved had come from this original line up, and in fact my spot too had been filled; by talented puppeteer Colleen Burke.

Unfortunately (well fortunately for me), Colleen had to leave the project due to another engagement, leaving a slot open in the show. I believe it was Colleen herself who slipped my name in to the pool, and I thank her for that. Such a wonderful show to be involved in, I felt very privileged to be included. Speaking to Nancy, she was eager to keep the same aria that Colleen had been working with, a piece titled "Ebben. Ne Andro Lontana" from the opera La Wally by Alfredo Catalani, which has themes centred around growing up and leaving home.

For some time now, I have been wanting to build a big orangutan, since before Henri in fact! It was during my rod module at the London School of Puppetry; I decided I wanted to build this large puppet. Unfortunately the idea did not suit the criteria of my assessment (plus, how would I get this big monkey home to Aus!?), so I decided to build a baby orangutan instead... and thus Henri was born (see previous posts Ken Haines Table-Top Workshop and Henri's Journey). Though Henri is an incredible little puppet and I am very proud of him (and me?) and how well he has been received, I have always held on to the idea of the big orang. 

Skating the streets of Prahran with one of Duda Paiva's creations.

Here was my chance, I pitched the idea to Nancy: a baby orangutan, all cute and lovely, interacts with the crowd etc. Then he goes away and when he returns, he is all grown up and ready to leave home. How will he leave? On rollerskates! Being a competitive skater in my spare time, another dream that has been in the back of my mind is to incorporate my skating skills in to my puppetry. In fact, this was one of the reasons Nancy had chosen to call me; during Duda Paiva's Masterclass, she had seen me play with one of his body puppets while on skates, and had been quite impressed with my skills. Could this be my dreams coming true? A big orangutan!!! On rollerskates??! Nancy and I were both quite keen on the idea. As commonly happens, I focussed so heavily on the movement I wanted to achieve that the story was left somewhat underdeveloped, but Nancy and I would rectify this with some later brain storms. 

Not too long after the decision was made, a spanner hit the works. A particularly stubborn and nasty spanner. Mid 2013 I broke my ankle quite severely in a skating accident, and the surgeons filled me with a substantial amount of metal. After over a year of rehab, and at least six months back on skates, the metal work was becoming an issue. My physio and surgeon both agreed; in order for me to continue skating (plus my many other physical pursuits), the metal needed to come out. As I am a public patient, being on the waiting list meant that this could happen anytime at very short notice. I got the call: I would be going under the knife a mere two weeks before the show was to open. With a puppet still to complete and a show that was to include roller skating... this was going to be a significant issue.

I spoke to Nancy and it is safe to say, I stressed her out. I believed whole heartedly that I could still do the show, we would just have to tweak our idea to exclude my skating prowess. Though very disappointed (Can you blame us? A skating orangutan would be amazing!), we pressed on, hoping that I would be back on my feet asap! Luckily my surgery went incredibly well and I was up and walking straight away. The most difficult challenge was my energy levels post surgery. Trying to build a big puppet when I was struggling to stay awake for more than a few hours each day was a challenge to say the least! That aside, the build was actually a joy. 

A relatively new style for me; like 90% of my builds in the past year, the process was fairly experimental. I enjoy learning and discovering as I go and building this puppet was no exception. Taking part in Duda Paiva's masterclass had certainly given me plenty of inspiration and some basic principles of how to approach the idea, and day by day, through trial and error, my big orangutan came to life. The face I carved from two large blocks of reticulated foam. One of my first attempts at carving foam (save some absolute blunders at LSP), I approached the work with some caution. I began by creating a clay model of the face, based on an amazing picture of a big orangutan (the picture that began my orang obsession in fact). The model helped me to understand the shape of the face, the rise and fall, where I needed to create depth etc. I found the carving process fairly satisfying but certainly acknowledge there is a lot of room for improvement. I wanted my orangutan to be quite rough, so achieving a smooth finish was not an issue. I found that using a cheese grater on the foam like sand paper created a really nice finish for my character, a rough texture that seemed to suit.

Another significant challenge was the proportions of the body. Achieving the correct length in the arms and legs etc. Originally the puppet was going to be operated quite similarly to many of Duda Paiva's, with the puppet's large round belly tied at my waste, gloves to operate the arms and articulate the characters hands with my own, and a rod in the head to be operated with my other hand. This would allow great articulation in the head, however it meant I could only operate one arm at a time, leaving the other dangling. I saw no real issue with any of these plans, but of course, with time and many tests, the problems began to surface. The hands could not be glove operated if I wanted to achieve the correct proportions in the arms; an orangutan's arms are very long, able to connect with the floor even when the animal is standing. I therefore eventually conceded to operate the arms via rods at the characters elbows, allowing far greater length.

After introducing the puppet to Nancy in a very unfinished state, she suggested making the face in to a mask to allow me to operate both arms at the same time. I will admit, I was a little sceptical due to my own bias (That's not a puppet! That's a suit!), but gave it a try none the less. Low and behold, what a wonderful idea it was! My arms busily working, my head was completely wasted in my old design. It took some time to figure out how to achieve freedom and flexibility in the movement of the head. When I first attempted the mask idea, the chin of the puppet connected immediately with my chest allowing zero movement in the neck. Eventually I discovered that by adding bars in to the back of the head, one for my forehead and one for my chin, I could push the face out from my own and gain a far greater range of movement. In the end I operated the lower bar with my teeth as I found I had greater control this way. In future this may need updating as I doubt I could sustain this for a longer piece, but as my performance within this show lasted only 10 minutes or so, it worked perfectly well. 

For the bulk of the characters girth (I wanted it to be a very fat orangutan), I had some difficulty finding the right filling. I created the stomach out of some brown fabric with a certain amount of stretch to it. I tried filling it with stuffing (what I tend to call "fluff"), but this did not work. The belly kept expanding with the stuffing and eventually became lumpy, looking like some badly mashed potato. I then decided to try polystyrene beans. After a ride to the op shop and the destruction of two big bean bags, I had found my solution. The beans filled the stomach to its full size and then no further. This also kept the puppet light where the stuffing had been quite heavy. To contradict myself, though light enough to be comfortable, there was still weight enough to allow a natural movement and bounce to the stomach. I employed the same idea with the puppets arms. 

I was having a mental blank as to how I would cover the puppet. I needed to achieve the same wooly, rough look as baby Henri but would certainly not have time to sew on wool piece by piece as I did for my small orangutan. I tried to find shag carpeting, but for some reason it only comes in a hideous fluro orange and is surprisingly expensive even second hand. My dad came for a visit and with him he brought a lovely orange shaggy blanket he had bought at the op shop. "Don't you think this looks like Henri?" he commented. It took all my strength not to sound too desperate as I asked if I could have it. It turned out my little sister had become very fond of the blanket (she's seven), but with the bribe of a new blanket (with fairies on it!), I had my outer layer! The blanket formed an excellent base cover for my puppet, to which I added random pieces of wool to achieve his shaggy quality. 

A couple of extra interesting tidbits about the build I thought I would mention: the eyes are children's toy balls from the two dollar shop, coated with gloss spray paint, and the hands are made from a pair of the old hulk gloves (a popular toy in the early 2000's). With less than my normal energy levels, the deadline was tight, but the puppet was completed just in time. Really I can remember adding the final touches the morning of our dress rehearsal, and admittedly added a few more between shows. 

An appropriate segue, this brings me to the performance side of the story... Though Nancy and I had discussed the piece at length, the dress rehearsal (the day before we opened), would be my one and only chance to run through the piece. As it would be an open rehearsal with a small audience (no start-stopping), I was quite nervous in the lead up. On top of this, I had never really operated my new puppet, save the few silly dances I had done throughout the build in my little workshop. Nancy managed to secure me a rehearsal space at Melbourne Polytechnic in Prahran the day before our open dress and here I had the chance to explore the physicality of my new character in front of huge floor to ceiling dance mirrors. I was very lucky to have performer Nadine Dimitrievitch come down to be my outside eye for an hour or so. With a background in dance, mask and physical theatre, Nadine and I met during Duda Paiva's workshop and surprisingly for a tall, slender, graceful dancer, she made one convincing orangutan! It turned out Nadine had adopted this kind of physicality in performance before, and thus her insight and direction was incredibly valuable to me. Working with Nadine, I began to understand the ins and outs of how I could play this character. Though there is still plenty of room for improvement, I felt far more confident after this day of experimentation and play.

Big Henri emerging from behind pillars, operated by yours truly.

Going in to the dress rehearsal, I was nervous but excited. A surprise visit from my dad landed me my own personal roadie and in truth I could not have asked for a better support over our first weekend. The show was set outdoors amongst the buildings along Sturt St and the audience  is toured around to discover "Where the Wild Things Sing". I was very privileged to work with opera singer Belinda Dalton, an incredible talent with a huge and beautiful voice. Though we had met briefly in the planning phase, this would be the first chance Belinda and I had to perform together, not to mention my first time using my orangutan's in the space. All things considered, the piece ran fairly smoothly this first day and was well received by our small audience. The feedback we received from Nancy later was mainly to do with strengthening the story through our relationship with each other (Henri to Belinda and vise versa). A tribute to her talent, this simple feedback from Nancy effected the piece dramatically, leaving audience members in tears on the day of our first show.

Baby Henri operated by yours truly.

Opening day went very well as far as I was concerned. I felt connected with my characters and I had a fairly solid idea of what I needed to achieve. With Nancy's feedback fresh in our minds (both Belinda's and my own), the piece was still partially improvised, and of course with a larger crowd including many children, there is no predicting how the orangutan's will interact. Baby Henri is a fantastic puppet for interaction, small and engaging with the dexterity to play with props and share with the audience. Big Henri on the other hand, besides being a less familiar puppet for me, is a lot more difficult to work with in this regard. With impaired vision and large clobbering fists, I was paranoid I might crash in to a small child. This spacial awareness actually worked well for this character. The basic through line of the show was this: The audience are introduced to baby Henri, small, gentle and dexterous. He and Belinda are clearly close friends and it is all very lovely. Later when big Henri comes out, he tries to do everything the same as he did as a baby, but he is too big and too clumsy and keeps making mistakes. Eventually a zoo keeper takes him away from this place, and he farewells his good friend as she sings her beautifully sombre aria. 

Belinda Dalton and baby Henri 

I felt really good about the show after this first performance. I also had the opportunity to watch a lot of my fellow puppeteer's as I tagged on to the end of the crowd and oh my, what a magical journey this show really was. The evening show unfortunately suffered due to wet weather on this first weekend. The show went on with some slight updates and the audience shielded by a sea of pink and yellow Summersalt umbrellas (I was very impressed at the festivals forward thinking!). Though the weather was not ideal, the show was still incredibly well executed and the audience had a wonderful time. After this first weekend I was so relieved to have made it, and also incredibly happy to have been included amongst such an amazing group of performers.

Booked for two performances only (four if you consider the afternoon and evening), the show's sold out incredibly quickly. Though very exciting, I was disappointed by this as many of my friends and family missed out on tickets. With three weeks between the first and second show's, I used this time to gradually add more and more hair to big Henri, filling him out quite considerably which in my opinion looks quite good. The weekend of the show rolled around and I was nervous again; I had not had a chance to practice with the puppet in between the show's and wondered how much I had retained. On top of this, it was very hot on this day. I honestly believe that nervousness is a good thing before a show. I think I would be far more worried if I was not nervous at all. I find nervous energy makes me perform better... though this could be superstition on my part. The show went well, though I felt slightly disconnected with my puppets due to the heat. My focus wavered, but it all went fairly smoothly. 

As always there is plenty of room for improvement and really I wouldn't have it any other way. This is how I learn and grow, and what a way to do it. Surrounded by an incredible team, I can not thank everyone enough. Our wonderful stage manager Geoff Adams, our incredible team of volunteers including my amazing "zoo keeper" Alex Fergusson, all of my fellow performers, puppeteers, singers, musicians, our producer Edwina Lunn and last but certainly not least, our marvellous director, looking after all of us, the wonderful Nancy Black. Thank you all for such an incredible experience. It truly was such a fantastic group of people to work with; during those two performance days, Sturt St felt like home, always a friendly face to bump in to, even if they might look a bit frazzled. I am so happy to have been a part of this show, and am so grateful to have met so many amazing people through this wonderful journey. 

Since returning to Australia in August last year, I am finding that the puppetry community in Melbourne is... well, just wonderful. In fact this applies to Australia as a whole. I am very excited for all that is to come. Hopefully we will see the big orangutan on roller skates in the very near future!!

Now the question that remains is, will the big orangutan find his/ her own identity? In the context of this show he was a grown up Henri, but I think the time must come where he/ she comes into his/ her own! We will have to wait and see! 

The show was professionally photographed and filmed at our final performance. I look forward to sharing this with you all. Stay tuned.

For more about Nancy and Black Hole Theatre visit: http://blackholetheatre.com.au/

For more about the Summersalt Festival visit: http://summersaltfestival.com.au/

For more about Nadine Dimitriovitch visit: http://bonemarrowtheatre.com/