Bootleg Puppets

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By Daisy Edwards, Bootleg Puppets


Photography by Hayley Fearnley

When I became a University student I slowly forgot how desperately young people, families, and children needed art and theatre. Theatre was so accessible as a student, our University had five different drama societies each focussed on a different aspect of the craft there were opportunities for open mic nights, auditions, writing workshops, and I went to University in a city which naturally held a great deal of opportunity. It wasn’t until the summer of 2016, when we were commissioned by the RSC and Stan’s Cafe to create ‘Caliban in the Rock Pool’ that it hit me. Or maybe I just remembered and kept hold of it. Families, push chairs, toddlers, young people – all there, all looking for one thing: art.

I’m not here to blow my own trumpet. ‘Caliban in the Rock Pool’ is a piece of outdoor, puppet theatre aimed at families and children, I’m not expecting any awards or accolades. But the Stratford on Sea Festival, the third and final year it ran, offered commissions and worked with loads of artists in the community to create art and theatre. After each performance we invited the audience to come up and meet our puppets and they came out in DROVES. Loads of little ones wanting to pet Mr. Whale, to shake the Queen Crab’s claw, to give a high five to Karkinos, our pesky villain. Similarly, with older members of our audience and parents, asking how the puppets worked and where we would be next. After our final performance of that day in July 2016 I realised that we couldn’t just stop. I had the bug and thankfully so did other members of our company. If we could brighten someone’s day with a seagull puppet or a Queen Crab with an RP accent then… Well, why couldn’t we? The world can be a very dark place sometimes, why not shed a little light into schools?

We took Caliban around the West-Midlands (Coventry’s SHOOT Festival and the Kenilworth Art Festival in 2017) and shortly after that we had a booking for a strand of workshops, spread over 6 weeks. The workshops are where I wanted to grow our company, it was something that we all valued and enjoyed doing plus we knew we could do a good job of it. Our time in Kenilworth was spent showing various classes of 30 pupils a week the wonders of shadow puppetry. We created a short demonstration story called ‘The Tale of the Dragon Queen’, we wanted to keep the narrative short and simple to allow more time for the children to build their own puppets, giving them time to be creative which their teacher said they wanted more of. Saying that, we love working with schools to build narratives that work with curriculum and any of the stories they’re telling.

For our company it’s pretty easy to push Shakespeare – ‘Caliban in the Rock Pool’ is based on The Tempest, there are loose connections between ‘Goblins!’ and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. After all, if we’re trying to make theatre and art accessible, why not the grand stuff? I’ve never liked the phrase ‘high art’ simply because it indicates it’s out of reach. After doing a Masters in Shakespeare it became clear a variety in audience members and fanatic was needed. That’s the great thing about the SBT, RSC, and other Shakespeare driven establishments and companies – we’re all cheering for the same thing.

We ended up taking ‘Caliban in the Rock Pool’ to Hall’s Croft during their Shakespeare Week celebrations. You’ll remember the deep freeze that swept the UK during mid-March, slap bang on Shakespeare Week. We were booked to perform outside but we were, thankfully, cosied away in the Hall’s Croft exhibition room and we performed to the brave souls who trudged through the snow to the good doctor’s home. We didn’t get the turn out we hoped, if you have children and a foot of snow appears the law dictates that you have a snow day, not a museum day. But there was one family that came back for our second performance on the Saturday, they loved our Spider Crab puppet – our villain – and that felt amazing. So did the workshops in Kenilworth.

We did the maths – by the end of the six weeks, 180 children in Kenilworth would have their own shadow puppet, they would know how to make one, and would know the small tale of the Dragon Queen. During that day at the Stratford on Sea Festival we had over 300 people turn out for ‘Caliban in the Rock Pool’. Add in our audiences from SHOOT and the Kenilworth Art’s Festival, that’s an awful lot of children, naturally we want to work for more.

On the 7th of October we headed back to the RSC for the Fun Palaces Open Mic. We showed off a section of ‘Avalon’ our first puppet show for adults and gave a crash course in object theatre to our audience and two unlucky volunteers. It was an excuse to work with the community again, as we did before, and I hope to continue to do so. After all, 2019 is just around the corner.


Photography by Hayley Fearnley

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The views expressed in this post are the author’s own.

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