Barb Jungr has no time for labels, if they get in the way. “Do you think there’s a place where the genres of theatre and music and cabaret meet, Barb?” Her fork goes down. Her eyes meet mine. “Well, they meet on the stage.” Obviously. As if there could be any other answer. I feel extremely naïve for even having given credence to such a question by asking it. Jungr elaborates on this theme: “You’ve got people’s willingness to be an audience, and you’ve got what you’re putting on the stage, and it’s in the meeting of the two.”
Jungr is herself a shining exemplar of genre-blindness. Her career has taken in everything from jazz singing to film acting to radio presenting to theatre writing; she has busked on Portobello Road, paid her dues among New York’s cabarati, and flogged her wares at the Edinburgh Fringe. It clearly takes great effort to be so versatile and unsnobby. “We schlepped,” she admits frankly. “But people are extraordinary and resourceful.” More recently, she has begun experimenting with puppet theatre, and when we meet for lunch in Islington, she is in the thick of rehearsing for the upcoming Little Angel Theatre production of Michael Rosen’s We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, a co-adaptation for which she has written original music and lyrics.
The passion with which Jungr talks about her collaborators is so generous and heartfelt, it makes me want to apply to work with her myself. Rosen, the former children’s poet laureate, is “extraordinary.” Peter Glanville, the director who adapted Rosen’s book for the stage, is “smart, funny, modern, clever,” the “Peter Brook of the puppet world” and someone she would “walk across fire to work with.” Lyndie Wright, the co-founder of Little Angel Theatre, “doesn’t just sit and talk about puppets” – she’s a “master,” the “best.” The cast of four performers have apparently risen to the challenges of the piece “like Titans.” But it’s not just her current colleagues who come in for tributes. She credits Alexei Sayle and Julian Clary, both former tour-buddies, for their influence – “My God, I learned a lot from them.” Even Maureen Lipman, someone I’m not sure she’s ever met, let alone worked with, receives some beautifully sincere praise: “Oh, just look at the amount of stuff she’s done, and the difference of it. She’s just brilliant.”
Jungr admits there is a certain “curious resonance” for her when it comes to puppetry, having grown up in a house full of puppets. This early exposure (along with her unusual name) is down to the fact her father is Czech, and that Czechoslovakia is the land of marionette theatre. She discusses puppeteers with a sense of awe and wonder about the magic of the process, however when she talks about the use of puppetry as a theatrical device, she is astute, almost academic. “It’s very filmic. You can play with scale.” Rather than viewing it as a reduction in size from human performance, she sees it as an increase. It’s far easier to be convinced that a tiny well-manoeuvred puppet is life-sized, than it is to build a colossal performance space. Moreover, the possibility for suggestion is far greater, and peculiarly magical.
Seemingly inspired by everyone and everything connected to this production, Jungr says that the songs she wrote for Bear Hunt “just fell out of the sky” and have only been slightly altered since the first workshop. “Sometimes it just happens, and sometimes you spend six weeks on a song.” So, the fact that these songs formed themselves so easily is promising, right? The muse was in attendance, the stars aligned, and some form of alchemy happened. “The myth is, that the one that comes easily are better, but it’s not true.” Of course. I knew that. “You’ve got to be scrupulous.” She tells an anecdote about Jimi Hendrix having an idea for a song in a cab, but being unable to get it noted down since his guitar was in the trunk. “Ah, well,” said Jimi, “someone else’ll get it now.” This puts me in mind of the dream-catching in Roald Dahl’s The BFG. It seems that she approaches most projects in this way, as a receiver, a vessel. “Our job is to open ourselves and be ready.”
No wonder Jungr’s enjoyed so many fruitful collaborations, when she exhibits such willingness to meet people over halfway. She maintains it’s not a natural state of mind for her, but one that she works to adopt. “I probably have the urge to be controlling, but I’ve learned it’s pointless… If you always work with people who are better than you, why would you want to control that?” Having spent an hour in her company, I imagine she’s very tenacious and forthright with her opinions, and far from a pushover, but she appears to be far more interested in gathering the extraordinary talents of others, than imposing her own on to them. One of her most endearing qualities is that she really has to be forced to talk about herself, and even then it’s with an invigorating dose of Rochdale-raised self-effacement. On the subject of We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, she can’t say enough.
Bear Hunt was itself a collaboration of sorts, a beautiful marriage of words and pictures. Jungr and her Little Angel Theatre colleagues reportedly found inspiration in Helen Oxenbury’s illustrations as much as in Michael Rosen’s text, describing them as “beautifully elegiac and dreamlike.” Rosen has been quoted as saying he credits Oxenbury with great inventiveness, and admires the book almost as an outsider. It’s the perfect source material for an artist as collaborative as Barb Jungr, surrounded by a team of equally willing associates. As she says herself, proudly, “99.9% of the time, the people I work with are bloody brilliant.” I’m not surprised. Great minds often think alike.
Artist photo by Mark Abe. We’re Going on a Bear Hunt is at the Little Angel Theatre from 11th May–21st Jul 2013