Features Q&A and Interviews Published 18 December 2012

Flabbergast

Henry Maynard, founder of Flabbergast Theatre, talks to us about the theatrical potential of puppetry.
Natasha Tripney

What is Flabbergast’s approach to puppetry and to theatre in general? How would you describe the kind of work you make?

When I formed Flabbergast in 2010 I came up with the following mission statement:

‘Flabbergast was set up to make uncompromising and exciting physical theatre in a belief that all theatre should be engaging and sweaty’

I think it still sums us up, we currently lean towards puppetry but I am still keen to experiment with form utilising our practitioners skills in circus, dance, clown and physical theatre, and hope the show for Edinburgh 2013 will do exactly that. The sentence is a little irreverent which I think is appropriate considering our work to date but I do believe that theatre should be hard work physically and mentally and I hope we always avoid pretension.

What is the particular appeal of Bunraku puppetry?

Its probably worth mentioning that we play with the style of Bunraku without subscribing to the deeper historic traditions of Japanese Bunraku. I feel that Bunraku Puppetry affords a detail of movement that can be lacking from in other forms, simply put there are two legs two arms a head and a pivot point at the hips, so it’s a numbers game, I have never seen a marionette string puppet do convincingly what we can do with Bunraku, I even find rods interfere too much so tend only to use very short ones if at all.

I think the interplay between three puppeteers improvising together is fascinating in its own right and consider them as much part of the performance as the puppets, there is a place for hiding puppeteers but personally I find all the veils and ninja garments more distracting. We the audience know they are puppets and we can see the puppeteers behind them, why try and deny that fact? I’d rather enter into a state of complicity with the audience play together, people are constantly surprised by how quickly they focus in on the puppets and ignore the puppeteers which is why they are delighted when we refer back to them.

How physically demanding are the kind of shows you do? There was an awful lot of sweat when I saw you in Edinburgh…

The shows that we do are very physically demanding. Although the range of movement is restricted to a table top the puppeteers are intensely involved and constantly making small movements, I ask that our puppeteers are physically and mentally engaged at all times, its true to say that if you are uncomfortable whist performing as a puppeteer you are probably doing it right, you need to put yourself into very bizarre positions in order to make the puppet look good, you also need to be ready for anything as we work a lot with improvisation so a dynamic position is paramount.

Flabbergast's Puppet Cabaret

Flabbergast’s Puppet Cabaret

How did you create the characters of Boris and Sergey? How was the show conceived and how would you describe the company’s creative process?

We work through a collaborative devising process, sometimes using the improvisational skills of our performers and at other times choreographing set pieces. The characters of Boris & Sergey came to light originally in an improvisation two years ago and just stuck, since then we have developed what I believe to be two complex three dimensional characters with a rich and interesting relationship to one another through the extensive improvisation both in performance and the rehearsal room. Vaudevillian Adventure grew out of our ‘Puppet Cabaret’ and ‘Puppet Poker Pit.’

The show is odd because the premise is that it is created by Boris & Sergey not by us, they have a life before and after Vaudevillian Adventure and will be presenting another work next year. As a clown act they are innately inept but that is part of their charm, they get sidelined, they lie, they mess things up but people fall in love with them because they recognise their humanity. Next year we will be looking at mythic story structure in a very obvious way, some people dont quite understand that Vaudevillian Adventure is a crossover cabaret rather than a traditional story theatre piece and so wanted more structure, it’s more about the characters and their attempts to entertain but I’m happy to take constructive criticism and we will be giving people a bit more of an arc next time, just don’t expect Boris & Sergey to take it well…

How did you get into puppetry in the first place? What was the attraction?

I trained with Blind Summit and worked on several of their shows including 1984 at BAC) Faeries at ROH and research and development for The Table, I also made puppets with them for On Emotion at Soho Theatre and Complicite’s Shun Kin among others. I found puppetry to be liberating and magical, it unlocked an ability to improvise in me that previously I had found elusive. I found that I was good at it and I believe that we all enjoy things that we have a natural proficiency for. Through my work with Flabbergast and subsequently on War Horse my initial love has grown to a real passion for the art form.

Humans are fascinated with the personification of things; cats, teddy bears, toys. Look at the popularity of films such as a Night in the Museum, we want to imbue everything with a life and consciousness of its own.

After working with puppets for the last five or so years I have come to view them as distilled humanity, their emotions are more heightened, their dilemmas more taxing and their attentions more all-encompassing, they are humanity boiled down to its essence, they grab focus, as if they are spot lit on stage. People invest emotionally with them often to a greater extent than they do with adult humans, meaning you can play with love, fear, joy and brutality to a great extent.

Do you think there’s been a noticeable shift in audience perception of work involving puppetry in recent years?

Certainly, up until recently there has been a prevailing thought in our society that Puppetry is for children, in fact one of our reviews from Edinburgh called the show a ‘subversion of a children’s medium,’ which is something that we want to change.

I have a strong belief in puppetry as a valuable and valid theatrical art form for mature audiences. We at Flabbergast are dedicated to bringing Puppetry to an age demographic that is I feel underrepresented in the audiences attending theatre today, namely that of the 18 – 35 year old. We try to expand the art form’s audience beyond that of the more traditional realm. By embracing festival work, walkabout and cabaret I believe that we are forerunners in pushing and exploring the boundaries of the art.

The work of companies like Blind Summit and Handspring has done a great deal for puppetry in recent years and I think that people are starting to realise the theatrical potential beyond children’s entertainment and the muppets. They are beautiful and brutal, grotesque and wonderful, they are representations of us in our truest form and therefore inherently interesting to us.

Boris & Sergey’s Vaudevillian Adventure is at Soho Theatre from 19th – 22nd and 27th – 29th December 2012. For tickets visit the Soho Theatre website.

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Natasha Tripney

Natasha co-founded Exeunt in 2011 and was editor until 2016. She's now lead critic and reviews editor for The Stage, and has written about theatre and the arts for the Guardian, Time Out, the Independent, Lonely Planet and Tortoise.

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