DNA co-founder Adam Bennett shares his thoughts on developing the puppetry on ‘The Caucasian Chalk Circle’ for Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh
Adam Bennett, the puppeteer, is genuinely brilliant- truly, he makes some white rags and a polystyrene head into something genuinely moving.- Katie Craig, Mumble Theatre
Being asked to develop the puppetry and contribute a key character as a puppet into a big main stage production is a challenge. There are so many unknowns even after developing a concept and discussing it with the director (Mark Thomson) and designer (Karen Tennant). I believe that it is always best if possible to begin rehearsal with the actual puppets and props that will be used in the performance. A puppeteer develops the performance exploring the movement and visual potential of what is in their hands, and any small changes makes a big difference to the potential.
However, with this production my concept of representing the baby with a piece of cloth at the beginning of the play and assembling a child onstage as the play progresses meant that I could only commission the very fundamental parts to bring to day one of rehearsals: I asked the excellent designer/maker Georgina Solo to construct a head and two sizes of bodies which could have arms and legs attached to it if necessary. The head needed to be able to be attached and detached from the body easily and quickly.
I envisioned a 3-stage process; at first Michael was simply a piece of cloth that could be tossed about carelessly as just another symbol of value in the self obsessed lives of the Governor and his wife. Only when Grusha arrives and sees it as a human being to be cared for and loved does the figure begin to take shape. First with a head emerging out of the cloth and then as the play progresses developing into a fully articulated figure.
As I discussed the design concept with Karen Tennant I wasn’t sure how much of the figure could be source from stage paraphernalia. The concept was ‘farmers holing up in an old theatre creating a show from the old props and costumes lying around’. Within this concept I thought a beautifully made puppet may not fit.
Rehearsals quickly established that the play should definitely start with the baby portrayed by a simple piece of cloth, but working out when and how the head should appear proved tricky. It wasn’t finally settled until the 1st preview. The production features more than 40 minutes of live music and songs composed by Claire McKenzie, one of which which provided a heightened moment when the baby transforms into an ‘angel’ rising from the travel chest while Grusha stands undecided whether to take him with her or leave him to die.
Another exciting moment of discovery for me was when Grusha is ordered by the Governor’s Wife to fetch hot water bottles and I realised that a hot water bottle is exactly the right size, weight and temperature of a small baby. When I placed the bottle wrapped in cloth with the head attached into Grusha’s arms, actor Amy Manson immediately changed her physical and emotional relationship to it.
Early in rehearsals I realised that found objects for arms and legs were not going to work for the design style and the performance style of the production that is developing. I asked for materials to make arms, legs, hands and feet. I needed to find an easy and quick method to attach the arms and legs to the body in full view of the audience. I hoped that it would be easy enough so that Amy would be happy to do it herself. I also wanted a transitional stage where the arms and legs were ‘half-formed’ floppy bits of cloth, but the body was taking shape.
A simple baby-grow outfit served as the transitional state, although it took a while to convince the director that it could be allowed in the world of the play. Mark Thomson needed to know where it had come from – much more than the head – but with Karen Tennant’s help we created a version that was acceptable.
After making Michael’s arms and legs I experimented with using magnets to join them to the body. This worked with the arms but not with the legs. I inserted the arms and hands into a small child’s hoodie jacket provided by the designer. She’d also settled on a christening dress as the piece of cloth at the beginning of the play. The legs required carabinas firmly glued to the top of the legs which could be quickly clipped onto the body and ensured that they couldn’t turn too far around at the same time. The legs were glued into a little pair of bib and brace trousers.
There was only so much puppetry I could work out during rehearsals and one brief scene required some extra hands to give the child full articulation. The excellent Jon Trenchard and Liam Gerrard helped out. It was fortunate that during rehearsals the Manipulate festival was happening in Edinburgh and reknowned director Sue Buckmaster was able to help out with a little puppet whispering, bringing Michael more fully into focus. Sue and I will be presenting one night of puppet whispering for the benefit of a paying audience on May 12th 2015 at BAC, Lavender Hill, London.