Monday, 6 July 2015

Skirting Dramaturgy: An Elephant @ Edfringe 2015

The Fringe
What inspired this production: did you begin with an idea or a script or an object?

The idea for Annabelle’s Skirting Board Adventures came from me lying on the floor, with my head on one side, and one eye closed, imagining what it would be like to be tiny. I did this a lot as a kid, and have been doing more than a grown-up man really should of late.

I’m a stand-up, writer and performer who specialises in working with projected animated characters, live on stage, both for adults and children. I came up with the idea for Annabelle, but didn’t know if it would be possible to make it into a stage show. I thought that asking an entire audience to lie on the floor with their head on the ground might be asking too much.

I started by approaching Steve Pretty, a trumpeter friend of mine, as I wanted his trumpet to provide Annabelle’s voice. It turned he was an even bigger tech nerd than I was, and between us we came up with the various ways that we could put this story on stage. We worked out that with the help of VJ’s vision mixer, we could film a stage set from a very low angle with a series of micro-camera and mix a tiny cartoon elephant into the picture live in front of the audience’s eyes. 

 As we couldn’t afford most of the solutions we had come up with we then asked the Arts Council for funding. Once that was in place, I took the ideas that Steve and I had worked on, and started putting those into a script.

Why bring your work to Edinburgh?
That’s a question my wife’s been asking a lot recently. I’ve got a family now and so disappearing for most of the summer holidays and risking a pile of money that we could be spending on an extension is something that I’m not allowed to take lightly. 

 But I think we’ve created a properly unique and amazing show, and that is the sort of thing that the Fringe really appreciates. Edinburgh’s a great way to get the finished product to a wider audience, both at the Fringe and to venues around the country and perhaps the world. Every big break I’ve ever had in my career, from TV series, international festivals or the Royal Variety have all started by showcasing my work in Edinburgh. 

If you’ve got something that you think is worth shouting about Edinburgh’s really a no-brainer.

What can the audience expect to see and feel - or even think - of your production?
Annabelle is a fully inter-active tiny 2D cartoon elephant, but through a mixture of stage-craft, and live vision mixing the audience will be able to see her standing on the stage in front of them and crossing it, and the living room set we have on stage, as if it was an enormous landscape. Hopefully that makes them feel something special. 

 Then the story is about a tiny person achieving big things against all the odds, with the help from her friends. So we hope they’ll feel joy and happiness. Our younger audience will hopefully think “that was amazing!”, and our older audience will hopefully think “how on earth did they do that?” The key message behind Annabelle is “Anything is possible if you put your little mind to it.” This is true of Annabelle’s story, and of the story of how we put this very silly idea on stage.

The Dramaturgy Questions

How would you explain the relevance - or otherwise - of dramaturgy within your work?
To start explaining the relevance of dramaturgy in my work I’d firstly look up what “dramaturgy” meant, on Wikipedia. When I’d done that (ie, now) I’d say that dramaturgy was the key to getting this show right. Putting the story of an elephant who’s too small to see on stage is not easy. Without some clever solutions, it’s just not going to work. Before we started deciding the exact shape of the story was, we had to know that it was possible to stage it and relay it the audience.

Putting a cartoon onto a physical set has obviously been done on film and television, but it’s never been done in a theatre, live and in real time. But there’s no point in doing that unless it’s telling a great story. We wanted to build the story in beats that we could firstly, physically achieve, secondly, be hugely entertaining and thirdly create a brilliant picture on stage. So as we wrote the story we designed the tech, the set and the costume around it. As we developed each of these further it often meant coming back and altering the story so that the it worked better with the way we had to present the story to the audience.

What particular traditions and influences would you acknowledge on your work - have any particular artists, or genres inspired you and do you see yourself within their tradition?
My work straddles various genres. I’m a stand-up, and animator, and a story teller. I recently got invited to perform at a Puppet Festival in Northern Ireland, and found I fitted in very well there. A South African shadow-puppeteer pointed out that both they and I make the inanimate animate. So The Muppets were a huge inspiration to me, I got to write for The Furchester Hotel last year, which was amazing, working with writers who’d been working on Sesame Street for 20 years. That experience taught me how to write for young children.

For Annabelle specifically the worlds of Toy Story, The Borrowers and Grandpa In My Pocket have got to be a touch-stone visually, both as an inspiration, and to make sure our stories aren’t veering too close to theirs. 

 In terms of creating engaging visual stories for younger children I think the Animations of Studio Ghibli are ace. My Neighbour Totoro is a great example of creating a magical story for younger kids that doesn’t risk scaring the living daylights out of them at any point. In my adult work Sean Lock and Harry Hill’s live stand-up sets were an early inspiration. Python, especially Terry Gilliam’s animations definitely were for my animation work, not so much in visual style, but in his anarchy.

Do you have a particular process of making that you could describe - where it begins, how you develop it, and whether there is any collaboration in the process?
Making this show was unlike making any show I’ve made before. When putting together a stand-up or Little Howard show I usually work on the show alone, running scripts past my regular writing collaborator Chris Chantler. Trying them out in front of an audience when I thought they were funny enough and altering them accordingly, or not, depending on how stubborn I felt about them.

This show was hugely collaborative. I made it with Steve Pretty, who’s a brilliant trumpeter, but also a tech geek. I discussed the idea with him and he helped to come up with the various ways we put the idea on stage. Steve is hugely ambitious technically, which is great, because it’s very rare that someone else is coming up with more outlandish ideas than me. I had to be the sensible one at various points, which is new for me. We then took on a Dramaturge to help with the story structure, and a technical consultant to help solve our various AV, lighting and set challenges. 

 We then tried parts of the show out at a local primary school, and made changes according to how they reacted to different aspects of the show. We made a lot of big changes at that point, because the kids reacted to a lot of stuff in very different ways than we were expecting. It was only once we knew that the show we wanted to make was physically possible to stage, and that our audience would respond it in the way we expected that I started work on the full script. We then went into an intensive rehearsal period and started a small tour of the show, tweaking and fixing up problems as they arose.

What do you feel the role of the audience is, in terms of making the meaning of your work?
The show is about trying to see the world as a child sees it. Creating something that children can be inspired by and relate to; putting the things they’ve imagined on stage in front of them. So without the kids in the audience the show has no meaning at all. For the adults in the audience it’s hopefully about recreating that child-like way of looking of the world for them. 

 On a more concrete level the show involves a lot of audience interaction. Some children are introduced to Annabelle individually, she’s taken around the audience on my finger and has live conversations with the kids (If I told you how we did it, I’d have to kill you), she climbs to the top of one of their toys. The show is all about the audience.

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