Guest artist blog – Puppetry mentorship with giant builders extraordinaire ‘Festive Road’

By 27th October 2015Uncategorised

Jo Munton is a puppeteer, poet and performer, who has worked with many different people in many different places, from Llandrindod wells (Big Democracy National Theatre Wales) to Siberia (tour with puppet company Clogless Lobster), from Birmingham (creating a puppet animation with Cerebral Palsy Midlands) to Spain (firm favorites at Casa de los Cuentos) from Butetown, Cardiff (DeGabay, NTW) to Bangor (Blas – Pontio).

This year she applied for and received a ‘go see’ bursary to undertake  ‘mini mentorship’ with Festive Road  to  collaborate and guide her to create a bespoke giant hare for a show of ‘Melangell’ at the National Eisteddfod of Wales.  Below is a detailed account of her experience.

You can find out more about her work at www.vagabondipuppets.com

“ Sgwarnog, sgwarnog, free and wild, Rhedeg y ffwrdd, run for your life. ”

Earlier this year I gratefully received an Articulture bursary to go and design and build a new puppet with giant builders extraordinaire – Festive Road.I had worked with them before as a puppeteer, steering their pterodactyl, or being a trunk and ear operator in their mechanical elephant. But the opportunity to spend over a week with them in their bountiful workshop with their expertise was priceless. It has led to a better understanding of mechanical structure, to deeper understanding of the outdoors art scene and directly to more work with them and their collaborators. As well as the creation of a giant puppet hare that has been part of a storytelling show of Melangell at Eisteddfod 2015 in Meifod and will go on to be the basis of a big storytelling show for next year.

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Earlier in the year I had been lucky enough to have been selected to attend the National Theatre of Wales Summercamp. This was an opportunity for professional artists to come together to support and collaborate on work.   I took the opportunity to mock up a giant hare and have various dancers and a choreographer available to work on movement. This was an invaluable opportunity to see the logistics and possibilities of what was achievable before I actually got to Festive Road’s base. I also now have a group of professional dancers all very interested in working on future projects.

So when I landed in Milton Keynes, the basic design needs were already quite strong – now it was the decisions about materials that needed to be made.

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Cardboard behaved very well for the structure but for repeated use and transportation would never stand the wear and tear.

We settled on heat formed dense foam as the outward material and I made a life size mock up version, again using cardboard. This was to see how much foam to order and also have a template to follow. Cardboard is of course 100% cheaper than foam so this was the opportunity to play around with what could be done, what finish to have.

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Then it was moving on to look at the skeletal structure. This is the real reason for coming to Festive Road. Their experience and understanding of structural engineering is phenomenal.   They also have a really well stocked workshop, where we could weld, grind, cut and solder.

“ It’s all about unequal trapezoids “ is my favourite quote of the week, from engineer Clive about how we were going to achieve that kicking action for the back legs of the hare.

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Then it was the slow process of trial and error to achieving what we wanted. Cutting up and welding bike pieces together is very much Festive Road’s style and as you can see became the basis for our back leg mechanism – allowing the puppeteer with minimum effort to achieve a really stunning leaping action and thus enabling them to concentrate on rhythm and distance (the two halves of the hare not being physically joined).

The joy of working at Festive Road’s studio was not only the expertise and experience in creating giant structures but the whole experience of being in a large workshop of a busy and inspired company. To be working amongst such a variety of weird and wonderful creations, to have lunch times riding a giant elephant up and down the hallway, to be watched by a skeletal dinosaur as I worked.

To also hear in even more depth about the history, development and vision of the company and its ideas was inspirational. To see how they function in the modern British art scene and how in the ever shifting needs and wants they have remained fluid and adaptable. I learned so much about how they collaborate with other artists, funding bodies, councils etc.

The final stages of putting it all together is the most invigorating and nerve wracking.

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It’s the final test – does it fulfil its design brief . The practicalities were, as ever with puppets – lightness, ease and effectiveness of movement and easy transportation – It all needed to take apart and pack down remaining strong. We managed to tick the box on all of these. Next I will make/find a box for the pieces to travel even better.

We took the puppet along to the Eisteddfod in Meifod and performed a very simple storytelling of Melangell from the Powys County Council Tipi. This is just the beginning of a bigger show we want to build that weaves the tale of Melnagell in with the stories of my own family form Llangynog and the story of Irene Sendler, an incredible Polish woman. I am doing this in collaboration with director Angharad Evans.

The Articulture bursary was integral in allowing me the time and space with the folks of Festive Road that really allowed me to raise the bar of my own construction designs and makings.

It also allowed those cross collaborations and bonds to form which mean that now I am working with Festive Road more closely on other projects, whether that’s performing with them at the Rugby World cup with Les Commandos Perdu or running a workshop in the use of giant puppets or working for them for their next spectacular giant insects. It has also given me contacts to approach for further bookings and work.

It has given me greater confidence in the work I am producing and where it fits in the outdoor art scene in the UK.

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