HandMade Theatre on Their Unique Take on Interactive Children's Theatre

25 October 16 words: Alison Emm

"It’s about hanging things together with abstract ideas, like a dream. It’s how kids think"

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You’re an interactive theatre company, can you tell us a bit about how you started and what you do now?  
HandMade Theatre is run by myself and Suzy [Gunn], we’ve worked together for about fifteen years. We met while doing summer jobs at Reckless Sleepers [Nottingham theatre company] after graduating. We then created the Shrug Ladies and we used to gate crash events – we’d turn up to big art events, and because we’d bought tickets they couldn’t get rid of us. We weren’t really doing anything, just playing. It was more kind of guerrilla art theatre. In 2011, I’d been doing a lot of workshops in school and saw a bit of an opportunity. I had this idea of a travelling machine installation that you could get inside with groups to do storytelling, and that we could take around different schools. So I roped Suzy in, we got some Arts Council funding, and luckily were able to use a couple of empty classrooms at a school for autism, Rosehill School, in St Ann’s. It was an incredible opportunity to have that space and a bit of money to play with and develop something.

How did it develop from there?
That first project was a schools project, but as a bit of a trial we took it to Lakeside’s Wheee! Festival. As it was geared towards the most challenging children, it went down really well in a family environment because it was about parents and children going on these adventures together, playing together and having a bit of a laugh. There was a bit of a script, but we had our ‘destination selector’, so if the kids chose anything off this selector, say Jungle, then we could make up something. It was a bit crazy. It was from that that we got a lot of festival bookings because it was something that could go inside or outside.

Do you make the puppets in the show?
A big part of my university course, theatre design at NTU, was puppetry. It’s about how we work, though: Suzy has a performing background, so she’ll bring text and poems and things like that, and I’ll bring in props and bits of fabric. We use umbrellas or a piece of fabric, and sometimes they develop into more realistic puppets that I’ll make, but other times they’ll stay quite loose, things that transform and become other things that we play with. They are another character on stage, and with special education needs (SEN), the reaction you can get from a puppet is just incredible. That real belief in that character and the fun you can have with it. In the new show we have a giant camel that poos and spits – what’s not to love?

That’s the jackpot. Do you write the shows together, then?
It’s more devising than writing. We do now have scripts, which feels quite new to us. With our two ‘big’ shows – the bird show, Flying the Nest, and the new history show, How Time Flies – they’ve sort of evolved. We try out ideas, play with them, film bits, and end up with lots of bits of paper on the wall with really silly names. We then piece these together and find ways of structuring it. Flying the Nest was structured around a list that Suzy found called ‘Rules to be a Good Birder’. Really vintage rules that were just hilarious, like, “Make sure you share rides because it helps the environment and helps your pocket.” They were amazing, and then there’s the rhyme, “One for sorrow, two for joy…” We built it up by layering lots of little vignettes about birds with an overarching idea of enrolling in Hatchling College, which is the bird equivalent of Hogwarts. It’s about hanging things together with abstract ideas, like a dream. It’s how kids think.



Do you find it easy to look through the eyes of a child?
So many of our ideas come from kids, because right at the beginning we’ll run workshops. When we were thinking about doing something with birds, we teamed up with Attenborough Nature Reserve. We worked with their rangers and we also ran some family workshops. Some of the show’s songs came from those workshops, like where a kid said, “I want to sing a song about a duck!” It’s the big finale song now – kids have the best ideas, we steal them. If we locked ourselves in a studio there’d be no point, it wouldn’t be interactive in the same way. We do put the adult jokes in because, ultimately when you’re creating family theatre, it’s the parents and grandparents that are bringing them.

What have been the best reactions you’ve had from an audience or audience member?When we were up in Scotland at a festival this summer, these two older ladies – not with kids or anything – came up and were just having a whale of a time. They were doing all the bird actions, singing along to all these songs. I love unexpected audiences. And when we take it into special schools, you’ve got audiences who wouldn’t necessarily all be able to sit still, but they’ll all sit quite happily squashed up in a giant nest, really appreciating something and getting involved and singing at the top of their voices. That’s always the best reaction. That’s the reason to do it.   

The interactive element obviously means that you have to improvise quite a lot, is that quite hard?
We’d get really bored if we had to stick to the same script. You couldn’t just go off on a tangent. Once you know a show well enough, although there are set elements, there’s always room to play with things and do it slightly differently. If an audience are really getting into a bit you can keep it going and vice versa. That’s what keeps it interesting.

How important is the music element of the show?
It’s all acoustic and all original music, and we have a lot of silly songs that we’ve made up and other songs we improvise every time. Kids love songs and it’s a great way to get interaction, we always have at least one of our songs where the children can contribute verses. The kids quickly realise that you’re taking their ideas and using them, and that’s really fun.

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You haven’t got a standard primary-coloured look…
We started working with SEN children, but it was all ages – five-year-olds, but also eighteen-year-olds – so we didn’t want anything that was brightly coloured or naturally associated with smaller children. I always wanted something that could appeal to anybody and had a natural aesthetic. We’re really lucky to work with Ben Thomas, who’s a yurt builder. He’s not a set builder, but I just fell in love with his work when I first saw it. He tries not to use any fixings, it’s all done with wedges of wood and sanded down. All the sets are almost sculptures, but they’re designed to be touched and moved around. They’re quite heavy, but built to last. We have our own seating, stools and mats, which means the audience is sat on something that is part of the set and the show, making you feel a part of it all.

You were successful with your crowdfunding campaign for How Time Flies earlier in the year. How have the first few performances of it gone? How was it to crowd fund?
Competition is currently very tough for Arts Council funding and as we were working to a tight summer deadline, we had to be creative and look for a range of options to support our new project. We applied for a local Arts Council grant and crowd funded the rest. Crowd funding was hard work, we were so pleased to be successful because it not only secured the project but also raised the company profile. Raising money ourselves also seemed to help secure our Arts Council grant, which was great. However, it does worry me that as crowdfunding becomes more popular it could be come an expected part of raising funds for arts projects, yet this is unrealistic. We had to rely so much on family and friends, it really is a one-off kind of a thing.

What dictates where you take the show?
Suzy is our company producer, she does a sterling job researching new venues, events and festivals before sending out possibly hundreds of emails to secure our tours, which we are growing every year. It’s not traditional family theatre, like say Pinocchio or The Gruffalo, so it’s a harder sell initially, but when people see it, they do tend to invite us back. 

Is there anybody else involved in the company?
Inevitably it becomes a family and friends affair sometimes. My husband, Tom Walsh, is a filmmaker so he does a lot of filming and helps out with bits of graphic design. My dad’s made puppets, my mum’s been roped into making costumes, Suzy’s dad welded all the nests for us. Anyone’s that has a skill gets pulled in. Ben, who builds the sets, he’s been a big part of the aesthetic and of what we are from the start. We’ve worked on and off with Matt Marks, a musician, who was also involved from the beginning.

We invite different people in for different projects. Becky Matter worked with us on Flying the Nest and How Time Flies. We also had Philip Stevens on board, he’s a film director with a theatre background, and he’s really interested in history. There are two performer/musicians, Ben McElroy and Gareth Price-Baghurst, and we wrote Flying the Nest with them. We’ve also got a new contemporary dancer and jazz musician who’s working with us on How Time Flies, he’s very cool and the kids just love him. It’s good to work with different people to change it up, it’s exciting for us.

What else have you got coming up this year, then?
We’ll be up the road in Doncaster to do a Christmas-themed version of Flying the Nest at Cast, from Saturday 3 –Saturday 24 December. Come along!

HandMade Theatre present Flying The Nest, Royal Centre, Thursday 27 October, 11am and 1.30pm, £7.50.

Handmade Theatre's website

 

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