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FROM THE FRONTLINE

Home From the Land of Ice & Snow

solem man holding suitcase man with wolf

Dik Downey of Pickled Image tells tales of Nordic adventure

Winter tyres are not something we would normally consider essential requirements when touring the regions – at least not here in the UK. I’m talking massive, chunky tyres with dirty great metal spikes sticking out of them. We certainly didn’t need them when we took The Chatterbox on the road in October, performing in village halls around the country for organisations such as Arts Alive in Somerset and Take Art in Shropshire. They weren’t even necessary when we travelled through the valleys of Wales for the Night’s Out scheme, but when it comes to regional touring in Northern Norway they are literally a life saver!

Pickled Image spent the whole of November visiting some of the most remote communities in Nordland, an 800 kilometre long strip along the coast of Norway, performing Houdini’s Suitcase as part of our residency at the Nordland Visual Theatre (NVT).

In 2005 we were invited by the NVT to create a new indoor adult puppet show in their theatre at Stamsund on the Lofoten Islands as a co-production. So Vicky (Andrews) and I proposed the idea of Houdini’s Suitcase, a tale of Joshka Maloth, a one-time apprentice to Harry Houdini. The show features the masked character of Joshka as an old man surrounded by suitcases on a deserted railway platform. Inside these cases lie all of his memories. These are played out with puppets, objects and dance. The NVT jumped at the idea and after a three-day meeting on the island in January 2006 during a tempestuous storm (with a power cut, in minus 20 degree temperatures), we returned to Bristol to get on with drawing a storyboard, making all of the puppets and buying a multitude of trunks and suitcases. Everything was shipped out to Norway and in March – after a journey involving three planes (which got progressively smaller) and a taxi – we joined it to build the show.

We spent the first two weeks assembling the cases into a workable set, with the help of both the theatre and Max Humphries. The following month was a rehearsal period directed by Emma Lloyd from Stickleback Plasticus. Emma was absolutely fantastic to work with, and although this was her first experience of working with puppets she couldn’t have done a better job and her attention to detail was terrific. We also took out Simon Preston, a Bristol-based composer and musician who has created music for the past three Green Ginger shows. For Houdini’s Suitcase, Simon wrote some very moving and emotional pieces and spent two weeks editing the sound (when he wasn’t out fishing for cod). NVT provided us with a fantastic lighting designer, Marianne Thalaug Wedset, who flew in from Oslo. She made the show look spectacular and gave it an added air of poignancy. With such wonderful sound and lighting it was vital that we had a highly trained technical expert on board, so we chose Onela Keal…. a graphic designer who created our website and posters for The Chatterbox, but who had never even seen a lighting board before! Talk about being thrown in at the deep end. Onela had two weeks to get her head around meeting approximately 60 light cues and 101 sound cues whilst operating a follow spot and turning my microphone up and down. She was phenomenal and despite all her reservations she excelled at her job.

On 14 April we had our Norwegian premiere at the NVT and performed three shows to packed houses and rave reviews. In June we once again took the long journey back to Lofoten to perform twice at the Stamsund International Theatre Festival. It was a sad moment when we had to leave, not expecting to see the show again until November. However, when we returned to the UK we discovered that after some desperate communication, Houdini had been belatedly accepted to be performed at the Festival Mundial de Marionettes in Charleville, along with The Chatterbox and our street show The Marvellous Box of Peeps & Delights. This was great! And it meant travelling back to Stamsund in September to rehearse. It took Jan Eric and Geir Ove From NVT three days solid driving to get the show down to Charleville, where we performed it twice in the Salle de Madam Sauvigne, at 10.30am and 1.00pm. Not exactly the best times for any performances, and not helped by having finished de-rigging The Chatterbox at 2am the night before, or by having to compete with the demolition of the building next door throughout our performance. Jackhammers and crashing masonry do not go hand-in-hand with intimate, emotional theatre. Still, we did it and it went down well.

Then, at the end of October we were back in Norway fine-tuning the show with Emma back at the helm. It is hard to concentrate on your work on the Lofoten islands because it so breathtakingly beautiful – sea eagles, otters, dolphins and moose, wondrous mountains plunging into crashing seas, lovely people, and snow – lots of it. Not like the fine dusting that you get here. I’m talking snow that drifts and covers everything until you can’t tell up from down, road from fjord. It was in this snow that we set off for our regional tour, hence the winter tyres. Where the snow melted, black ice lay underneath. One thing Norwegians do not do on black ice while going downhill on a country road with a monster truck hurtling towards them is to put their foot on the brakes. Unfortunately no one told us, which is why we found ourselves spinning 120 degrees and ending up nose down in a snow-filled ditch. No one was hurt and nothing was broken, but it was a dramatic finale to three weeks of amazing travels.

We left the show out in Norway and later re-joined it in Denmark where we were headlining at the first puppet festival in Copenhagen. We have just (spring 2007) brought everything home and I hope that when Houdini’s Suitcase tours the UK in 2007 we do not suffer from particularly severe weather, as those tyres were not included in the show.

Dik Downey has been involved in the entertainment business for 24 years. He has been a fire-eater, escapologist, designer, clown and a Desperate Man! He joined Green Ginger in 1994 as a performer and maker. Dik toured extensively with the company and has been heavily involved in all their productions since leaving in 2000. He can be seen in Terry Gilliam’s Brazil if you have a really good pause button! Dik is a productive ceramicist.

The other half of Pickled Image is Vicky Andrews, who trained as a sculptor and theatre designer and has worked in the creative sector for ten years. Her theatre designs have been seen in various productions from Bristol Old Vic, Welsh National Opera and Bath Ustinov Theatre.

For information on Houdini’s Suitcase and other productions, see www.pickledimage.co.uk

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