What a Site!
Christine Marfleet reflects on the origins of an artistic collaboration
that led to the inauguration of a site-specific puppetry in performance
strand at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama
in all it forms is now an essential component in the training of
Theatre Designers at Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama –
but the annual site-specific performances have become legendary!
Wonderful and extraordinary stories, derived from the worlds of
Kafka, Schulz, Svankmejer and Beckett – unique performances
that fire the imagination and animate the inanimate.
years ago, Sean Crowley (Head of Design) and I inherited the awesome
task of exploring puppetry with undergraduate designers. As all
artists know, exceptional serendipitous accidents can sometimes
happen. In locating the elusive Liverpool writer Jeff Young, meeting
Chris Pirie (of Bristol-based puppet theatre company Green Ginger),
director Amy Rose, and composer Dan Jones, people and place collided.
New friends, a new post in Wales, and falling in love – with
this nearby quirky stretch of Edwardian seafront came the raw ideas
for Fishwish (June 2001) – the story of a hollow promise to
see the sea, made to a boy who makes a vengeful wish: that his Mum
and Dad become great big fish! A belief that puppetry should be
anything we wanted it to be fuelled our early thinking, with no
concept of where this might lead.
pier, with its fantastic Moroccan style pavilion, suggested a wonder
filled journey – a promenade adventure, following the boy
and the fate of his parents. It seemed incredible that our vision
was then thwarted by problems over access; the pavilion sadly remains
as tantalisingly unused today as then, and the subsequent transposition
of ideas that had been rooted in a specific site felt devastating,
until early one misty morning unveiled the magic of Atlantic College
grounds at St Donats, just a few miles from Cardiff.
This was nothing short of a miracle: an estate with a castle (once
a popular holiday retreat for Charlie Chaplin), a church, a jousting
field with palm trees, woods and a maze of terraced walled gardens,
winding down to a wild rocky coast, and the sea you might just not
see. And with this, another deluge of fantastic story and character
In these early stages thoughts and images took the now familiar
form of my unedited series of explosions of ‘what ifs’
and ‘how about’, and ‘wouldn’t it be amazing’,
bombarding Jeff and Amy with reams of scribbled notes and disconnections
that might challenge and inspire.
The suggested scale of the work, the scope for design interpretation,
and the resulting visually rich poetic style of the narrative evolved
from the crafting of early ideas, shared discussions and refined
editing until we achieved a final working script that enabled interpretation
and allowed for change.
designers to puppeteers
seven weeks, armed with text and spaces as starting points, twenty
first-year student designers and a handful of experienced second
years worked in groups to find a world and its characters; all would
be performing as puppeteers.
Researching – from bunraku to shadow puppetry, object animation
to giant processional imagery – opened up all sorts of possibilities.
Workshops in animation introduced performance opportunities: designers
inventively applied their practical design skills; used recycled
sourced materials; struggled with limited budgets; and challenged
and tested a core staff team, capitalising on the particular textile
skills of designer Bettina Reeves and problem solving panache of
construction tutor Ian Buchanan – both now indispensable veterans
of the puppetry in performance projects!
Through a collaborative process of briefings, site visits, read-throughs
and designer/ director progress meetings; and out of a mass of drawings
and maquettes; and from the mountains of metal, paper, wire, fabric
and gas pipe came our cast… lobsters on stilts, mermaids,
sirens, gangster fish and skeleton dogs – an eclectic, often
surreal, medley of approximately a hundred puppets shaped and crafted
into a unified whole, through resourcefulness, simplification, Amy’s
strict choreographic eye and love of picture making, much lateral
thinking and Chris Pirie’s wisdom to help us find out what
a puppet offers, as opposed to what we thought it might do.
Rehearsals to Performance
Three students actors, a crew of stage management (prepared to dig
in thousands of metres of cable and make our site appear as low-tech
as possible) and half-a-dozen unsuspecting musicians from the college
joined the designers for an intensive three-week rehearsal period,
bringing the entire company ensemble to about forty-strong. Here
the designers now became performers, experiencing the rigour of
rehearsal and re-rehearsal, the demands of devising and character
creation, learning choreography and spoken lines, and functioning
as ensemble chorus as well as having responsibilities for individual
After much debate we discovered that despite broad daylight and
limited visibility, the freedom offered in using black outfits and
veils meant we could make twenty designer-puppeteers be anywhere
and anything at any time. The possibilities with such a large and
talented team were astonishing. The concentration, physical demands
and sheer focus on the cohesion of performance was phenomenal.
Live music composed alongside the design and making period now supported
and underpinned the journey; sound and lighting design and the willing
of good weather promised a potentially beautiful, meaningful show.
Our arrival at St Donats must have seemed bizarre: an old Merry-
weather circus tent, a Morris Traveller, rusty bicycles, and copious
tailor-made weathered wooden blue doors that fixed to the many existing
archways to unify the promenade route. We had just a day to install
designed elements at the various locations, and a day to work technically
for the first time within the actual site spaces. We even managed
to build a bridge!
living and camping on site, with an excellent caterer and the support
of the Arts Centre bar, we managed twelve shows in one week, swam
in the sea, and worked until we collapsed. Audience members ranged
from discerning eight-year-olds in daytime schools shows to astonished
and enchanted adults and families at the twilight evening and fire-lit
late night performances. Much care had been taken to consider the
movement of our audience throughout the journey, with music accompanying
and puppetry always kept ‘alive’ and present to try
to ensure a continuous flow from scene to scene and make the walk
an essential part of the experience. Visual reprises threading through
the scenes worked as linking devices and layering. The response
was astounding, the theatre magical and affecting.
The somewhat accidental birth of this diverse scale of work, from
the tiniest puppetry moment to huge visuals, plus the difficulty
of performing in outdoor spaces (which frankly were not conducive
to puppetry performance!) was unlike anything any of us had experienced.
This was a truly inspired visual performance from its inception,
and historically marked the start of something amazing.
Although a year in planning, and given the unfathomable logistic
nightmare of making site-specific work in the UK, site-specific
puppetry in performance is now a major event in the Summer programming
for the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama.
To be well supported and able to create unique, visually-based work;
to design, make and perform this work has enabled designers and
practitioners to diversify as artists, develop as scenographers,
and contribute substantially to theatre, film and television as
exciting new performance-makers.
Our ambition is to continue to make new work and publish our new
writing so that others can enjoy and experiment with their own puppetry.
We invent for found and alternative spaces to enrich our learning
and teaching, and in the hope of making performances that just cannot
As Senior Lecturer in Theatre Design at Royal Welsh College of Music
and Drama, Christine Marfleet teaches set and costume design and
has to date co created and coordinated many of the Puppetry in Performance
These have included Sweet Green Peas (2002); Wide Awake and Dreaming
(2003); Alice and Wonderland (2004) and The Secret…sshhh (2005).
The 2006 show is Alice Through The Looking Glass, directed by Emma
Williams, written by Amy Rose and devised with RWCMD Designers –
an urban journey to the lesser-known corners of Cardiff city centre
taking place in the first week of July.
2007 will see Unfinished stories and Stranger Tales an absurd and
surreal enlightenment by Chris Marfleet, created and performed by
theatre designers from Cardiff, Sofia and Barcelona and shared at
the Prague Quadrennial of World Theatre Design, Czech Republic
For further information email: Marfleetc@rwcmd.ac.uk