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Puppeteer-performer Mandy Travis gets Lost and Found in Tbilisi

In November 2004, I was awarded a Research and Development grant by Arts Council England to create a work-in-progress performance entitled The Lost Moon, based on a traditional English folk tale from Lincolnshire. When I read the story, (which was actually entitled Dead Moon in the book), I was immediately struck by the atmosphere and visual images created by the written word on the page. The themes of the story, light and darkness, knowledge and ignorance, life and death, nature’s cycles and rural superstitions, and the relationships between all of these, are themes which excited me and which I thought would be particularly suitable for older children, teens and adults. My challenge would be to be able to tell the story as vividly through puppetry, music and lighting as the words on the page did.

The work-in-progress, a one-person performance presented under my new company name, Lost and Found, and accompanied by a live musician, was performed at The Little Angel Theatre, London, and at the Tower Arts Centre, Winchester in the Spring of 2005. My own creative and artistic skills benefited greatly from this experience, and on the strength of this, and the encouragement I received from both those who saw and those who were involved with creating the work-in-progress performance, I was encouraged to apply for a further Arts Council grant to take it into full production. Hannah Marshall, who wrote and performed the music, agreed to expand upon the musical content of the show and stay on as a collaborator. Unfortunately, the original director, Steve Tiplady, and the original designer, Peter O’Rourke were otherwise engaged, (being two extremely talented and sought after fellows), but they gave me their blessing and their permission to procure the services of one Nino Namitcheishvili, a director, designer, puppet-maker and puppeteer with the Basement Puppet Theatre in Tbilisi, Georgia. She is also a co–founder of this company, which has been to the UK several times with their production of Faust which was performed at, amongst other venues, the Gate Theatre in London, visions festival in Brighton, and the Lighthouse Arts Centre in Poole, (which is where I saw it – it was brilliant). I met her again properly about a year later at a puppetry workshop she was running in Hampshire, and she expressed great interest in my project.

We only met on about two occasions before I wrote a proposal and applied for the grant, so there was a feeling of great excitement, coupled with complete terror on my part. When you work with other artists on a regular basis you begin to feel a kind of ease as you come to recognise, and meld in with, the other artists’ approaches to the work and come to know, accept and love each other’s little quirks and foibles. This is actually a great luxury – you can get straight down to the nitty-gritty of creating the piece without all the obstacles of having to get to know each other first, though eventually, I suppose, one can become a bit too comfortable, and the resulting work, therefore, somewhat predictable in style. On the other hand, looking at a project from a different viewpoint, or injecting it with a different influence can reveal all sorts of new and exciting stuff. So after the initial sinking feeling when I realised that to take the project into full production I would need to find a new director and designer (I have worked with Steve Tiplady and Peter O’Rourke on numerous Little Angel productions), I came to see that the opportunity to work with someone else – an experienced and talented director and puppeteer from Georgia, a country with strong theatrical disciplines and a strong tradition of puppetry – was not to be missed!

I arranged for Nino to come over from Georgia to work with me between June and August 2006, a period in which new puppets will be made by Nino, based on Peter’s original design, a new set built, a new script written by myself and more music written by Hannah, before going out on tour in the autumn. But I felt that it would be important for me to visit Nino before then, in her own environment in Tbilisi. During one week in Tbilisi, I would get to see some Georgian puppetry and theatre within its own context, and maybe gain a bit of an insight into the way it all works over there. It would help me get to know Nino a little better and put me in the right mind-set for working in a new way with someone I hadn’t worked with before.

I started to make plans and draft out a rough itinerary for my week in Tbilisi. I intended to find out how Nino would want to structure the development and rehearsal period over here, and what kind of design she had in mind for the puppets and the set. I made notes regarding the lighting that I imagined, the music that I imagined, how I thought the ending should be. I would ask Nino how she thought I could create the visual effects that I required in order to illustrate various events and themes occurring throughout the story. My list was endless. I should have known better.

As it turned out, things didn’t happen the way I had anticipated. Thank goodness!

I often feel that as a performer coming from a British theatre background, I have been conditioned to think of the end product before the process and journey. I know that I should not have such pre-conceived ideas about how things are going to evolve as this just blocks the organic flow of the creative process. The trick is to keep an open mind, not pre-empt, and to keep playing. But sometimes, in my eagerness to have the show finished, and be up there performing it, I forget all this. Despite my efforts to draw Nino into sharing her creative ideas and design concepts with me regarding the production of The Lost Moon, I never came any nearer to discovering exactly what they were. After about three-and-a-half days of gentle probing, and dropping the relevant topics into our conversation, I began to panic a little and to wonder when we would actually start to ‘work’ on the show. I would only actually be there for another three-and-a-half days, and I worried that I would go home knowing no more about the show than I knew before my visit. To allay my fears, I blocked the show out of my mind completely. Which was the best thing I could possibly have done. The panic left me.

It was then that I started to notice my surroundings, soak up the Tbilisi atmosphere, to get to know Nino as a person rather than as a director, designer and puppeteer. I revelled in the company of her friends and colleagues. They all seemed to be artists – makers, puppeteers, designers, directors or performers, often, like Nino, a combination of all of those. I visited them in their theatres, their rehearsals, their workshops where they sat around carving puppet hands and heads and drinking Turkish coffee. I ate and drank with them in restaurants (Georgian food and wine is extremely good!). I saw four shows in Tbilisi – all amazing – The Battle of Stalingrad by the State Marionette Theatre of Tbilisi, a performance by Beso Kupreishvili’s Fingers Theatre, Checkov’s The Bear by the Basement Theatre Company, and a most unusual and brilliant performance of Twelfth Night by the Rustavelli State Theatre, directed by Robert Sturua and designed by Gogi Alexi-Meskhishvili.

I watched Beso rehearsing his company for Pink Floyd’s The Wall – all performed by the puppeteers’ hands and fingers, manipulated in such a way as to create little individual characters, with the occasional appearance of a puppet or mask. They have the luxury of being able to rehearse in their own theatre space during the day, using the lighting system already in place, on two uprights supporting a bar above the ‘table-top’. Watching them rehearse made me realise how important the use of lighting is to the devising process – particularly in a show like The Lost Moon, the main themes of which are light and darkness and the effect they have on people both physically and mentally. Most of the shows I have ever worked on in England tack the lighting on in the last couple of days of the ‘tech’ period, and the performers/puppeteers have to re-adjust accordingly at the last minute. I realised, through watching Beso’s rehearsals, that I wanted lighting to play an integral part in my show, and would therefore have to get my lighting kit together for the start of the rehearsals in June, rather than just in time for the tech period at the end.

Fingers Theatre are still at the devising stage of their production. They don’t have bookings yet. They don’t know how long the rehearsal period will be. They perform their other shows in repertoire in the evenings and will work on the new production during the day until they feel it is ready for public viewing. All puppeteers and performers in Georgian theatre companies are paid a regular salary by the State, and the theatres all have private sponsors as well. There is not the same pressure in Georgia as there is here in the UK, to know exactly what the show will be like and to be able to describe it to a funding body before it has even been designed, or a script has been written, or rehearsals are underway. This is probably why Nino is so much more laid back about The Lost Moon than I am – she is used to the luxury of having time and space within which to create! There are not the same pressures as there are in the UK, of having a rehearsal period of about three weeks in a dark and dusty church hall, within which to produce the excellent, high quality piece of theatre that you described to the Arts Council long before you even started to create it!

When the time came for me to leave Tbilisi, I felt calm and at ease. Nino and I had a lot of fun together and had bonded sufficiently as friends and fellow human beings for us to begin a good working relationship after she arrives in June. I would come back home, let the thoroughly cathartic experience of Tbilisi settle into my being, give myself space and allow random ideas to flow into me rather than forcing things to come out. There is actually plenty of time.

[footnote] Lost and Found Theatre’s The Lost Moon will premiering on 31 August at Mill Studio, Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford and will then tour to venues including: 7 – 9 Sep Nightingale Theatre in Brighton; 14 Sep Quay Arts, Isle of Wight; 21 Sep Lighthouse, Poole’s Centre for the Arts (two shows – at 2.30pm & 7.30), 22 September Marlborough College, 23 Sep Burton Taylor Studio, Oxford Playhouse , 4 Oct Tower Arts Centre, Winchester, Tues 10 ~ Sat 28 Oct at The Little Angel Theatre, London

To book this show, or for other enquiries, contact Tamsin Thomas, administrator t 07742 611634 e
For more information on the company and further tour dates and venue details, please see: