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Garlic Theatre

Company Profile by Penny Francis

If you wanted to imagine a list of qualifications for running a successful modern theatre company using puppetry as its prime expressive medium, the following might serve well: training and practical experience in corporal skills, mime, mask, clowning, musicianship, model-making, stage management, acting, light, sound. And, of course a deal of professional work in puppetry making and manipulation. The two directors of Garlic Theatre, founded in 1996, have all of these, and Mark Pitman and Iklooshar Malara run one of England’s best companies in the field.
Mark has trained with Lecoq in Paris and Barry Smith in England, and says these two have been his strongest influences and inspiration. Apprenticed as a lad to an industrial model-making firm, he learned about the properties of very many materials such as Perspex, fibreglass, plastics and wood. In his spare time he joined a dramatic club as stage manager, set-builder and light and soundman. Gradually he became interested in performance, particularly mime and mask work, and in 1982 went to Paris to learn from the best teacher in the world - Jacques Lecoq. Puppet theatre seemed like a natural progression, bringing together all his skills in one art form. He joined the Norwich Puppet Theatre in 1986, where, on Ray DaSilva’s retirement, Barry Smith took over for a turbulent and fruitful time as artistic director. Mark taught construction, manipulation and mask work at the Central School of Speech and Drama in London from 1995-2001 although nowadays his company is busy enough for him to give only an occasional session there. There are many ex-students - not only puppetry students - who will tell you how much they owe to him. He is also in demand as a freelance director.
Steeped in music, Iklooshar Malara plays the violin and piano and has composed and arranged all the soundtracks for the shows to date. Her skills as an actor-puppeteer are formidable, as is her charm. Her main influences have been from her training with Philippe Genty, Angela de Castro and Gaulier. She graduated in English from Oxford University and worked as an assistant film editor before touring with small-scale theatre companies in the UK as an actress and musician. She became enthralled with the potential of puppetry when she toured as a musician with Faulty Optic and decided to take artistic control and found her own company as Garlic Puppet Theatre. The first meeting with Mark was in 1994 when she went for a job at Norwich Puppet Theatre and Mark was on the panel. The session ended with a new twinkle in Mark’s eye. (Yes, she got the job but turned it down.) They got together a year later, decided they could work and live together, and now there are two children, Kai (6) and Esme, born last year. Garlic is one of a talented group of companies working with puppetry in East Anglia, closely connected with the Puppet Theatre and its many activities under the charismatic leadership of Luís Z. Boy.
Garlic Puppet Theatre’s first show Rapunzel, was performed by Iklooshar and Hindi- speaking Stewart Fraser; they did a whirlwind tour of Norfolk primary schools before a successful debut at the International Puppetry Festival in Pakistan followed by a three month tour of India. Mark was peripherally involved as ‘part-director’ and performer for the UK tour. Iklooshar then needed a new working partner and she and Mark cemented the partnership: they applied as Garlic Theatre to the lottery-funded small grants scheme Arts for All and were awarded £5000 to make a new show, George and the Dragon. The money was used to engage Mark Bell, also Lecoq trained, and Joy Haynes of the Banyan Theatre company as directors. ‘George was a success from the word go’ says Mark. It is still in the repertoire, has toured extensively at home and to sixteen countries abroad and has won several prizes.

The company does not believe in standing still; every show is different in approach, in means of expression, in style of performance. Their second, Sindbad the Sailor, experimented and played with objects and orientalism, and they chose Sean Myatt as director.

Next they staged a Flea Circus, something Mark had always wanted to do, thanks to Michael Bentine, the Goon, who gave a talk about his life and his own flea circus which he toured in the 80s. His reminiscences inspired Mark and appealed to his sense of humour, and the Flea Circus has become Garlic’s favourite and most challenging show to date. Surreal, comic and strange, it is spoken in a nonsense language and is about the love/hate relationships between a Fleamaster, his favourite Flea and the jealous musician (Iklooshar) who accompanies their show. It is Garlic’s succès d’estime where George is the popular choice. Both depend on clowning as well as puppetry and music, and both share a nucleus of interplay between the two human characters.

By this time Garlic’s work had started to attract Arts Council funding, increased for Fiddlesticks, this time a vehicle for Iklooshar as solo performer. It’s a heart-warming show about music and Iklooshar’s relationship with a broken violin, a character designed by the Czech puppeteer Michaela Bartonova of the Tineola company of Prague, and beautifully crafted by Mark. It was the first time they had worked with a designer, and the experience was so positive that Michaela was engaged for their next and latest production, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. By this time the second child was on the way, bringing them good fortune in the shape of an enhanced grant from Arts Council England East and another award for workshops in local schools on the Creative Partnerships initiative (also ACE East)
Sorcerer is currently touring widely. Mark Pitman is the solo performer and has added to his array of skills that of magician. (Kai is in training to follow in his dad’s footsteps, at least where the magic is concerned.) See the Sorcerer’s Apprentice if you can, and discover whether it will visit a theatre near you by looking on the Puppet Guild website and its excellent round-up of What’s On: [link to] It may well be another popular success for Garlic. George and the Dragon and Fiddlesticks are still in the repertoire and performed regularly.
Future plans? Another solo by Iklooshar, this time for the under-fives; and their first production for an adult audience: a non-narrative piece performed by professional singers and puppeteers to be premiered at the Norfolk and Norwich Festival in 2006.

The sun is shining brightly on this attractive company, and on present form will surely continue.



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