From Nothing to Something – Everything
In 1991 internationally renowned puppeteer Besso Kupreishvili founded Fingers Theatre in Georgia (Tbilisi). On their way to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, Besso and Fingers Theatre gave a two-day workshop to share the secrets of a unique puppetry performance style that uses only costumed fingers. Attendee Isobel Smith reports.
"Fingers are the tools. Everyone has them. Naked, costumed, with props, with music, the possibilities are endless"
Besso Kupreishvili, the 'Main Finger' of Fingers Theatre is walking around the top-floor studio of Central School of Speech and Drama and telling us how Fingers Theatre came to be. Nino Namitcheishvili, puppet designer, actor puppeteer (previous productions: Faust and Lady with a Dog) translates.
Besso was invited to direct a 'Children's Studio' for teenage girls and produce a show with them. He was worried about how best to do that, and after giving it some thought he decided the best plan was to hide them! He would ask them to only reveal part of themselves at a time. Feet, head, hands and fingers – Besso liked fingers best, it was a novel idea. They produced a fifteen minute programme of short pieces to show to parents at the end. The workshop was a success.
He set up his own studio running Children's Drama lessons. He was thinking of fingers theatre as something just for fun, not serious work, but people remembered the fingers show and wanted to do work like that.
Besso moved to Georgia's capital, Tbilisi. He was keen to set something up but in awe of the famous theatre directors already established there. He was looking for an interesting angle. 'I couldn't compete directly with them. What would be new and different?' This was when he thought seriously about the possibilities of fingers theatre. Fingers are the tools. Everyone has them. Naked, costumed, with props, with music, the possibilities are endless. It was time to warm-up our fingers.
'We will start with play and finish with a show. Lets make something from fingers. From nothing you can do something.' Walking freely round a central table, we stopped on Besso's command and scurried our 100 fingers together to form a shape – square, circle or triangle, initially it took us a shambolic fifteen seconds, but with a little practice we arrived in our shapes in just three to await Besso's final corrections.
Next we were given two minutes to 'make something with fingers' on our own, then present our ideas to the group. The diversity of style and approaches was great: a galloping horse leaping a fence; an exploration of two separate halves of something; synchronised swimmers; inquisitive sea snails. Besso made comments and suggestions.
'No expensive sets are necessary for a dramatic effect.' He demonstrates – asking Miranda Floy (Mercury Theatre company) to lean forward and her beautiful hair first becomes a fabulous set for fingers 'lovers' to play hide and seek in, then a tree with sweeping branches (Besso's fingers 'dog' sniffs and pees against it). 'From nothing to something, everything,' says Besso.
Now, in groups of two, we find a prop and combine our two solo acts into one. It is fascinating to explore some of the possibilities and again astonishing to see the variety of ideas and narratives emerging. We present our ideas to the group.
Besso comments on a pair of fingers lovers with a fan for a prop. The fingers girl wears a fan dress. Besso demonstrates that it's possible for the hand to hold more than one reality in a performance, so the fingers 'girl' in a fan dress can become just a hand holding a fan coyly (and go back to a girl again), in order to get more expression and variety into the performance.
In their forthcoming Edinburgh show, My Hamlet, Besso explains his idea is that every actor wants to play Hamlet, which, for him, embodies the 'world of theatre'. The set is a dressing-room table, everything happens there. A clown/puppeteer prepares for yet another children's show but dreams of playing Hamlet. 'To be, or not to be?' He thinks... 'Of course – to be!' 'Life is beautiful,' he thinks. 'I could be the me of my dreams.'
We meet some of the puppets from the production. Osrik, a leather driving-glove attached to a slinky spring with a beautifully modelled head, can run about on his glove-finger feet, or the gloved hand can gesture and operate as Osrik's hand (like the fan dress). Polonius combines a rod puppet head with fingers body and legs.
They mark quite a departure for the Fingers Theatre, away from naked hands and into more traditional puppets. Peter Glanville, artistic director of The Little Angel Theatre, asks about this. Nino says: 'We are more similar to these (traditional puppets), so we feel less alone. Traditional puppets are harder to manipulate than fingers.' This is a surprising response. Peter comments that the simpler the puppets the more the imagination can play.
In two groups of five we combine our ideas again and with Besso's comments in mind we present our final pieces. Lovers frolic on an island while a jealous bad guy looks on, a duel, a galloping horse and a gallant rescue, the lovers creep off into the sunset on the backs of two lugubrious sea snails. A beautiful maiden sets sail on a suitcase ship, a terrible storm ensues and the maiden is eaten and regurgitated by a whale before succumbing to the 'kiss me!' demands of a horrific mountain lamp-beast. The possibilities are endless when the fingers start walking! And it's not easy to walk without a limp with fingers!
'I am happy,' says Besso. 'You have begun to see what is possible with fingers.'
We have the opportunity to try on some of the Fingers Theatre costumes and check out some of their moves. As a finale, the Fingers Theatre puppeteers demonstrate extracts from their original show Extravaganza, including traditional Georgian dancers, Greek dancers, a moon-walking break-dancing Michael Jackson, the Can-Can and a spectacularly sensuous tango, all performed magically and meticulously by their very accomplished fingers.
And we have made a start. The workshop has opened up new possibilities for performing, one small finger step at a time!