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Lilly Through the Dark

Edward Wren from The River People, a young theatre company using puppetry, on the making of their new work, which premieres at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2008

Claire and I are just about to go into Sainsbury’s and I notice I have a missed call. When I ring my voicemail a polite lady’s voice offers us congratulations and lets us know that we had been awarded an Arts Council grant for £5000…

It had been four months since we performed our last show (The Ordinaries…in an awkward silence), a Berkoff/Tim Burton-inspired grotesque bouffon-clown and puppet piece based on real events from within my family; a story in which the youngest daughter is sexually abused by the stepson. And now we were setting out to make another piece about a real life experience, this time about death and the grief Claire felt after losing her father. Happy days!

This second show would be more epic – we wanted a little girl to go searching in another world, the land of the dead, for her lost father. This way we could have licence to put anything we wanted on stage – and we could go crazy with the puppetry. The thing about The Ordinaries was that it was conceived while I was at Winchester University, and we spent about four years performing it and changing it before we got the final version that we were happy to take to the Edinburgh Fringe 2007 (where it was well-received, getting shortlisted for a Total Theatre Award in the Best Newcomers category).

This time we had given ourselves just four weeks to write, devise and construct a far more complex idea, so we were in for some stress.

We had two weeks to write the script – and to design and construct the set, puppets, props and costume – before we began the two weeks of devising and rehearsal. Now, the problem in designing set and puppets for a play that does not yet exist is… well, it’s difficult.

For some reason I have a real dependency on words: if I don’t have a script under my arm when I walk into the rehearsal room I get all panicky. This goes against the main ethos of the company’s work, which is play – we love to play, we often have to schedule extra rehearsals because we’ve wasted time devising a new game where we stage a zombie outbreak and the last person alive wins, or a game where people pretend to be ninjas and have to assassinate someone. But when it comes to devising, I’m a text junkie. I need to have a net to fall back on before we can explore through play.

But because it was so long since we had devised a completely new show, I had it in my head that I needed every word and action down on paper before anything could be done. But it turns out I can’t really write good dialogue yet, a significant fault for a playwright perhaps. It eventually took some calm talking from Claire to convince me not to try and get everything on paper, to leave some things for us to put together as a group. So we got together our rough story arch, the moments of danger and despair and resolution, and some things we left open, with only ideas for images.

In between this I had made the set, a simple wooden box about five foot by three foot, with a white screen for shadow puppets on the front, (which we would eventually abandon due to lack of time) and Claire had made our main character, Lilly, a two-foot puppet with moveable joints. Armed with these things only, we were ready to enter the next phase where it all had to come together: rehearsal.

I must say it is a strange thing making the shift between doing theatre because you feel you need to, to doing it because people are expecting you to. Obviously we wanted to make this show; it has a cathartic element for Claire, a chance to explore the biggest thing that has happened to her. We also feel that death needs to be spoken of more in our society. But this time round we were being paid from public funds to produce a piece of art, and as great as that is, we felt a certain pressure. Each of us felt it differently at different points.

When we got into rehearsal and read through the script it became clear quite quickly that half of it wasn’t going to work – dialogue between characters that was simplistic and overly expositional. So we started at the beginning, and it was soon rather obvious that a 25-minute introduction was far too long. So we cut, we cut like there was no tomorrow. This seemed to be the fashion for the first week, most of the scenes were just ripped apart, stripping them down to the real reason why they were there, then trying to come up with something better. Amidst this we had a load of making to do, we would be getting in after rehearsals and going straight to the glue gun and not looking up until bedtime.

By the end of the first week we had managed to roughly piece together the scenes we would be using, and we had come up with a great link for the piece. Originally Lilly had to go to the dead world to search for three of her father’s possessions that were taken by a shadow creature: his watch, his glasses, and his ring. But this felt too complex, too real. Instead we sent Lilly looking for one thing, a small box that was a gift from her father which she left unopened, afraid to face what may be inside. This we felt was suitable symbolism for loss and grief. That was a particularly difficult rehearsal for Claire. We were in the middle of devising the ending, where Lilly begins to come to terms with her loss, when Claire, who was operating Lilly, broke down in tears. I think it shocked everyone to be suddenly so close to grief. However, up until that point I don’t think some people in the group really understood why we were doing the play, so I was glad that we all got to share that sad moment.

But we were generally happy we that we had a very rough first-stage show, so much so that we invited a puppet-theatre friend, Mandy Travis, to come watch and offer advice. Obviously she saw big holes, and this feedback was exactly what the piece needed, but after a week of toil we broke off for the weekend feeling slightly down.

That weekend was bad for me: the lowest point was looking at a huge list of things yet to make with the knowledge that the play itself was not complete; then remembering we had only five days to do it all in. I remember lying on the landing staring at the ceiling wondering what the consequences would be if I just ran away. But that was silly, and I made a resolve to work my cute little behind off all the next week to get this thing done.

The second week was much better. I set devising objectives for the group each day, and puppet-making objectives for myself each evening. We began to hit our stride – as long as we had an idea in the rehearsal room and I could go home and make it, then produce it the next day, we could keep up with ourselves.

We found a problematic scene was one in which we wanted Lilly to experience despair; a moment of realisation of the sadness of her father’s death, a step on the path to acceptance at the end of the play. We had a grotesque puppet who was to put Lilly in danger. Originally we wanted him to try and eat her, but Mandy’s advice was that we needed to make the moment as real as the moment that Claire herself broke down in rehearsal. So I searched my memory for conversations between myself and Claire, and a poignant moment she’d shared was of the last time she spoke to her father alive. She recalled the conversation for me and with the group we devised a scene about memory, where moths stood to represent memories, and Lilly’s moth is captured by the puppet. Lilly comes to the realisation that she cannot remember her father’s face. She re-enacts the last conversation with her father who is portrayed by a frail man made of paper. Even though two days before the show we decided to scrap the grotesque puppet and use grotesque physicality, this scene ended up working very well.

What was even more satisfying was that we pretty much devised the dialogue on our feet as a group, and then I would go home and write it down and tweak it. I thoroughly enjoyed this process, I felt I had found my way of working, to hell with sweating and worrying in front of a computer, I needed to be with people playing, then go home and write.

So as the days became fewer the show began to come together. We performed the first night on pure nervous energy. The audience was very warm and gave positive and constructive feedback. It was after that first show that I realised what a great product we had. We had all worked really hard to get it together in a short space of time and I think there are some moments in it that are very beautiful. Having done it all in such a short space of time it annoyed us that we couldn’t make the puppetry or physicality as slick as we would have liked. But the post-show discussions got us thinking about interesting ways to develop the work. I feel like we need to open it our more, not try and hide so much behind the box. The puppetry we do is about seeing the puppeteer, so why not also see the performers putting on costume? I think we should have more faith in the mythology we’re presenting. We have constructed a whole other world on stage, and a way to get the audience to comply with that vision is to believe in it ourselves.

But I can say that since I was standing outside Sainsbury’s listening to a polite lady offer us money, I have been able to review our entire working process. We’ve been able to prove to ourselves that we can produce a piece of work, when asked, in a short space of time. I also feel affirmed in our choice to run a theatre company straight out of university. It feels right that we should do theatre; I think we’re good at it. It may be some time before I consider us a ‘success’ but I think we’re making our way there, slowly learning more, one show at a time.

Edward Wren is co-artistic director (with Claire Harvey) of The River People Theatre Company.

Lilly Through The Dark plays at The Bedlam Theatre, every day of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, August 2008, excluding Sundays. 6.05 pm. See For further information, or to make contact with the company email  or see
More on the Edinburgh Fringe 2008

The River People Theatre are one of numerous companies using puppetry that are appearing at this year’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Others include: Puppet State Theatre, who return triumphant with The Man Who Planted Trees; Gomito Productions with The Sun Dragon, and also Before We Remember; Theatre of Widdershins’ Three Billy Goats Gruff (and other furry tails); The Empty Space with Heartbreak Soup; Lost Spectacles with Lost in the Wind; Wiczy Theatre’s Broken Nails; Teatr K3 (Polish puppet-theatre company) with Etcetera; Pangolin’s Teatime with The Last Yak; The Terrible Infants; and Linda Marlowe’s latest project The Time Step (with puppets by Blind Summit).And no doubt there are many more too!

Full details of all the above can be found at

Image credits: All images from The River People's Lilly in the Dark. Photos by Georgia Newman

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