Over recent years, the UK has seen a continuing surge in
grown-up puppetry – in other words, in work that is not
specifically aimed at children, and work that doesn’t shy
away from portraying the darker and ruder side of humanity.
At the forefront of this movement is the enterprising and multi-faceted company Green Ginger. Since its formation in the late 1970s, the company has been dedicated to puppetry in the widest sense of that word, working as a loose grouping of freelance puppeteers (under the management of company founder Terry Lee and long-time partner in crime Chris Pirie) creating work that includes animated figures, sets and props; light and shadows; and special effects. Surreal imagery, sharp humour, and a love of the absurd are characteristics of the company’s work.
Crucial to the company’s ethos is their history as a group that originally worked outside of dedicated art spaces – in streets, beaches, and other public spaces. As they say on their website,
‘25 years of outdoor performance all over the world has informed the accessibility of the company’s indoor theatre work’.
Green Ginger was formed by theatre-maker Terry Lee, who had previously worked with UK street arts company Dogg's Troop (not to be confused with the Netherlands company Dogtroep!). In 1978 he was awarded one of the very first bursaries from the Puppet Centre Trust, which allowed him to travel, work and see puppet theatre across Europe, much of it under the creative wing of the late Barry Smith and his Theatre of Puppets. Heading off to West Wales, he founded a portable puppet enterprise called Land of Green Ginger Puppets, which set out to challenge the conventions of the traditional seaside puppet booth show. His manic creations of hand- to life-size puppets and the surreal humour and edgy political references proved to be popular with the adults in the audience as well as the kids. Terry supplemented this work with film and television puppetry, notably as a manipulator and voice artist for ITV's successful satire Spitting Image and as a puppeteer for Jim Henson's Dark Crystal (1982), Labyrinth (1986) and Frank Oz's Little Shop of Horrors (1986).
Then in 1986, Green Ginger entered a new phase with the entrance onto the scene of Chris Pirie, who had trained as an illustrator but then spent the early part of his working life driving trucks between UK and North Africa, in between bouts as stage manager with site-specific company Industrial & Domestic Theatre Contractors.
Here’s Chris’s reflection on that meeting:
‘I stumbled into puppetry when I met Terry – an infectious bundle of restless energy – in Tenby, where he had settled to raise his young family. He had already developed a reputation as l'enfant terrible of British puppetry with his inimitable anti-Punch and Judy shows, which he performed on the beaches of South Wales. Unable to breathe life into all his warped schemes alone, he was keen to collaborate to see how my drawing skills might fit in to the set-up. Before long, I moved into the family home and under Terry's mentorship, began training in puppet construction and manipulation whilst using my own skills to refresh the company's graphic identity and help Terry to visualise some of his ideas for new shows.’
Their first creation was a ‘pure hybrid of our base skills of illustrator and puppeteer’, resulting in one of Green Ginger's most iconic characters, Gaston the Street Artist [below]:
‘Starting with the limitation that an entire street show had to fit into two small suitcases, we set about making a life-sized latex puppet of a grumpy Frenchman who would ultimately climb out of his own case and sit at his easel drawing caricatures of passers-by.’
Twenty years on, the show is still in repertoire and has been performed in thirteen languages across four continents.
Having tasted a degree of global success in the summer months, they were both keen to create something to tour year-round that would have appeal to a wide age range and be performed in English, Spanish and French versions. Directed by Bim Mason, Frank Einstein was Green Ginger's first attempt at a touring studio show and they took time over its crafting and writing ‘something which has become the norm in our creation process’.
It was around this time that Green Ginger met up with Monty Python co-creator and fantasy film director Terry Gilliam.
‘They say you should never meet your heroes,’ says Chris, ‘but ever since Terry Gilliam first saw Frank Einstein [right]some 15 years ago, he has been the most supportive and inspirational patron a theatre company could wish for. I can recall being allowed to stay up late enough to watch the opening titles of Monty Python when I was still at primary school; Gilliam's animated sequence culminating with a huge pink foot going through a television set was magically absurd.’
Other sources of inspiration for Chris include Welfare State International and the film-makers such as Caro & Jeunet (Delicatessen, City of the Lost Children) whose work grew out of European comic book art. On other influences:
‘I was fortunate enough to see Market Theatre's Woza Albert! as a 15 year-old and that experience has coloured all my theatre-making practice ever since. Green Ginger spent years in the company of Kneehigh when both companies shared an agent who regularly put us into the same festivals across Mainland Europe and their inventive re-use of scenic elements informed our own work’.
When Green Ginger first started their world conquest, few companies at that time were performing with full size latex puppets a la Spitting Image and using them to put an absurd and humorous twist on a literary classic would become Green Ginger's house-style for the future productions of Slaphead (a spoof on the Sweeney Todd story, created as a vehicle for the physical comedy talents of long-term collaborator Dik Downey) and Bambi - The Wilderness Years [below], ‘our version of Felix Saltern's tale but without the trees or animals’.
Chris cites the influence not only of classic texts but also of ‘the effect that three decades of touring and exposure to diverse cultures across the planet has had on Green Ginger's output.
The hard-edged tone of our Bambi, co-written by Terry and the Wright Stuff's Steve Wright, was particularly influenced by our work in the South African townships of Soweto and Alexandria and an earlier tour of Palestinian refugee camps’.
Bambi was a huge success, much of its charm due to its ingenious combination of 2D and 3D imagery and mix of old and new technologies:
‘I'm a huge fan of the old-school overhead projector and despite having used them extensively over the years, I still feel we've not exhausted their potential for live performance. It's such basic technology yet effective for projection of anything you could imagine putting between the light source and lens; acetates, illustrations, film negatives, x-rays, water, shadows, lighting gels, film stock, hair, fabrics, dirt, sand...the list of possibilities is endless. My own illustration work comes to the fore with our use of OHP scrollers and in Bambi we successfully animated moving landscapes and backgrounds for passing shots and car chases. Another memorable use in the same production was a corpse-eye view of a burial scene in which puppeteers animated tiny clothes-peg puppets over the glass in conjunction with a masked actor standing against the projection screen to achieve a crowd of mourners peering down, against a crow-filled cloudy sky. Frustratingly, the better we become at producing such complex projections, the more likely it is that the audience (particularly our target age of late-teens/young adults) imagine them to have been achieved by film animation’.
The company have always strived to balance the sometimes-opposing drives to satisfy the expectations of the company's admirers whilst pushing their creativity into fresh areas:
‘Slaphead and Bambi had employed many of the company's comfort-zones of animated scenic elements combined with retro-projections and video, but with our last production Rust, we were keen to push ourselves and took the decision to un-veil the puppeteers, take away the radio mics and give them freedom to inhabit the stage alongside the puppet characters. Not ground-breaking in the world of puppetry but for us it seemed like a huge and risky step. The most obvious advantages were allowing the performers to bring their own physicality into the mix and to sing and play instruments. Feedback from die-hard GG fans seemed to vindicate our decision and it seems hard to imagine going back to veils and mics for future productions’.
Talking of the creation of the work, Chris says that due to his background as a designer he has ‘a tendency to produce work led by the scenographic elements and in many ways the story of Rust [right], which I co-wrote with Vic Llewellyn, became design-led’.
The devising process started with two days of R&D with a group of eight diverse artists (puppeteers, a director, physical comedians, technicians and a writer), who then played around with ‘what we strongly suspected would be our world - a rusting hulk of a submarine which served as an off-shore pirate radio station peopled by cast-offs from a circus freakshow’.
Throughout the next months, storyboarding of visuals would run alongside the developing script, whilst the show’s design team would draw and re-draw versions of each other's designs for characters, costumes and scenic elements. A second R&D session ‘cut out the crap and fluff’ and the core team entered the final production phase with clarity and focus.
They were fortunate to have found an old animation studio to work in, so for the first time in the company's history, they had adequate space to build and rehearse. Three months of intensive prop, set and puppet creation led into a four-week rehearsal period ably led by director Flick Ferdinando. They had a rough script which allowed scope for further devising and, as Chris puts it, ‘Flick skilfully managed to check our puerile tendencies without denting our enthusiasm or creativity’.
Another Green Ginger success has been the company’s ongoing collaboration with the Welsh National Opera:
‘Back in 2000 Steve Tiplady recommended us for a job he was unable to do due to other commitments. WNO were staging a three and a half hour production in Russian and the director Richard Jones was keen to use an inventive puppetry solution in order to retain a Pastoral segment, originally written for the big Russian opera houses' ballet corps to perform and which nowadays gets cut more often than not due to budgetary reasons. Amy Rose and I worked closely with Richard and designer John MacFarlane to devise the puppetry and train up various soloists and chorus members to assist us in the animation.’
The opera was a huge hit for WNO and has since become one of its most successful rentals (productions leased out to other houses around the world). Between 2002 and 2007, Green Ginger has either performed in or trained up local puppeteers to recreate the puppetry sequences in revivals in Bologna, Oslo, Toronto, Brussels and San Francisco. The company will also be closely involved when WNO itself restage the production for touring in spring 2009, and will also provide a team to perform when it is presented by Houston Grand Opera in Texas in 2010.
So where now? After thirty years of acclaimed tours, stage and screen successes, international projects, collaborations with other artists and artforms, how are things with GG?
Currently they are spread throughout three countries; Terry is currently converting a huge barn in North-East France into a production and rehearsal studio, their touring production base is nestled next to the Aardman studio in Bristol, and they still maintain their original Welsh workshop in Tenby, overseen by James Osborne, their long-term technical manager. Terry and Chris continue to run Green Ginger as a partnership though current activities fall into distinct camps; Terry producing short puppet films with local communities across Northern Europe whilst Chris is concentrating on Toast in the Machine, their programme of professional development and training for puppeteers which is going live in January 2009.
The company have tried to resist becoming 'admin-heavy' and have survived thus far as a hand-to-mouth operation by careful use of limited project funding and inventive recycling of raw materials to create shows. They are ably supported by an enthusiastic crew of young theatre-makers, many of whom are former students from their freelance teaching at various HE institutions.
Green Ginger have a well-deserved reputation as mentors and supporters of other artists, especially emerging puppeteers, and of the artform of puppetry which they are currently supporting through the afore-mentioned Toast in the Machine project, and also through a ‘keen involvement’ in the rebirth of Bristol's artform support organisation Puppet Place, which Chris describes as ‘a dormant charity which has been stoked up by the city's more established dolly wagglers: GG, Pickled Image, Full Beam Visual Theatre, and Stuff & Nonsense’.
Green Ginger is planning new touring shows and have a number of other exciting projects in development – though they are some way from determining their fates as either live or film productions. They like to take their time making such decisions, and resist restrictions on form and process, feeling free to use mask, puppet, film, projected images, or anything else that takes their fancy:
‘Despite being thought of as a puppetry company we've toured shows – such as our walkabout PRATs – without a puppet in sight. We like to think we've got a pretty big tool-box of diverse solutions and a lot of experience in various combinations of them. The exciting bit is that after 30 years we still feel like novices with much more to discover!’
So there are many possibilities are in the pipeline, but one firm plan is forging ahead:
‘We're planning to build an enormous submarine for Bristol's Floating Harbour in 2010. We want to take 25 people at a time down beneath the murky waters and give them a memorable animated journey through the city docks. Stunning underwater puppetry, lots of leaks and creaks, scary as hell and all for a fiver!’
I think this might be the moment for another Terry Gilliam quote: ‘The deranged product of dangerously sick minds...for the sake of the nation they should be kept off the streets' Hear, hear – off the street and into the sea – bon voyage, Green Ginger.
Quotes and key information taken from email conversations with Chris Pirie. Further information taken from the Green Ginger website.
See the company’s website (> www.greenginger.net) to find out more about current and future projects, including Toast In The Machine (going live in Jan 2009); Submarine (2010); and the continuing collaboration with Welsh National Opera on the award-winning Queen of Spades (directed by Richard Jones).