Puppets on walkabout!
The Big Man Walking
Simon Hart reflects on his role in presenting
a great new Scottish collaboration
Thurtinkle is an ancient storytelling gnome. He has been a puppet character since the time the performing arts company DNA was founded in London in 1993. His first appearance was in 1993 at the May Fayre in Covent Garden – the annual Punch and Judy celebration – where he popped out of his little house for the first time. He had no stories then, just half a plan to tell people’s fortunes by sniffing them or getting them to choose random tarot cards. He was immediately mobbed by children. It was then that Thurtinkle decided that he needed an assistant in situations like this. He was no good at crowd control.
In the intervening years, Thurtinkle has told stories in parks, in theatres, and at events. He has appeared in cabaret nights, fronted visual theatre for adults, travelled the world, regenerated, rejuvenated, travelled through time and enchanted adults and children alike throughout the UK. A few months ago put his name into the hat to be chosen for Antony Gormley’s project to put a different person on the ‘empty’ fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square every hour, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week for a hundred days in a row.
His first thought when the letter came from Artichoke (the event organisers), telling of his selection, was ‘they say that only the chosen participant can be on the plinth, with no others. If I can’t bring my puppeteer with me, I may be in a bit of bother’. Still, Thurtinkle accepted the place and then took some time filling out the access needs part of the questionnaire very carefully indeed.
One and Other is a project that can be viewed live over the internet 24 hours a day. Each participant has their hour on the plinth to do whatever they please – as long as it doesn’t break the law. After they’ve taken their turn, a permanent record of their hour is left on the site, so all participants can be played back over and over again – at least until the project completes on 14 October 2009.
Thurtinkle is a very experienced live performer, and has performed many times and in many varied conditions, but this gig was something else entirely. The conditions were going to be rather harsh for a start. Almost literally dropped onto the plinth by a giant cherry-picker, there was going to be no luxury of a get-in or set up. The performance would be watched in the round and Thurtinkle wasn’t going to be able to bring his little house with him. The live crowd was outdoors and quite a distance away, and the slot was 11pm on a Sunday, so no children would be watching the gig, at least not live. Thurtinkle needed to do something which would be appropriate to his audience.
The One and Other website has a box which mentions recent tweets from twitter. Thurtinkle enjoys using the Internet and already had set up a myspace page, so joined up with twitter and started to combine watching the various efforts of the ‘plinthers’ with the resulting tweets, commenting on these efforts. This combination helped Thurtinkle to understand what worked, what was enjoyable to watch, and the common traps and mistakes plinthers made in planning and executing their hour on the plinth.
There is no requirement to entertain, but being a born entertainer, Thurtinkle wanted to try to be as entertaining as possible to his audience, and this was the first and possibly only time he was going to be able to play to an Internet audience. He’s a very screen-friendly puppet, and as it turned out, playing against a black skyline was perfect for the upwards camera angle of one of the two cameras that would be filming him as his black-clad puppeteer was hard to make out. Unfortunately the other camera was a top-view camera from above which really spoiled the illusion. At one point during the live event, the watchers tweeted the camera people not to use the overhead cam as it was doing exactly that!
Thurtinkle told four stories, and held one guessing game during his hour on the plinth. He had an ‘Internet goblin’ puppet which informed him of what was going on in the twitter search (hashtags #oneandother and #taats1). These were the running commentary from the plinth-watchers and the ‘Tweet at a time Story’ challenge.
The previous week, on exactly the same day and time of his appearance, he held a ‘Tweet at a Time Story’ challenge and with the help of four or five others on twitter, came up with a love story about a plinther, twitter, webcams and a plinth-watcher (or tweckler). He told that story to begin with, and then issued another challenge to come up with a story during the hour he was there, promising to tell the story at the end of his hour. The Internet goblin puppet was representing someone with a computer and an open phone line to an earpiece in the puppeteer’s ear. At the end of the hour Thurtinkle told a story written by people on twitter during the previous 40 minutes about a lonely plinth, a participatory art project, and a rampaging cheery-picker in Trafalgar Square. In the middle, he told a story from his current touring show and a specially made up one about how the webcam operators in Trafalgar Square save the Earth from invading spiders from Mars. This story had many puns about modern Internet living.
The competition to guess the titles of stories, books, films and TV shows with a character called Jack in them was very successful, as people could join in by text, tweet or by calling out from the square below. Prizes were signed rolled up posters.
The most difficult aspect of the whole process for the puppeteer was the really bright lights, mainly from below. These meant that the inside of the very low ‘booth’ was pitch black – and with a hood on your head, it was impossible to see how many people were below or where they were.
As far as gigs went, it was basically a street show. However, this street show was taking place on a virtual street as well as a real one, and catering to the tastes of the two is still a challenge. Many lessons were learned, including important ones about entertaining a virtual audience. In a world in which live touring may be becoming more and more difficult to justify in terms of emissions and environmental impact, this combination of entertaining both a live and a virtual audience is likely to become essential practice for all sorts of performers!