GRAFFHAM FESTIVAL: Puppetry pleasures

Strangeface
Strangeface

It’s puppetry at the treble as Strangeface Theatre Company head for this year’s Graffham Festival.

On Saturday, July 16, first they will be offering a drama-based workshop using masks, suitable for 12 and up, from 3.30pm to 5pm in the Recreation Ground Pavilion, £5; next comes a puppetry talk from 6.30pm to 7pm; and then an evening of rolling performances of the puppet show Beached from 7pm in The White Horse.

Company co-founder Bethan Tomlinson explains: “Beached is a lovely little tabletop show, a tiny little ten minutes-long show inspired by characters from our youth. It’s a story about Arnold who goes for a walk and goes down to the beach.”

You can be any age to watch it, but you watch it in groups of four, all wearing headphones, just like the two performers who will be similarly clad: “It’s a little bit like a silent disco. From the outside, you don’t know what the people are hearing, and what we hope is that it all makes it feel a little bit intriguing. What we have found is that people of all ages have enjoyed something a little bit daft, a little bit thought-provoking.

“The performers will do five performances in a row and they will have a little break, and then they will do another five in a row perhaps. We are not talking about getting through a thousand people a night. We are talking about adding atmosphere and giving people something that is a little bit memorable.

“We have really enjoyed working with people across all the age ranges. You see a seven-year-old child side by side with their 35-year-old parent, and the parent is really enjoying it, and the child is seeing that art is something that isn’t just for the classroom, that it goes on in life and can be great fun. But then you can see all adults sitting round it, and the dynamic is slightly different. You have got the adults thinking to each other ‘I didn’t know you’d like this!’”

It’s the latest chapter for a company which started by accident, Bethan recalls: “I was working for a company that went into English Heritage sites about 15 years ago, and one of the managers was always asking me if I had any theatre we could do. Russell Dean (Strangeface co-founder) was working for Trestle Theatre, working with masks, and at the fourth or fifth time of asking, I just said yes, we could do some theatre.”

And mask work instantly suggested itself. As Bethan says, if you are working outside, you need something that will distract people from flying insects and other things happening – and masks fit the bill perfectly: “They grab people’s attention, and so the company began. We did four summers of working for English Heritage, and it was like a paid hobby for us, but then we decided that we enjoyed it so much that we wanted to go to Edinburgh. We were picked up by Farnham Maltings, and it is full-time now.”

The masks just worked.

“I had not had any training. I trained as a performer at the Central School, and I do remember people saying to me ‘Do you think you could do a little bit less?’ and then you put a mask on and suddenly people are saying ‘Do you think you could do a little bit more?’ I think performers just find certain ways that suit their style more.

“And what a mask does do, I think, is that it really exaggerates what you are doing with the rest of your body. People quickly adapt. It makes you realise the reasons why people like The Simpsons so much. You are dealing with archetypes of goodies and baddies. Russell’s style with the masks also abstracts a little bit, and people sometimes use the words Spitting Image, and I can understand that. They are seeing certain stylised shapes…”
www.graffhamfestival.co.uk.

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