It’s true that puppet’s come in different shapes and sizes, yet for me, none quite so grand and regal as our larger than life Aslan puppet. King’s Christian College is a school that does not do things by halves and Director of Performing Arts Christine Harm wouldn’t have it any other way.
In January of this year I met with Chris to discuss the possibilities of using puppetry in their senior production of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, as adapted by Glynn Robbins from C.S Lewis’ classic tale.
Back then I could not have known how astonished I would be of the quality of performance and of the high level of commitment shown by four student puppet operators and one of the school’s very own Math Teachers.
In three short months I was able to work with the lead actors and puppet operators to introduce them to the form of Bunraku puppetry favoured by DPS, consult with the dedicated team of IDT teachers who built our beloved Aslan - from designs created especially for Kings by DPS’s Artistic Director David Morton - and rehearse and direct the choreography of Aslan’s journey through the action of the play.
While Aslan’s laser cut pieces came together in the Manual Arts workshops, the puppeteers spent hours pacing through the steps that in groups of three, they would need to take together on stage. For weeks they got used to the idea of wearing a 50kg puppet, supported between them by wood and aluminum harnesses. They practiced moving together while using the principals of puppetry to keep Aslan alive at all times and developed the language that would be Aslan’s grand and powerful physical vocabulary (all the while tied up in loops of rope to help signify tension and movement cues).
Come opening night there were gasps from the audience as Aslan made his first entrance on stage and I could not have been more proud as I watched the team journey with him through Narnia, and to see nothing but a fierce and wild King of Beasts launch himself through the air to end the reign of the evil White Witch.
- Helen Stephens, Artistic Associate (Dead Puppet Society)
Image: Mr Mal Rawlings
What began as a tentative email following a National Drama Education symposium last year, has become one of the most exciting ventures the Performing Arts department at King’s Christian College has ever undertaken.
Having been aware of the work of Dead Puppet Society for a number of years, I approached Nicholas Paine and David Morton via email last October to see if they might be interested in an industry collaboration, staging the classic work of CS Lewis, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. My premise was that, with Aslan being such an iconic character, it would be extremely difficult for a student to adequately portray him on stage, but the physical presence of a over-sized puppet would possibly be a far better option, to represent the power and majesty in his persona.
And so began a partnership between the King’s Performing Arts Department, King’s IDT Department and Dead Puppet Society, spanning across the Pacific Ocean, as Nick and David commenced a performance season at the Lincoln Centre in New York City. Many emails back and forth, plus the inimitable presence of their Australian Artistic Associate, Helen Stephens who worked almost on a weekly basis with our students, has meant that we were able to realise the extraordinary dream of being the first school in Australia to build such a puppet, using our staff and students throughout the process as an invaluable curricular and co-curricular experience.
Rehearsals were ‘interesting’, to say the least, as our cast learned to negotiate the space with a 3 metre wooden puppet, manipulated by three puppet operators at a time. It was thought best to have two puppet ‘teams’ to allow more students an opportunity to be a part of the process, as well as allow them rest time between sessions. Who knew that operating a huge puppet could be so physically and mentally taxing? Well, we do now!
The expertise of the team at DPS is second to none, and we are so very grateful that they thought the project was not only worth their consideration and investment, but also for all the time, effort, energy and trouble-shooting they were able to provide for our school and students. I cannot find adequate words to express the benefits that have come from this project across our High School context, and have no doubt that there will be rewards reaped for many students in the years to come, simply from having been a part of such a unique, challenging and ultimately successful endeavour.
The production opened at King’s Church Auditorium on Thursday April 27, playing for three nights, as well as a matinee on Saturday. However, as with all school productions, the bonds of friendship and camaraderie forged in the hundreds of hours of rehearsal, along with the many memories of all the hilarity and struggles that have gone on (especially with THAT puppet!), will last much longer than those three days...
- Christine Harm, King's Christian College
Image: Mr Mal Rawlings
The last eight years have been a time of constant growth for Dead Puppet Society, and the year ahead is already gathering momentum to continue the trend with more productions and workshops on offer than ever before. As well as revisiting an old favourite, and beginning an exciting collaboration with Terrapin Puppet Theatre in Tasmania, we are delighted to announce the world premier season of Laser Beak Man, a long term labour of love developed with Tim Sharp and Sam Cromack, which will play in September in a co-production with La Boite Theatre Company and Brisbane Festival. In addition to these productions, 2017 also marks a new look for our workshop and education offerings – the same core skills workshops are still available, with the introduction of an exciting suite of options focused on creating visual performance across a range of popular theatrical styles.
We can’t wait to work with you in 2017!
Our amazing Artistic Associate Helen Stephens has just returned from six weeks in Outback Queensland working with School of the Air out of Mt Isa. We asked her to put down some thoughts on the adventure...
I’m always filled with a thrilling sense of the unknown when I step on a plane and head off with nothing but a suitcase of puppets and my dreamy ideas about shows and stories in tow. I know only to expect that there will be new and wonderful experiences to be had, challenges to be overcome and knowing what I do about bush kids, that there will be a whole lot of fun waiting for me.
(The wide open space of Deavoncourt near Cloncurry.)
My destination: Mt Isa School of the Air.
The Project: Minischool. A six week residency program where one Artist (me), drives with a group of dedicated and amazing School of the Air teachers to six different locations around outback Queensland from as Far North as Normanton in the Gulf to as far South as Birdsville on the border of South Australia.
The Plan: To introduce our Dead Puppet Society brand of Bunraku Puppetry to students from Prep to year six and then to build a show with them to be performed for their parents and friends on concert night (Thursday night), every week.
On the flight over from Brisbane, I notice how drastically the land changes. The ground seems to morph from its familiar rolling green with accent of rainforest to a taught, pockmarked skin with veins of purple and red pushing through. You get off the plane and you can feel the emptiness of space drifting by in the air that is sunburnt and dry. The industry is busy. Huge four carriage road trains make their way through the town day and night, and the ground shakes with the blasts of mining explosives, deep under ground. On schedule every day, like a rumbling grandfather clock, reminding you of the reason the town itself exists. Established in 1923, Mt Isa city was set up right beside the mine itself, with only a highway in between. The iconic smoke stacks towering above all else, like giant light houses, calling out and keeping watch over all who fly in and fly out.
Mt Isa School of the Air or MISOTA as it is often termed, may be based in town, but the students they service are anything but close by. Approximately 130 Prep to year six students span an extraordinary distance from places such as Windorah in the far South of QLD, to as far West as the border between Western Australia and the Northern Territory. To travel that distance would be to take a trip measuring almost 3,000km.
Life on these stations is so utterly different to anything a costal dweller or city kid grows up knowing to be normal. To name a few, mail is delivered once a week by plane. Food and vegetables may be delivered once a fortnight by truck to the end of your 20km driveway. Mobile reception is unheard of in most places and internet is precious and saved purely for school work. Perhaps the greatest and most noted difference however is that these students, who predominantly live on huge properties or “Stations” as they are known, may go six to nine months without ever seeing another child of similar age. If you happen to have a sibling or there is a Head Stockman who has a family then you are lucky to have automatic playmates, but for some the majority of the time is spent in a classroom, one on one with a Home Tutor or “Govie” (short for Governess) as they are lovingly called. This reason alone is partly why the Minischool Program is so important.
(Resident camels along the way.)
MISOTA chooses six locations across QLD, (Normanton, Bedourie, Cloncurry, Camooweal, Gregory and Julia Creek) and as the name suggests, they set up a mini-school beside a racetrack (due to the facilities they offer such as bathrooms, sheds and a kitchen) and run as close to a normal school week as possible for the students in the surrounding area. Each family is able to nominate which location they will choose to travel to and will drive between 2 and 9 hours in either a semi-truck with a camping trailer or a 4WD loaded with tents and swags ready to spend a week camped together for quality time with teachers and friends alike. Established in 1982, an integral part of Minischool is also to bring an Artist of some variety to add excitement and inject other forms of learning and communication into the schedule. The students are able to learn everything from the recorder to the cello “on air” but the isolation often puts a stop to the variety of other extra curricular activities so readily available to students in major cities.
(The Birdsville Bakery.)
When I arrive in Normanton, after the customary lunch stop at the Burke and Wills (the only fuel and food stop between Mt Isa and anywhere), I am met with a running mob of delighted young people. I have the advantage this year, for I’ve been here before and the students left such a strong impression on my heart I can only imagine the feeling is mutual in the way I am welcomed back by not only the students but parents as well. The tents are pitched and the school trailer is unloaded and before you can say “What’s for dinner?”, the Country Women’s Association Hall, is now a fully functional school shed complete with red carpet, thanks to the theme this year, which is “Lights, Camera, Action!”
Across the week the students run between activities such as “paint your own Logi Award”, “make your own movie” and me, Puppetry in the Outback 101. At DPS we have a beautifully well-oiled workshop program where we introduce our three basic principals of manipulation (the focus, breath and gravity) and then the students begin to play with how you build a “scene”. For most of them it’s the first time they’ve heard this word used but their natural love of stories soon helps them out and we build more language bridges to cross together. After brainstorming and deliberating about character and plot and the student’s favourite dramatic elements and movies, we come up with a storyboard and a list of props and puppets to build. I have taken with me this trip a suite of our new laser cut puppets in human form who are neutral in look but very customizable. By the end of the week we have created a Rocky Horror Picture Show-esque story combining King Kong, Creature from the Black Lagoon and a whole lot of Ghosts with the year 4, 5 and 6 students and a “how to make a superman” story with the preps, year 1s and 2s.
(Helen and Beau.)
Come the end of the concert night I am mentally exhausted but thrilled and proud beyond belief at the way the students have worked together to present drama and melodrama, comedy and tragedy all while managing bunraku puppets, which require the absolute focus of three dedicated operators to control one individual puppet. All this with only two hours of rehearsal time.
Perhaps what I am most proud of however is of the connection I was witness to throughout this puppet driven process where students as young as five can talk with and help one another in a mini creative power house. They can make decisions about character and support and laugh with one another. They can feel the success or the frustration that comes through a rehearsal process and the joy of completing, making and presenting something. Through my daily workshops with the students I hear stories of beloved animals (particularly horses), of the thrill of mustering thousands of head of cattle, the anticipation of boarding school. And from the Mum’s I am gifted with their wicked sense of fun and the stories of good times and bad. The freedom and the land they love but to me there is often a twinge of sadness at the distance and the space that exists between all things out here. Having friends, family or a good coffee close by belong to other younger versions of themselves and there is no such thing as an easy walk to the shop for milk and bread.
(Team Gregory with their version of Robin Hood.)
Everyone feels it and perhaps more so when we are all together for this brief time, knowing it will come to an end on Friday and we will pack up and move on to another place, just like a drover herding his cattle on to better country. Each week I prepare to meet and love a new group of bubbling young minds and each week I leave not knowing if I will ever see these brilliant young sparks and their families again. The one thing that does remain, is that with each new place new connections are made, new stories are exchanged and the richness that follows I know will help to make that space feel a little bit less empty, and another person, a little less far away. The space between has the chance to thicken with so much more.
(Crossing the Tropic of Capricorn en route from Bedourie to Mt Isa.)
So as I drop my suitcase on the floor of my little pre-war cottage in Paddington and I look around at Elizabeth Taylor hanging on the wall with the cars roaring past outside, I take each single MISOTA Minischool moment and file it away in my mind. Stories to be kept and told another day and people to be remembered and loved from afar. There is a saying that goes “once a School of the Air kid, always a School of the Air kid” and I think that saying now extends to “Once a School of the Air Artist, always a school of the Air Artist” too.
I hang my cowboy hat up beside Liz.
(Sunset in Bedourie.)