How to make a Circus Bear
I’d been performing with hand shadows for two years. Mostly self-taught through video footage, books and playful experimentation, I felt my work couldn’t develop further without input from a specialist puppeteer. So I applied for the Puppet Centre bursary for professional development, identifying Budrugana Gagra (a Georgian hand shadow company) as a potential mentor. I’d seen their work when I performed in the Turkish festivals in 2008.
Budrugana were due to perform at a festival in Azerbaijan, so I made this the geographical focus of my application. I received the funding and went to Azerbaijan where I quickly got to know the ten puppeteers of Budrugana. They were generous with their knowledge and skills. I was honoured to be taught how to make the Budrugana bear and touched that the puppeteers were impressed with some of the things I showed them.
I learned from watching their set-up and backstage behaviour during the performance, and we improvised together. I made a shadow person, someone made a boat. My person got a shadow oar and began to row across a shadow sea. The loneliness of the solo puppeteer reached out and found helping hands!
At the same time I had an application in with the Arts Council for a project developing my existing hand shadow work in a larger, non-verbal way using technology like visualisers and projectors. I’d left the storyline of the piece open, allowing the visuals to dictate what would happen.
Returning from Azerbaijan with much food for thought and a bear to practise with, I found out the Arts Council funding bid had been successful. So I began sourcing the equipment and rehearsal space for the project and playing with ideas. From the aesthetic of the bear I created a duck, then a wolf (which became a dog), an elephant and a horse. The process of creating a hand shadow puppet is much like making a puppet and learning to manipulate it – all at the same time.
The main challenge faced creating 'Circus Bear' (the project’s title once a story emerged) was that one solo puppet onstage at a time, no matter how well it moves, can’t sustain a 50 minute show. I needed to find ways to create elements for the puppet to react to. As most of the characters are created with two hands, this posed a problem.
I considered training another puppeteer, but with time constraints this was not feasible – a project for the future. However, with the creative input of Peter MacDonald, Michele Petit-Jean and Rosie Tate (including storyboarding and verbal descriptions of what they were seeing) we found ways to create visually interesting theatre with satisfying variations of pace and rhythm.
Often the action is influenced by the way in which one hand can create part of one character while the other hand creates part of a second character, allowing interactions to occur. Sometimes two hands rapidly transform from one animal into another.
The creative use of technology in the show includes shadows being filmed and projected back onto themselves to create multiple characters; the use of the freeze button on the projector to create instant shadow scenery; and colouring the shadows, giving a feeling of the shadows being three-dimensional. These techniques were developed through playful experimentation over three months.
It’s quite difficult to put into words how 'Circus Bear' happened – but what is easy to express is that this necessary journey would not have happened without the Puppet Centre bursary and Arts Council funding.
Drew Colby is Artistic Director of Finger and Thumb Theatre