Interview with The Wrong Crowd
Bonnie Mitchell and Rachael Canning, both co-directors of The Wrong Crowd, took time out from their rehearsal and previewing process for their new show Kite to answer some questions for Animations, letting us know about the inspiration for the show, the benefits of a designer/director who understand puppetry as a fundamental building block of everything that happens on stage, and development of the company to this point.
Bonnie is the Producer, and Rachael the Director/Designer, of Kite.
Tell us about what got you interested in indoor kites. Did the story grow from the kite idea, or vice versa?
Rachael: Working on a production of Kes at Sheffield Crucible I used a kite as the kestrel at one point. It gave such an emotional aspect to that union that I immediately came back to The Wrong Crowd and suggested there was definitely something in kites we should explore. It was exciting, as previously we’d always started with story. And it felt right as visual theatre makers to be trying a different way in to making a show, starting with the visual idea and then seeing what story the visual idea lends itself to.
So after a bit of googling of indoor kite flying, which there is a lot of, especially in America and China - in sports halls, to power ballads - we took our own indoor kite into research and development with actors. Very quickly it became clear that the part of the beauty of an indoor kite in a theatre space is the connection between the kite and an actor. We understand the kite by how the actor responds to it. And so a story came very quickly out of early R&D that saw the kite, and the wind that animates the kite, as benevolent characters, coming to the help of a young girl – Mary Poppins style. We’re also massive fans of stories where inanimate objects have a personality and come to life to combat loneliness such as The Red Balloon and The Snowman.
Bonnie: The resulting story, developed with a gifted set of actors in multiple R&Ds and rehearsals, is of a young girl, whose mother has recently died, being sent to live with her grandmother. Both are struggling to come to terms with their loss and are grieving in isolation and silence.
And then one night our magical kite comes to life and so ensues a journey across rooftops and clouds that ultimately enables a processing of that grief and a moving forwards for both the girl and her grandmother.
Are there other puppets in the show?
Rachael: The kite is the primary puppet, but we also have smaller versions of both the girl and the grandmother, bunraku puppets, that we use to demonstrate scale, perspective and heighten moments of magical realism. We could have gone for a more dancey approach to address these challenges but to us there’s something wonderful about making the audiences imaginations work that little bit harder in certain moment of our story with the use of puppets.
As it’s an adventure that take place in London, we of course had to have some newspaper pigeon puppets in too… And really the whole design concept of the show is about manipulation of the set. The fridge and wardrobe become the cityscape of London; the dinnerware becomes the moon.
Again, we hope exercising the imaginations of our audiences young and old.
Tell me more about your decision to work without text in this project.
Rachael: In 60% of our interactions with other people we don’t use any words. It’s really interesting to me how much of human communication is wordless. So much can be said with just a touch. It think it takes things to a more emotional level, because you are having to work harder as an audience.
As visual theatre makers, and in particular coming from a background in puppetry direction, it's a very natural development to make a show without text. I feel like less is more. I’ve always enjoyed silent films. There’s a story, but there’s also ambiguity where you the audience can fill in the gaps. Which is something we’ve done before, especially with our puppetry, but in Kite we’ve taken it even further by taking out all of the text.
Rachael, you also design sets, costumes and puppets for other companies. How is it different from working with the Wrong Crowd?
Rachael: I love the diversity of working on other companies shows, meeting brilliant new people, who I often then rope into our future Wrong Crowd shows! But there is something deeply satisfying as a designer/puppet director to be involved in an idea from its genesis. Kite was an idea I had, and now it’s a show. If I hadn’t created my own company then this sort of opportunity wouldn’t have presented itself to me. I also love being involved in all aspects on the visuals of the company including our branding, publicity, trailers, who we partner with to make shows, who we employ and most importantly what we’re doing next!
Is this a good time for puppetry?
Rachael: It’s a brilliant time for puppetry. Huge profile was shone on puppetry by Handspring’s War Horse. Mainstream theatre directors really took hold of puppetry being able to be at the centre of a story rather than just an add-on, or as a tool to solve a problem. Directors realised that puppets can be a central character as part of a production’s initial conception.
Bonnie: And in particular there’s such exciting developments with puppetry in theatre that tackles hard hitting issues, perhaps for adults, or like Kite, for cross-generational audiences. For example, Theatre-Rites are currently making a show that addresses self-harm with a puppet made of paper cutting herself. The brilliant Suspense and Manipulate festivals feature shows about euthanasia and mental health. And we are using puppetry within theatre to examine bereavement. Puppetry in children’s theatre is amazing, but it doesn’t have to be only in children’s theatre.
Rachael, how did you get started in puppetry? Were you always interested in puppets?
Rachael: From a young age I puppeteered, like most kids did. I made tiny characters out of Fimo, and then I moved onto actual marionettes. I studied Theatre Design at Royal Welsh College, which has a big puppetry strand as part of the course, which inspired me further, as did meeting brilliant people like Chris Pirie of Green Ginger who really inspired me, and I’ve been making, designing and directing puppets ever since. Its influenced my theatre design work too where I love everything to be moving and animated. I see my design as an object to be manipulated too.
For me, puppetry and object manipulation comes out of a fascination with observing how things move – people, animals, the wind – and then striving to find a way of communicating that to the actors who are puppetering. Puppetry has enabled me to go into co-directing and now directing. It wouldn’t have happened just through design. Working with the actors a lot more, focusing on storytelling.
Bonnie, Kite is the fourth show from the Wrong Crowd. Have you found the company changing across the productions?
Bonnie: We set The Wrong Crowd up as a company where designers and writers can co-create work, where a piece is conceived and written with visuals and story at the same time. And both aspects are given equal importance. We also give equal footing in the rehearsal room to the director and the puppetry/movement direction. This has been our aim and vision from the outset and it remains today.
We have also always wanted to make work that speaks powerfully to both young audiences and adults, whether they come to the theatre as a family or just wind up sat next to someone in the audience of a different generation. Something brilliant happens when cross-generational audience experience a piece of theatre that resonates with them both. This has always been important to us Wrong Crowders, and remains so today.
What changes from production to production is inevitably that each story requires a different approach to its telling. Our last piece was a co-production with the brilliant Opera North of Jonathan Dove and Alasdair Middleton’s Swanhunter. Our approach there was all about clarity of storytelling and finding the most incredible singers who were keen to puppeteer swans, dogs and an elk! We worked with a spine tingling orchestra of live musicians on stage, telling a story which in this case was sung. So each production sets different the challenges.
Bonnie: We hope that Kite will tour internationally in 2017, and we are also looking into re-moutning our debut show The Girl with the Iron Claws. We have recently relocated the company from London to Devon, a return home from the big smoke. So it will be brilliant to start making theatre in the West country and developing local connections, becoming part of that thriving scene. As for new work, we’re looking forward to getting to grips with a much-loved children’s book and adapting it for cross generational audiences.
Kite plays as part of the London International Mime Festival at Soho Theatre for 26th Jan – 6th Feb, and then tours to Birmingham, Salford, Plymouth, London, Liverpool, Canterbury, Ipswich. Bath and Mold this spring.
Photos by Richard Davenport.