Puppets with purpose
Like any young person trying to get a foot in the door of an established industry, opportunities can sometimes arise by accident.
For three young actors in the New Zealand Fringe Festival in Wellington tonight they owe it all to a suitcase of old, abandoned puppets.
Kelly Gilbride, 21, Albert Walker, 22, and Josh Booth, 21, are new company The Wooden Actors. Their show The Marriage in the festival is inspired by Russian Anton Chekhov's one act play The Wedding. In Chekhov's play there's anticipation about the arrival of a general at a wedding. In The Marriage it's country music superstar Willie Nelson.
But the most prominent feature of The Marriage is that the three actors tell the story through nine puppets, hence the pun in the company's name.
Gilbride, Walker and Booth are performing arts graduates from Unitec in Auckland, but didn't set out with any grand plan to become puppeteers or put on puppet shows.
In their final year at Unitec last year they had to devise a community theatre show. "We were really struggling to devise a show and one of the teachers just found the puppets in a cupboard," Gilbride says. "They were in a suitcase and looked so strange. Our teacher had been working there for quite a few years and had never seen them before. They were so well made. They were very old fashioned and dressed in a kind of Victorian style."
Gilbride says as students they touched on puppetry as part of "mask and movement" classes in their first year of study. But it only took them a week after being handed the abandoned puppets to devise their first show. The suitcase held seven puppets and the students convinced an experienced craftswoman to make them two more female puppets. A fellow graduate in costume helped design and make new costumes for the puppets. The faces were repainted and their hairstyles changed.
The puppets' first big outing was for the trio's community theatre show Sign Here, a comedy about the Ports of Auckland, including the recent industrial dispute. Gilbride, Walker and Booth researched the history of the ports.
Workers from Auckland ports were invited to the show and enjoyed it so much they asked for it to be staged again. The three reluctantly had to turn down the request due to other course commitments.
"That was a huge success and it was just so great doing a show where we researched [about] something in New Zealand. People that didn't know anything at all about the ports of Auckland came to see the show and they said they understood it and loved it."
That reaction for what was to have been a one-off assignment was the impetus for the three to form The Wooden Actors company two months ago.
Gilbride says the idea for The Marriage came from her and Walker having studied Chekhov's The Wedding. "It's pretty crazy. We've had so many drafts of the script. We knew [Chekhov's] play really well. We changed the character names, but the idea was to 'kiwise' it. It's a loose adaptation."
There have been challenges in telling the story through puppets. The company has hired a fourth puppeteer, Irasa Siave, in an effort to be able to handle the nine puppets in the show. In the case of the company's contingent, the puppets are similar to Japanese bunraku, which means one puppet is normally operated by up to three puppeteers. Getting that right has been a learning curve for the company, says Gilbride. They've been able to work it to the point that one puppet only requires two puppeteers.
"They've got a wooden handle that comes out of the back of the head and that's how you manipulate the head and the body. Your own hands control the hands and legs of the puppet."
The Marriage has had some funding from Creative New Zealand and Gilbride says this has given them more confidence in the long term future of the new company. While much of their focus is on their fringe debut, followed by shows in Auckland, the company will aim to create more shows.
"We thought that puppetry was dying in New Zealand and people don't have puppet shows any more," says Gilbride.
"We want to explore puppets carrying a storyline and not just being gimmicks."
The Marriage, Bats Theatre, tonight until February 11, 9.30pm
The Dominion Post