When a show is going to include "digital puppetry", director Frank Newman always uses what he calls his "Harvey Norman approach".
"Kids, when they see the show, should see technology that they can recognise and that they can potentially have themselves. It's so it can be a bit inspiring. They can see the works and they go 'I can do that. I've got a webcam at home. I have got a computer drawing program.'
"I try to make it so they can see how we do it. It's not just us being incredibly clever and they've just got to go 'wow'. They've got to go 'wow, I can do that'. Then they want to go home and be creative. For me that's the driving force to why I do this."
For the past five years Newman has been artistic director of the Hobart-based Terrapin Puppet Theatre company. In recent years the 31-year-old company has incorporated new technology in its shows.
But in a first for Newman, he has come to Wellington to direct Magnolia Street, a new production from Capital E's National Theatre for Children and its Creative Technology department. The show, which includes the use of webcam-style cameras and video projectors, has been written by Kiwi screenwriter, playwright and Dominion Post columnist Dave Armstrong.
Capital E already had a relationship with Terrapin Puppet Theatre, having staged its show Boats. But Magnolia Street was Newman and a Kiwi team building the show from the ground up.
The project began as a series of workshops on how to use new technology in children's shows.
"I have a method of working with technology to create live shows with writers. Essentially, we explore the technology and what would be fun theatrically. Then we all sit down and [ask] 'what was interesting about that? Where was the wow moment? What made us laugh?' "
With Magnolia Street, the next step was for Armstrong to work on the script. Newman says "ideas were always flowing" within the team as the show took shape. Magnolia Street features an elderly woman and a young boy and their friendship.
"It's about learning the importance of place and being connected to where you live. If you understand the history of a place then you're more likely to care about it, enjoy living there and give back to the community," says Newman.
During the show the audience can see the three performers interacting with models of houses, a dinosaur and other objects on a table top, and also see the objects become part of an augmented world on the giant screen that also interacts with the performers.
While it involves cameras, projectors and computer programs, Newman says the show also relies on traditional theatre to convey and tell the story. This includes ideas seen in Victorian-era magic lantern shows.
"It's basically those old, fun theatre tricks. But we're just doing them with a bit of new technology. We're actually taking our theatrical cues and theatrical language from very old technology."
Newman says he came to puppetry after having been involved in physical theatre, circus and clowning. "Puppetry was one of those light bulb moments where I said, 'Oh my God, this is amazing'."
He has combined his love of puppetry and directing new works with delivering shows that will appeal to today's children and adults.
"There is a bit of a push internationally that children's theatre should have a little bit more courage.
"Traditionally, children's stories have always had real grunt. You look at all the Hans Christian Andersen stories. Some of them are profoundly emotional and deal with genuinely real issues. All the Brothers Grimm stories are dark.
"It's only in the last 80 years the work's become a little bit syrupy and bubblegum-like. So there's a bit of a push around the place to say 'no, children actually want to be treated intelligently and have emotionally complex things that they can understand at their level'."
The Dominion Post season of Magnolia Street, Downstage Theatre, Wellington, July 21, 25 and 28, 6pm
- © Fairfax NZ News
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