Category Archives: Journeys



Leaf by Niggle Reflections -

While we have more to tell you (in a future post) about The Man Who Planted Trees, the bulk of 2016 was spent getting ready for and performing our new show (the one it took us more than 20 years to get around to) JRR Tolkien’s Leaf by Niggle.

The tour of Scotland and Northern England began in April and ended in July, and was followed by a wonderful Fringe run at our favourite venue, the Scottish Storytelling Centre.

Leaf by Niggle pen and ink sketch

Leaf by Niggle sketched by Elspeth Murray at the Edinburgh Fringe 2016

Hard to believe now that it all actually happened, but the reviews and our guest book are testament to a very successful tour, with audiences who were moved and spoken to by this amazing story.

Here are some of our favourite quotes on our facebook page.

Along the way we entered into discussion with the Tolkien Trust and Harper Collins who have now published, for the first time ever, a stand-alone edition of Leaf by Niggle, specifically designed to coincide with our tour. They used our artwork for the cover (thanks to Iain Craig) and even gave us a credit on the back. It’s a beautiful little book and only costs £3.99!

Tolkien Society announces the publication

Richard Medrington and Donald Smith

On the publication of Tolkien’s Leaf by Niggle as a stand-alone edition

Karine Polwart reflects on working with Puppet State Theatre Company

Karine Polwart on Leaf by Niggle collaboration

So what do Tolkien aficionados make of our adaptation?

Adapting any well-known story for the stage is always a risky venture. While Leaf by Niggle is not a well known Tolkien title, any Tolkien expert worth his or her Lembas bread is at least going to be aware of it and may well have read it several times. Our decision to stick closely to the text (omitting only half a dozen words) should have stood us on solid ground, but it was still unclear how they would react to the framing of the story, the use of props and the general delivery of the piece.

We had two crucial tests: the first at Howden Park Centre in Livingston where we’d heard 18 members of the Polish Tolkien Society were going to be in attendance while on a #TolkienJourney round the British Isles and the second was to come after the main tour and the Fringe, when we were to go down to St Antony’s College Oxford for the international gathering of the Tolkien Society for their annual Oxonmoot. This time not 18 but 270 of the most dedicated Tolkien fans from all over the world would be in attendance.

So how did they go, these tests?

Well, we were delighted and honoured to meet “18 Hobbits, Elves, Dwarves and Men of the Polish Tolkien Society” and you can read a review here of the Howden Park show written by Magdalena Słaba, the chief chronicler of the Polish Tolkienites.

“If the theatre is a form of communion of the performer and the onlooker, Leaf by Niggle is a bit more than that. It works and conveys true magic.” Magdalena Słaba

And how about Oxonmoot?

First of all, we couldn’t have done it without the phenomenal coordination of a tremendous production team headed up by the Tolkien Society’s wonderful Mike Percival. Mike met the challenge of coordinating the transformation of an Oxford college dining hall – with no blackout – into a beautifully-lit, raked theatre seating 300 in a mere matter of hours. Take a deep breath and you can see about twelve hours condensed down into 25 seconds below but please don’t blink …

The set-up always takes longer than the strike 😉

And how was it received?

They LOVED it! There was a full standing ovation and afterwards the audience queued for an hour and a half to talk to Richard and get him to sign copies of the new book. Mike Percival had this to say:

The great news is that the feedback on the performance from the attendees at Oxonmoot has been excellent – many many people have voted it the best Oxonmoot ever (!!) and many many people have cited Niggle as their favourite bit of this year’s Oxonmoot. It certainly made a great impression.

Thank you so much to Shaun Gunner, tenth and current Chairman of the Tolkien Society, who invited us and to everyone who made us very welcome.

For a fuller report – with beautiful illustrations – of the whole tour, you can have a look at this lavishly illustrated document full of quotes and facts and figures.

Leaf by Niggle is taking a rest for a few months while we are busy planting trees in Manchester for two weeks over Christmas, then we return to North America for a three month tour in the spring. Niggle will be back in Edinburgh during next year’s Fringe (at the Storytelling Centre again) and in the autumn of 2017 it will be touring the UK. If you are interested in booking a performance of Leaf by Niggle, contact Alice McGrath at Red Bridge Arts.

“It’s Been Five Years, Dog!” -

Our recent performance of The Man Who Planted Trees (the 100th of this North American tour) at the Millennium Place Theatre in Whistler marked the 5th anniversary of touring with this show. There is snow on the mountains of British Columbia and it’s a long way in terms of ocean, altitude and years of accumulated experience since we first performed The Man Who Planted Trees at the Columcille Centre in Morningside in May 2006.

At that time, we had six shows scheduled at various schools, summer festivals and outdoor events followed by a Fringe run to round things off. Little did we know that that was just the beginning. Approaching 1,500 performances later, it’s still a rewarding and enjoyable experience to tell Jean Giono’s story to each new audience. Dog’s repertoire of jokes and insights has expanded, the set has undergone a rolling restoration, and the original costumes still fit (at a squeeze!).

To mark the 5th birthday we have made a video montage of photos from many wonderful, varied tour locations. We weren’t able to include each venue but it’s a tribute to everyone whose support has kept the show on the road.

And while we’ve been thinking for a while that ‘the next show’ will be about one of Scotland’s most influential sons, we’ve just recently given our ideas a working title –  America in the Morning: John Muir – One Wild and Precious Life.

John Muir was a man of extraordinary talents, including one for getting himself into (and usually out of) apparently impossible situations. He would become a world-famous naturalist, explorer, inventor of bizarre machines, a prolific writer and pioneer of the conservation movement, but in 1849 he was an eleven year old schoolboy with an insatiable thirst for adventure, living in a small town in Scotland, when one evening his father announced “We’re gan to America the morn!”

Development time will fit in around existing Man Who Planted Trees dates which include a 2-week 2011 Edinburgh Fringe run, our first performances of the show in French at the puppetry festival in Charleville, a Fall USA tour with a return to the Lincoln Center Institute, and a Spring 2012 North America tour. We plan to premiere the new show at the Fringe in 2012. We’re interested in new and existing partnerships for this project and continue to work with our agents Holden & Arts for North American touring.

Meanwhile, many thanks again to everyone who has played a part in this semi-scripted, semi-improvised adventure. If you’d like to stay tuned, see the links below where you can ‘like’ us on facebook, subscribe to our blog or have a look at our website (which we promise will look substantially more groovy come festival time!).

Oh and what about those pictures from Seattle that we promised? Here’s a selection with wistful music evoking the (admittedly only occasionally) wet weather of Washington State by the wonderful, Edinburgh-based singer songwriter Emily Scott.

And where are our next public shows? In the USA, it’s St Paul, Minnesota on 4th & 5th June. And in the UK, it’s in Bristol at the World Stage Festival 8-10th July.

Finally, if you’d like to hear about our next blog post – including  a wonderful pre-show lecture from the Chicago Humanities Festival – sign up through the ‘Email Subscription’ button over there —>

Thanks for swinging by!

Whizzing Across The Map -

I hope you enjoy clicking above on the video whistle-stop view of where the tour took us in March. (It’s made using a snazzy slideshow feature that comes with iPhoto ’11 in case you were wondering.)

Thanks in New Bedford go to the Zeiterion Theatre and the Whaling Museum as well as Ailie Cohen’s family and friends who took good care of us there. Don Cuddy wrote a lovely piece about our show for the regional press. (Oh and Elspeth’s grubby nose is from overly keen sniffing of ambergris.)

Congratulations to Leslee Silverman at Manitoba Theatre for Young People on getting a big national award while we were there. And to MTYP’s Derek Aasland for valiantly fielding headaches relating to shipping our set from Canada to New York while we were on our break in Georgia.

The Atlanta spell was a break between performing engagements when we enjoyed the hospitality and company of Rick’s family and friends. (Elspeth made the spring-themed
painted poem plate at All Fired Up.)

In Kingston we performed courtesy of Bardavon Theater (where Mark Twain used to perform) at Ulster Performing Arts Center (where Garrison Keillor was on stage the day after us). The puppet in the slideshow who looks like Elzeard Bouffier’s girlfriend was made by Grian MacGregor of Ivy Vine Players. Many thanks to Kay Churchill for welcoming us warmly and sending us away with special stuff from Tuthilltown Distillery, New York’s first legal whiskey distillery since prohibition.

(And we didn’t visit the Yankees Stadium, by the way. But it was a landmark on our way upstate.)

Talking of baseball, however, we’re in Seattle right now and have just tonight seen the dress rehearsal at Seattle Children’s Theatre of the fabulous civil rights baseball drama Jackie And Me. Wonderful wonderful stuff!

There will be pictures and music to come from our lovely long run in Seattle. But for now, two reviews: one from Seattle’s Child (“No Mom, not funny,” my 8-year-old corrects me. “Hysterical!”) and one from The Seattle Times. My favourite pull-out quote: “And it smells good, too.”

(And the North American tour tally up until Kingston: 33 performances to over 6,000 people. That’s not including the Seattle shows. With them included – 69 shows for well over 15,000 people!)

A New York State Start to the 2011 Tour -

We’re 10 days and 11 shows into a 107 show tour of North America with The Man Who Planted Trees that takes us through till June.

Our first shows in Albany, NY were our last chance to say “our last gig before this was at the Sydney Opera House”. You might not believe this, having not read anything about it here but look – here’s reliable evidence:

Dog at Sydney Opera House

Dog at Sydney Opera House

So, Albany also has a distinctive performance space with iconic architectural features – Steamer Number 10 Theatre. Check out the quaint drawbridge … and the weather!

Steamer Number 10 Theatre

Steamer Number 10 Theatre

Because of the snow, many people who had booked tickets were unable to come which was a shame. But we were delighted to see folk who braved the knee-deep for a dose of warm French storytelling and evocations of the plains of Provence.

At Flushing Town Hall, as well as several performances, we took part in two workshops. One pre-show workshop for adults and children involved sock puppet making while the other was a masterclass with professional puppeteers from New York City. In a short time we saw some brilliant work and look forward to keeping in touch with people so we can see more from them in the future.

Masterclass with Professional Puppeteers at Flushing Town Hall

Masterclass with Professional Puppeteers at Flushing Town Hall (Photo: Steven McIntosh)

While not far from Manhattan, we only had the briefest chance to get a hit of the big city. However, we made it to the last night of Lily of the Conservative Ladies by Glass Beads Theatre Ensemble starring our actor, writer, puppeteer friend Danna Call.

And as a bonus, in the subway at Times Square, our favourite Beatles tribute band The Meetles were performing to a crowd of smiling, twisting, shouting passengers happy to press pause on their busy journeys.

Occasionally after our shows we meet young folk who are particularly keen on theatre and puppetry and at The Tilles Center at Long Island University we were honoured to meet Madeline. Here she is with a fabulous puppet she made of herself. She and a friend are currently working on their own adaptation of The Man Who Planted Trees and we are hoping later to see a video of their piece.

Madeline and Madeline

Madeline and Madeline

Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center was a little gem of a venue, and one that attracts big names to perform in its beautiful intimate auditorium. We were sorry to near-miss Robert Cray, Garrison Keillor and Patti LuPone, among others.

Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center

Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center

We left Long Island by ferry and now we’re in Massachusets where our next shows are at the New Bedford Whaling Museum under the auspicious umbrella of the Zeiterion Performing Arts Center. We delighted to be hosted by Puppet State extended family, Scott and Chrissy, brother and sister-in-law of Ailie Cohen who designed and built most of the puppets and set. Their friend Don wrote this lovely preview for our Sunday show.

Dog and Jean

Our next stop is Winnipeg at Manitoba Theatre for Young People. You can see a list of all our tour dates here.

Meanwhile, you might like to visit The Man Who Planted Trees group on Facebook or go ahead and click ‘like’ on the Puppet State page.

Who Knows Where the Time Goes? -

A whole month has mysteriously slipped away into the silent realm known as “shows done”. How did that happen? We were in New York, now we’re in Nashville and in between times we’ve been in a lot of other places. For any patient person out there who hasn’t given up checking this space for updates, here is a bird’s eye view of our recent peregrinations (click on the photos to see the full gallery from each part of the tour):

We left New York in mid March and the pouring rain. Very hard to un-velcro ourselves from the Lincoln Center which had begun to feel like home. Good news is the shows went down so well they want us back. We spent a week in New Jersey, which was experiencing really bad flooding. Our shows in New Brunswick were nearly cancelled due to power cuts, but the energy company, who happened to be sponsoring the shows, managed to get things going just in time.

Techies at New Brunswick State Theate being giants

From there we drove to Woodstock, Vermont (no, not that Woodstock, another one) where we stayed in the nicest hotel you can imagine and had some great shows in the Town Hall Theater. Woodstock is a picturesque little town with covered wooden bridges and quirky shops. It was Rick’s birthday while we were there – celebrated in style with oysters and a tennis lesson. The weather was unseasonably wonderful – there was still some snow on the ground but the sun shone all the time we were there.

Covered bridge in Woodstock, Vermont

On to Burlington, Vermont where Rick met up with two cousins he hadn’t seen for many years and their lovely families. Thence to the town of Roxbury, New York in the Catskills. Sleepy village but a lovely venue with staff to match and very appreciative audiences including some real life Elzeard Bouffiers, deeply involved in reforestation projects in the area.

Roxbury - click here for more pics

Clued-up question and answer session in Roxbury, NY (note pretty leaf lighting on the white proscenium arch)

Back in the car and heading for Hudson, New York, where we stayed at the beautiful Country Squire Bed and Breakfast.  We had a great time at Stageworks, a theatre that reminded us of the Netherbow in Edinburgh, as it used to be back in the old days, to standing ovations.  This was organised by Gary Schiro of the Hudson Opera House. According to the guide books, Hudson had been an important centre for shipping and trade, but early last century it had gone into a decline and become a “mob-run den of mayhem”. It is now what is known as shabby chic, with lots of antique shops and good restaurants. One of the cool towns.

Hudson - for more pics click here

Stageworks' 99-seat theater in Hudson, NY

It was quite cold there. But a few hours later we were in Texas and roasting. I couldn’t believe we were in the same country. And some Texans tried to convince me that we weren’t. The Lutcher Theater in Orange Texas is a phenomenon. The gift of a wealthy local family (who, ironically, made their money from the timber trade) it is an seriously well-equipped place, and attracts the big names. It is probably the biggest space we’ve played in, though they restricted the audiences to around 200. On the first evening after the show, we took part in a community tree-planting event at a local Methodist church. We fell in love with the East Texas audiences who were really appreciative, and the hospitality of the staff was second to none. Special thanks are due to Jim and Lynae. We even got a special guided tour of Orange’s beautiful Shangri-La Botanic Gardens (endowed by the same family as the theater) including a boat trip on the bayou, with Mike, the director of the garden as our guide.

Orange, TX - for more pics click here

Community tree-planting event in Orange, Texas

On to San Antonio, where we met up with Michael and Teresa Holden, our wonderful agents, plus their staff Sarah and Stacy, (who have doen a really brilliant job of organising this tour) and some family members. We were in a big theater again, with a slightly over-ambulatory audience. We arrived at our hotel tired and a little crotchety after a long day on the road, and as a result of my (Richard’s) slight disgruntlement with a noisy ventilation system in our otherwise very acceptable room, we were upgraded to a palatial suite with jacuzzi, separate living room and a balcony overlooking the town square and river walk. San Antonio is like a cross between Amsterdam and Cambridge given a Mexican makeover.  On the second morning the sky was slightly overcast for about half an hour. Ah well, into every life a little rain must fall.

San Antonio - click here for more photos

San Antonio's Riverwalk

The tour had been fairly relentless up till now. Time for a break. Michael and Teresa took us out to their ranch in the Texas Hill Country near Austin. We now have a new definition of peace and quiet. They showed us around, cooked us a lovely meal, and then the five of us sat in the hot tub beneath the stars and talked of this and that. The next day, after a real Texan barbecue in Llano, The Holden’s took Rick into Austin for the weekend, and Elspeth and Richard headed back to the ranch for three more days of utter tranquility. We all met up again in Austin a few days later, well rested (apart from Rick) and the team set off for Madison Wisconsin for shows at the Overture Center for the Arts.

Austin - for more pics click here

The Holden and Arts crew: Sarah Saltwick, Stacy Meshbane, Michael and Theresa Holden

Madison is a beautiful city, and the Overture Center for the Arts is a splendid place. I think for the first time ever we had a standing ovation from an entire audience. In fact all the audiences were extremely appreciative. It seems like a real theatre-going town. We also got to attend a great Bluegrass concert. There was one hazy day that may have had something to do with a trip to a Karaoke bar. I really don’t remember very much. It was cold again.

Madison - for more pics click here

Richard and Rick with Tim Sauers, The Overture Center's wonderful Education guy

And then we flew to Florida and it wasn’t anymore. We stayed in the same hotel for the best part of a week and performed at three different venues. In Clearwater we were playing in the Ruth Eckerd Hall, at the same time as David Gray (remember him? Babylon etc), though not in the same space. (Obviously).  Susan Zelenka and her staff went out of their way to make our stay a joy. Rick’s parents, Dick and Bobbie, drove up from their winter quarters in Fort Myers to see us and we all had a superb time. Oh the stories…

Florida - click here for more pics

Rick with parents Dick and Roberta Conte and family friends Carol and Jim West

At our last show in Tampa a ten year old boy came up to Richard after the show and said “So how old was Elzeard Bouffier?” I said “Well, he was 89 when he died.” And the boy said, “Yes but how old was he before he died?”

I’m still thinking about that one.

Elspeth and Richard went to visit Richard’s cousin Kevan out beyond Orlando and had great fun playing games with Kevan’s son Brendan. These included various riotous shoot ’em up games and a bizarrely traditional game of hide and seek.

Florida - for more pics click here

Richard with cousin Kevan and his son Brendan

And now we’re somewhere else.
Ah yes, Nashville.
And it’s Saturday.
No shows no drives no flights.
Time to catch up with the blog.



See more photos on flickr »