Category Archives: Journeys

 

Journeys

 
Planting Saplings Among the Redwoods -

Rick and Ben on Campus at BYU

It felt like we hadn’t performed The Man Who Planted Trees for a while. Actually, it was Norwich in October, and just before that we had spent 3 fabulous weeks touring the show with Gardner and Wife Theatre Company in Malaysia.

I set out from Edinburgh alone on January 21st, bringing all our flight cases as I was meeting Rick and his son Ben (stand-in techie for Elspeth) who were flying in to Salt Lake City from Shanghai where they had been performing Rick’s adaptation of The Time Machine.

Spectacular loading dock at BYU

Spectacular loading dock at BYU

We were revisiting two of our favourite US venues, Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah and Arcata Playhouse in Northern California. Both places evoked the same (oft-repeated) joke post show:

“They say you play BYU/The Arcata Playhouse twice in your career – once on the way up and once on the way down… It’s good to be back.”

Once again we met with great hospitality and wonderfully responsive audiences both of school children and adults. The BYU campus is lovely, the students amazing and the staff generous in the extreme. We did a number of workshops with drama students and five performances. At the end of a week we were sorry to leave but looking forward (kind of) to three days of driving the nearly 900 miles to the California coast. The weather was kind to us, even though further to the east and north the country was struggling to cope under the Polar Vortex. The scenery between Utah and California was… vast! Ranging from huge desert-like vistas, through the mountains to the densely wooded regions nearer the coast.

A barn in Utah

Arcata was familiar territory, and once again the people gave us a wonderful reception. This time the special bonus was that the local Jonsteen Tree Nursery had donated 650 saplings to be giving to each and every audience member for free after the shows.

Saplings from Jonsteen Nurseries

Whenever this was announced it was greeted with gasps of surprise and delight from the audiences. As the children and adults left clutching their tiny trees it struck me that in a sense this was completing a circuit: the show is very interactive, what with the lavender and forest smells we waft into the audience, then the wind, the rain, birds flying overhead etc. To then have everyone go away with a tree of their own to plant in the earth, the multi-sensory performance is complete, and we will have fulfilled in some way Jean Giono’s intention in writing the story back in 1953, “to make people love trees and to love planting trees.”

A similar thing had happened last year in Kuala Lumpur, where a local environmental organisation had set up their stall and given out saplings after the family shows.
While in Arcata we were visited by a couple who drove more than 5 hours from Oregon to see the show. This was part of Bill Ritch’s response to the show:

“My wife Janis and I greatly appreciated your show. There were many things that captivated me about your creative performance. Perhaps the biggest was your presence of being so fully in the moment. While I knew you were not improvising, your performance was so alive it seemed like you were “simply” having fun and improvising everything.
I greatly appreciated how you brought the story alive. You clearly dissolved the 4th wall by including all the elements (water, fire – “candle,” etc.) and appealing to all the senses. These steps created audience participation on many levels! I also felt your creation of the character Dog with his humour further brought the story alive. Dog not only captured my attention but deepened my experience of the feelings and emotions being experienced by Jean and the Shepherd. The gestures of all the puppets really popped out for me, reinforcing my joy for physical theatre. To me, your performance was a brilliant work of art.”

Rick in the Redwoods

So now we are all back home, just about over the jet-lag which I for one am finding it very difficult to shake off as I get older. This may also be partly due to my sense of impending doom when I wake at odd hours of the night, as the spectre of Brexit looms ever closer.

But that’s another story. On the plus side, I am feeling a renewed enthusiasm for the show and in particular for doing some rural touring nearer to home. It has been several years since we have taken the show around Scotland. We are exploring ways that we can replicate the “Arcata model” and work with local and national environmental groups to connect audience members with the physical act of planting trees. Even if it sometimes feels like we are all going to hell in a handbasket, we might as well have some earth and a few saplings there in the basket, if only as a gesture of goodwill and a parting gift for this tired planet.

We are hoping to return to the Scottish Storytelling Centre this August for another Fringe run, possibly including a few performances of Leaf by Niggle, which we have also been invited to perform at the Tolkien Society’s 50th Anniversary celebration in Birmingham this summer.

Richard

Leaf by Niggle

 
 
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.

 
 
 
 
 
 

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