Category Archives: Tolkien

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.


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.

JRR Tolkien’s ‘Leaf by Niggle’ -

Our new show is reaching completion and we are excited to be sharing it with you. Here’s a quick primer on the main what, when, who and why of it.

Leaf by what?

Yes we often have to repeat the name of the show. Leaf by Niggle is the same title as the short story we are telling. At one stage we thought we might call it Tree and Leaf after one of the books in which the short story has been published or even just Leaf. But we’ve opted for the orginal title because being faithful to the story seemed more important to us than having to say something twice.

Why haven’t I heard of it before?

Some people light up when we mention that we’ve adapted this story for the stage because it’s been a favourite story of theirs for years. But if you haven’t heard of it, you’re certainly not alone. Although it’s by the 20th century’s best-selling author, it’s WAY less well known than many of Tolkien’s other works, especially his worldwide blockbusting epic Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit. As well as being published in Tree and Leaf alongside a seminal essay by Tolkien “On Fairy Stories”, it also appears in The Tolkien Reader, Poems and Stories, A Tolkien Miscellany, and Tales from the Perilous Realm. However, so far it hasn’t been published as a book on its own.

What or who is Niggle?

Niggle is our protagonist. He’s a painter. Not a very successful one, partly because he has so many other things to do – don’t we all! For some time he has been obsessed with one particular canvas – a curious picture of a tree with a vast landscape stretching out behind it. The painting keeps getting bigger and bigger but Niggle has a journey to make. He doesn’t want to go, but he cannot get out of it …

So Niggle is a human?

Yes. And so are the other characters in the story. There aren’t any goblins or dragons or wizards but nonetheless the story has layers of magic in it.

What is it about?

On the one hand it’s about Tolkien and his desperately long to-do list. But it’s also about the creative process and our life’s purpose, collaboration, neighbourly duties, distractions, the purpose of art for individuals and society. So it’s not a matter of life and death? Well – it’s kind of that too.

Who is it for?

We think there’s relevance in it for all artists and for everybody. We expect that Tolkien fans and Tolkien avoiders alike will enjoy it. We’re saying it’s for adults and children over 10.

Is this a sequel to The Man Who Planted Trees?

Yes and no. It is the first new show we’ve done as Puppet State Theatre Company since we launched The Man Who Planted Trees back in 2006. Similarities: It’s another stage adaptation of a short story by a well-known 20th century writer, written mainly for adult readers but aimed at a broad family audience. It has trees in it. Differences: Leaf by Niggle is a one-man show whereas The Man Who Planted Trees relies on two performers. Although objects and props have special significance in Leaf by Niggle, there are no puppets – and in particular no Dog.

Has Dog retired?

No! Dog has been keenly interested in the progress of this project and remains a healthy, happy working creature. The Man Who Planted Trees is still a big part of Puppet State’s work and there are new tours in the pipeline that we’ll let you know more about here in coming weeks and months.

Who have you been working with?

We’ve been pinching ourselves at the quality of the creative team we’ve been working with on this project.

Andy Cannon, writer, performer and professional storyteller, who was Creative Director Performance of the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games Opening Ceremony, has been our marvellous and wise director and very directorial he looks here.

Andy Cannon

Andy Cannon

Sound skills have come from the great combination of the award-winning, spell-binding Karine Polwart with a gift for melodies that say just enough without overstating her case AND Cork-born, Glasgow-based composer, musician and songwriter Michael John McCarthy who has an impressive track record of making theatre shows sound just right.

Production manager, Gerron Stewart, when not creating and tending an orchard, is unflappably seeing to our technical needs. The production side of things is tenderly held under the wing of the wonderful Alice McGrath of Red Bridge Arts.

Janice Parker is bringing years of experience in choreography and movement to the subtle task tuning up a one-man storytelling show.

Another line of continuity between The Man Who Planted Trees and Leaf by Niggle is illustrator, puppet maker, performer and designer Ailie Cohen who is giving us design support with set and costume.

Alasdair Anderson has brought his ingenuity, intelligence and craftsmanship to some props making tasks, from the large, fiery welding end of things right down to fiddly, miniature, delicate stuff.

How long did it take to make?

Very good question! This is probably best answered in Richard Medrington’s own words:

“I first read Leaf by Niggle in 1993 and was so taken with it that I approached the Tolkien Trust to see if they would allow me to adapt it as a puppet show. In the end they didn’t feel puppets were a suitable medium for the story, but they gave permission back then for me to perform it once as a storytelling piece at the Carberry Festival. However I couldn’t get the story out of my mind and in 2013 I decided to approach them again. This time they said yes! The story seems to offer different things each time I come to it, changing like the weather. Unlike most of Tolkien’s stories, there are no wizards or elves, but it’s a little bit magical all the same.”

Richard Medrington storyteller

Richard Medrington storyteller

Where and when can we see it?

The first ever tour of this production begins with a premiere at the Festival Theatre, Edinburgh from 14-16 April and runs at venues across Scotland and Cumbria until 30th July. There will also be a run at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in August 2011 which is part of the Made in Scotland showcase.

Thu 14 – Sat 16 Apr, Edinburgh Festival Theatre Studio.

Sat 23 Apr at Macrobert Arts Playhouse, Stirling.

Fri 29 & Sat 30 Apr at Tron Theatre, Glasgow.

Sun 8 May Howden Park, Livingston.

Fri 13 May The Kirkgate, Cockermouth.

Sat 14 May Brewery Arts, Kendall.

Wed 18 May Mull Theatre, Tobermory

Fri 20 May Carnegie Hall, Dunfermline

Wed 25 May Theatre Royal, Dumfries

Thu 26 May CatStrand, New Galloway

Fri 3 Jun Eden Court, Inverness

Sat 4 Jun Woodend Barn, Banchory

Fri 10 Jun Eastgate Theatre, Peebles

Sat 30 Jul Universal Hall, Findhorn

Full tour date listings and links to venue booking pages are on our Touring page.

Detail of set of Leaf by Niggle

Detail of set of Leaf by Niggle

Alasdai class=

Alasdair tests the bike stand

Photo credits Brian Hartley



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