Category Archives: Workshops

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

5 Post-Cards from Down Under All in a Wonderful Oner -

Auckland Arts Festival

We performed in not one but two lovely venues, the Glen Eden Playhouse for our schools shows then at the Town Hall Concert Chamber for public performances at the weekend, including an extra show added on due to popular demand.

The Auckland Arts Festival was resplendent with pink posters, fluttering poetry flags and abuzz with memorable acts. We saw some great performances – notably I ♥ Alice ♥ I and Cantina – although our dates and times meant we couldn’t see the other Scottish-based theatre shows Pondlife McGurk and The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart.

There are reviews from Auckland and beyond here. And we received some lovely feedback from the Auckland Steiner School and Glen Eden Primary.

A captivating likeness of Dog

A captivating likeness of Dog

Glen Eden letter

A play inside of a play

Capital E Festival, Wellington

An uncanny thing happened when we arrived in Wellington and were welcomed by Derek Simpson who drove us to our accommodation. Elspeth asked if he could turn the radio on just in case we heard the interview that Richard had done via Skype for Radio New Zealand. The very instant that he did so, we heard the presenter Lynn Freeman saying: “I spoke to Richard Medrington of Scotland’s Puppet State Theatre Company.” Here is that whole segment in which Lynn and Richard discuss where puppetry is at today.

Wellington is a beautiful city and the Capital E Festival makes great use of its many downtown, walkable arts venues to provide young people with a smorgasbordic moveable feast of live performances. We treated ourselves to as many other shows as we could – in particular the delightful Duck, Death and The Tulip – and also took advantage of the England-New Zealand test match at Basin Reserve and went to see Rodriguez, the songwriting legend and star of Oscar-winning documentary Searching for Sugar Man.

Wellington's Basin Reserve

Wellington’s Basin Reserve

Thanks to Derek and the whole festival team as well as Rick’s renowned clown friend Fraser Hooper for his ticky-tour to Scorching Bay and Wellington’s resident whale expert and magician Anton Van Helden for his dumbfoundingly dazzling card tricks.


Castlemaine State Festival

How appropriate that John, our welcoming driver to bring us to the historic gold-mining town of Castlemaine for our French-smelling theatre show, has also been a guide on Aroma Tours specialising in the most aromatic sites of Provence.

And how lucky we were to be hosted by some of the town’s friendliest arts-loving folk. Rick was hosted by Lynne while two doors down Elspeth and Richard were chez Ken and Lynda Pollock who are wine growers. Their Blackjack winery has a deservedly splendid reputation for their wonderful hearty shiraz. The harvest began the week we were there and we had a fascinating peep into the hard work of the plunging process.

Rick plunging the new vintage

Rick plunging the new vintage

Our shows at the packed-out Phee Broadway Theatre went down amazingly well but perhaps our highlight of the week was giving an extra show at Ellery House the local hospice for an audience whose average age was in the late eighties. With hair as white as Old Elzeard’s and eyes as twinkly as Dog’s they were a really beautiful audience.

Elzéard at Ellery House

Elzéard at Ellery House

We had a lovely time reconnecting with puppetry friends Eliza-Jane Gilchrist and Mark Pencak who used to live in Edinburgh and now are Castlemaine locals – or ‘blow-ins’ as you’re called if you’ve only lived here a generation or so. Their compact and bijou show Transplant was so captivating, transporting, intricate and funny. Thanks to Martin, Matt, Iggy, Coll, Callum, John and everyone who helped make for a really memorable week.

Sydney Opera House

If ever there’s a time when we have pinched ourselves in disbelief at our good luck, this was it. (And the two weeks in 2010 when we were here as well, but too swept away to blog about it.) Going to work in the morning and walking towards this iconic building was a real privilege. Even the people who work there the whole time think so!

Sydney Opera House from the Botanic Gardens

Sydney Opera House from the Botanic Gardens

One bonus feature of our run was taking part in the Sydney Opera House’s first live stream of a performance to multiple remote audiences. In addition to the audiences in the Studio Theatre, 500 pupils in 16 classrooms across New South Wales were able to watch the live stream and many of them also experienced the multi-sensory elements. Our ingenious puppet maker Ailie Cohen shared simplified design ideas for schools so children could make their own tree-shaped fans, flying birds and customised ‘weather system’ plant sprays. The live streamed shows came off with barely a hitch and we even managed to extend the post-show question and answer session to the remote audience too. We felt very honoured that our show was chosen to reach digitally beyond the sail-like walls of the Opera House.

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Mike switching between feeds from the cameras

Some of our other performances had enhanced access by being audio-described for audience members with visual impairment and we enjoyed introducing the puppets to people in the pre-show touch tours.

In Sydney, we relished the opportunity, as we did back in Montreal last year, to connect with Agnes Durbet and Pauline Ramsey, the granddaughter and great granddaughter of Jean Giono.

And although we didn’t like to mention it at the time, now that the UK seems to be edging out of winter, perhaps it’s safe to admit that we had a little time off on Sydney’s Northern Beaches back in March – Australia’s late summer.

Arts Centre Melbourne

In 2010 we also performed here but it was called Melbourne Arts Centre back then and our performance space was smaller, squarer and darker than the wide, curved pink embrace that is the Fairfax Studio. Our public shows this time have been part of the Melbourne International Comedy Festival. One review even gave The Man Who Planted Trees “five stars for side-splitting comedy as a highlight of the MICF.” Chief among our own Comedy Festival highlights are the constellation of shining stars who form The Chipolatas.

We had a very fitting partnership with Tree Project who handed out native seeds to our audiences – ones chosen to germinate well at this time of year and suitable for planting in gardens or contributing to the organisations wider land regeneration initiatives.

Arts Centre Melbourne spire at dawn

Arts Centre Melbourne spire at dawn

For many students, our education shows have been subsidised the First Call Fund while the experience in the theatre is enhanced by these excellent teacher resources. Several schools are also benefitting from interactive video editing workshops at the Digital Learning Hub as part of Arts Centre Melbourne’s ‘Sustainable Visions Digital Project’. At these sessions, students create a short video that illustrates their response to a discussion question such as: ‘What would the world be like without trees?’ or ‘What would the world be like if animals could talk?’

After performing this show for almost seven years, it has been really encouraging to see the innovative ways that people continue to respond to the stimulus of Jean Giono’s enriching story.

Here is a particularly heart-warming piece of feedback we received during the tour via our facebook page:

Just wanted to say thank you for The Man Who Planted Trees. I was in the audience (full of school kids!) on Wednesday morning, and I am still thinking about your beautiful show.

It has inspired me to think about my life’s purpose, as I see those trees as the metaphor for the legacy we all leave behind. I want to encourage young people to engage with their imaginations, that is my forest! And one person (little by little) can make a difference.

Thank you for telling such an important story with integrity, tenderness and hilarity. It highlighted for me a simple truth in life: from little things, big things grow. X Sarah N Dippity

So, that’s 52 performances over 7 weeks to 10,500 people. We’d like to say a very big thank you to ALL the lovely, talented and inspiring people we’ve met right across New Zealand and Australia for a truly memorable trip!

Richard watering a tree with used prop fountain water

Richard watering a tree with used prop fountain water

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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