From Stage to Page

 

 

 

This short film was made as the Introduction to the Design for Today book launch of Simon Armitage’s Hansel & Gretel: a Nightmare in Eight Scenes at the splendid Artworkers’ Guild in Bloomsbury on the evening of May 22nd, 2019. The film illustrates the journey of the project from stage production to published edition of the poem that was its libretto.

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Live music for the launch event was provided by the splendid Alex Barrow on the accordion. There was a pop-up exhibition assembled by Joe and me of the mid-century Russian illustrated books, tinplate clockwork birds, model theatres and folk-art-inspired toys that had influenced the illustrations and design of the book. The highlight of the evening was Simon Armitage’s reading of his entire poem, proving yet again that he’s a mesmerising presence when presenting his work. It was a ticketed event that quickly sold out, and was a resounding success.

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Above: the Russian clockwork ‘singing’ bird from the stage production, meets her illustrated counterpart in the finished book.

Below: the transition from stage to page.

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 Hansel & Gretel: a Nightmare in Eight Scenes by Simon Armitage is published by Design for Today, and copies may be purchased

HERE

 

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Acknowledgements

My regular collaborator, Pete Telfer, worked with me on all the film and animation footage seen in last year’s stage production of Hansel & Gretel: a Nightmare in Eight Scenes. The clips in the short film to promote the book are courtesy of his Culture Colony archive, and he was cameraman on the new animation that makes up the last third of the film.

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I couldn’t have made the stage production of Hansel & Gretel without Pete. He’s the facilitator who gives me the freedom to experiment with film and animation, while keeping a gentle eye on things to stop me from making a complete and utter hash of the job.

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My thanks to Simon Armitage, who wrote the words that became the libretto to the stage production. Thereafter he suggested we make a dedicated illustrated edition of the poem, and then gave me the freedom to figure out the best way to do it.

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Working closely with Simon, first at Faber and then at Design for Today, on two texts so close to my heart, has been the most wonderful experience. I wish I could find better words to express what it’s meant to me, but I hope he knows.

Joe Pearson at Design for Today unhesitatingly agreed to work with Simon and me. His deep knowledge of twentieth century book design and his enthusiasm and passion for the project, saw it through the many stages to the perfect conclusion. He was unstoppable, even in the face of the 2018 New Year’s Eve fire that consumed the Design for Today warehouse and destroyed his entire stock of books. The man is a giant!

My thanks to Laurence Beck, our brilliant designer. Between Joe and Laurence, nothing was overlooked. I have never seen any book go through so many stages to bring it to perfection. No tweak or adjustment I requested was too much trouble. They were inspiring. Meticulous. Tireless.

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Print-maker and toy theatre seller, Benjamin Pollock has been an inspiration throughout my life, and my work over the past few years with Louise Heard at Benjamin Pollock’s Toyshop underlies much of what appeared in both the stage production and the book. My thanks to Louise and her team for their unflagging enthusiasm and support for what I make. Louise kindly gave permission for an image of the Hansel & Gretel Toy Theatre I’d designed for Benjamin Pollock’s Toyshop, to be used in the stage production, and further permission to adapt the Pollock’s H & G Toy Theatre for the ‘Intermission’ page in the book.

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Before Hansel & Gretel Dan Bugg and I had a three year collaboration making the fourteen-print Penfold Press Sir Gawain and the Green Knight series that was used in the 2018 Faber & Faber illustrated edition of Simon Armitage’s translation of the poem. It was a given we wanted to work together again in some way on  Hansel & Gretel, so Joe Pearson commissioned Dan to produce the two ‘Lebkuchen’ prints that accompany the ‘special edition’ of the book. Dan and I also produced the Penfold Press ‘Gingerbread House’ enamel-pin that celebrates the book’s publication.

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Special thanks to my trusty band of collaborators on last year’s stage production. Puppet-maker Jan Zalud far exceeded my hopes for what Hansel and Gretel might be, and Oonagh Creighton-Griffiths gave the children the tenderest backstories encoded into her beautifully detailed costumes for them.

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Peter Lloyd created magnificently detailed shadow-puppets that were a joy to animate.

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Phil Cooper was associate designer and my second-in-command in terms of the way the production looked.

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I completely trust his eyes and his artistry. He danced effortlessly between his many tasks, creating the ‘building-block’ models seen onstage, painting the filmed backdrops (see above), and designing and ‘baking’ the mad, wonky, witchy ‘Lebkuchen’ biscuits that we later animated in a ‘tribute’ to Hollywood choreographer, Busby Berkeley!

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It was Phil’s bone-white ‘Witch House’, with its incinerator-like chimney, that visually defined the ‘toy building-blocks’ aesthetic I wanted for the stage production, and thereafter his Lebkuchen ‘Gingerbread’ version that I carried forward into my illustrations for the book.

Below: production designer Phil Cooper, puppet costume supervisor Oonagh Creighton-Griffiths, and lead puppeteer for the audition day, Diane Ford.

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As if all that weren’t enough, Phil also assisted me with the animation sequences.

I am indebted to artist/embroideress Chloe Redfern, who later took Phil’s ‘Lebkuchen’ House, and re-booted it into something beautiful and transformative for the conclusion of the book.

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Above, Chloe’s embroidered Lebkuchen Witch House, and below, my translation of it to an illustration.

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I’m particularly indebted to Jonathan Street of the Moth Factory, Bristol, who kept me grounded and focussed during an insanely difficult three-day marathon of film editing. His thoughtful work on Pete Telfer’s gloriously atmospheric ‘Psycho Witch Doll’s House’ footage, was a triumph. Jon was vision-mixer for the tour, and was cameraman of the live footage streamed to a projection screen above the performers.

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My warmest thanks to puppeteers Diana Ford and Lizzie Wort. They were not only massively contributive creative geniuses on the production, following me fearlessly into sometimes choppy waters, but they are also damned fine people to be around. The three of us work hard but laugh a lot! In the photographs below you see them at the Cheltenham Music Festival for the May 2018 premiere of Hansel & Gretel: a Nightmare in Eight Scenes, and then at the May 2019 London launch of the Design for Today illustrated edition of the book. They topped and tailed the stage-production-to-book journey, and I couldn’t have had better company on the adventure

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Jan, Oonagh, Peter, Phil, Jonathan, Diana, Lizzie and later Chloe, whether they knew it or not, helped light the path for me from stage production to book. Their visual creativity was always present while I worked alone in my studio conjuring images out of Simon’s words. I’m the book’s named illustrator, but their influences are scattered like fireflies throughout its pages.

My love and gratitude in equal measure to my manager in all theatre matters, Susan James. We’ve known each other since we were teenagers, and I count myself fortunate to have had her wisdom and patience to guide and steady me. Hers are the eyes in the back of my head. She’s fearless, riding shotgun and being wing-man, seeing the bigger picture and the smallest details, talking me down whenever the frustrations of getting a production to the finishing-line catapult me into stratospheres of frustration. I doff my cap and bend my knee to her. She is ‘The Guv’nor’!

And finally, my love and thanks to Peter Wakelin, for his unstinting support throughout the long and occasionally rocky Hansel & Gretel journey, and to my friends James and Sarah Joseph. (They know why.)

 

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Pinocchio’s Progeny

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The past twelvemonth has been a time of far too many losses, with loved ones of long-standing fading and falling away. While it’s the time in my life when such things must be expected, 2018 has nevertheless been particularly brutal, and I’ve hated witnessing the cull in my circle.

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Odd therefore that these two little creatures are playing so much on my mind. Perhaps it’s because of the strange alchemy of puppetry that wood, fashioned by a master and in the hands of the most incredible interpreters, can so astonishingly conjure animate life, tugging at our heartstrings and becoming so plausibly, heartrendingly real, that when I saw them being packed away by our producer at the end of the tour, with the hollow sense that I would not see them or hold them again (don’t ask), they somehow became the focus of all the losses of the year.

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I miss them so much, and I wonder how such a thing can be. I suppose it’s because they are, after all, Pinocchio’s progeny, wood transformed into flesh and bone, and sap into blood. In order to believe in them, we make the puppets real, and I, who was one of their creators, find myself grieving over their absence from my life, more than I am comfortable with. That is both the miracle of making life out of nothing, and the curse.

 

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Above: poet/librettist Simon Armitage, meets Gretel for the first time.

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My heartfelt thanks to Jan Zalud (puppet-maker), Di Ford and Lizzie Wort (puppeteers) and Oonagh Creighton-Griffiths (puppet costumier), who shared in equal parts with me the creation of the puppets of Hansel and Gretel.

Hansel & Gretel at Barbican

 

After a beautifully projected and nuanced performance of Hansel & Gretel at the Jack Lyons Concert Hall in York last week, the company move on to the exciting event of the London Premiere at Barbican tomorrow evening. (October12th)

The Milton Court Concert Hall, Barbican, is the largest of the tour venues, and it’s there that the performance is to be recorded by BBC Radio 3 for later broadcast. This new version of Hansel & Gretel, with a libretto by Simon Armitage and composed by Matthew Kaner, has been two years in the planning and making, and tomorrow many of the creatives who brought it to life will be present in the audience to celebrate the achievement. Congratulations to all, but particularly to Producer Kate Romano, who under the umbrella of her Goldfield Productions made it all happen.

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Above: Lizzie Wort and Di Ford, our incomparable puppeteers on the production. The puppet maker was Jan Zalud with puppet wardrobe created by Oonagh Creighton Griffiths.

 

4 * Review for Hansel & Gretel from Rian Evans in The Guardian

Parabola Arts Centre, Cheltenham


In this striking modern update, set to words by Simon Armitage and music by Matthew Kaner, the children are refugees and the fairytale is a nightmare

Pulling all the strings … Hansel & Gretel.
Pulling all the strings … Hansel & Gretel with Diana Ford and Lizzie Wort. Photograph: Spencer McPherson/Still Moving Media

Not a sugary dream, but a nightmare in eight scenes: make no bones about poet Simon Armitage’s contemporary retelling of the tale most familiar in the Brothers Grimm version. Hansel and Gretel’s plight becomes that of child refugees, whose parents’ agonising decision is to abandon their offspring to give them their only chance of surviving war. Armitage took his cue from the darkly imaginative illustrations by artist Clive Hicks-Jenkins, who has now translated those original visions into a puppet show with new music by Matthew Kaner. In this premiere performance at the Cheltenham Festival, staged by Goldfield Productions, what appeared at first to be a slight, small-scale affair in the end resonated altogether more deeply.

Kaner’s quintet of players – strings, wind and toy pianos – were arranged on either side of a screen whose animated shadow play featured first the parents and then the ravenous craw of the archaeopteryx-like witch. On the central trestle table were Hansel and Gretel, wooden puppets barely a foot high that were manipulated by Diana Ford and Lizzie Wort. It was the intimacy of tiny gestures offering expressive detail, in turn mirroring Kaner’s musical mood, that spoke volumes. Armitage’s words are the constantly shining white pebbles guiding the piece; his final verbal riff on light and dark will be even better savoured on the published page. Narrator Adey Grummet – twice bursting into sung lines – emphasised the mix of humour and satire with the moments of dystopian horror, making this an all too timely reminder of some children’s living, waking, starving nightmare.

 

Rian Evans

Touring until 4 November.

 

 

puppeteer auditions: part 1

Above left to right: Cadi Lane, Ruby Spencer, Camilla Clarke, Diana Ford and Lizzie French try out the front legs of a Mari Lwyd.

Today was spent auditioning a spectacularly talented group of students from the puppet design course at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama. James Slater, Ann Prior and I had a wonderful time working with them, and we owe a great debt of gratitude to tutor Tina Reeves for having shortlisted the students and arranged for us to work with them.

Above: Tina Reeves (centre) organised the audition. Diana Ford and Camilla Clarke watch from the floor.

Alas we can invite only one to join us, and it was greatly to their credit that Cadi, Ruby, Camilla and Lizzie, who are all students in their second year, were clearly delighted to see graduate Diana Ford offered the opportunity to join the Mare’s Tale team.

Above: Head Puppeteer on The Mare’s Tale, Ann Prior (right) working with graduate Diana Ford.

In fact so impressed were we, that James and I have determined to approach Tina to see whether the girls might be invited to work on another project we have in development for Mid Wales Chamber Orchestra, because we really don’t want to miss out on working with any of that talent.

Above: click to see the video of Diana Ford and Camilla Clarke get to grips with a Mari Lwyd puppet at the Royal Welsh College College of Music and Drama in Cardiff.

Above: click to see the video of the second Mari Lwyd puppet put through its paces by Diana and LIzzie.

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Above: James Slater of Mid Wales Chamber Orchestra and I watch while Head Puppeteer to the production, Ann Prior, works with Cadi Lane.

Above: the designer explains.

Especial thanks to my friend Anita Mills from N Carolina, who’s staying with us this week and kindly took all the photographs and made the videos.