Puppetry in Cornwall

The Magic Beanstalk

If you happen to be heading to The Eden Project during the summer holidays, be sure to catch Howard in The Magic Beanstalk: a witty and ecological re-telling of the "Jack in the Beanstalk" fairy tale, presented by Light Theatre (a Kneehigh Theatre associate) for audiences of all ages. The show starts on Saturday, 24 July, and runs through late August.

It's a beautifully designed show, with puppets made by the great Lyndie Wright of The Little Angel Theatre, London. Howard, who performs the role of Jack, is loving the whole experience of living and working at the Eden Project whilst collaborating with some of the country's best puppeteers.

The Eden Project


That's the way to do it: Punch & Judy

The Little Cabin by the Woods

At the back of our garden, up against the woods, is the two-room cabin where Howard has his office and a small theatre studio. My own studio is not far away, so I often hear a variety of sounds drifting over the hedge between us: it might be accordion or mandolin practice one moment, lines declaimed from Shakespeare the next...or the odd "swazzle" voice of the classic English puppet Mr. Punch: a sound which initially sent Tilly into fits of barking until she finally figured out that it was just Howard at work.

Looking for Mr Punch

Howard has loved Mr. Punch since his university days, when he wrote his thesis on the puppet's history -- so once he became a professional puppeteer he began work on his own Punch & Judy show. But then other theatre projects claimed his time, and the Punch puppets were all boxed away... until the morning I came downstairs to find them grinning at me from a chair.

Punch & Judy puppets

For much of that summer, Howard's studio was transformed into a puppetry workshop. There were carpentry tools, lumber, and swathes of red-and-white striped cloth crowding the practice room; tiny puppet clothes hang from our washing line; and more and more puppets staring at me when I walked through our livingroom.

Puppets on a wash line

Punch & Judy puppet heads

Judy, Mr. Punch and the Constable

I confess I was never a big fan of Punch & Judy or of slap-stick comedy in general before I met Howard -- whose life has been devoted to the European form of masked theatre known as Commedia dell'Arte, which is very slapstick, and very funny, and which won me over with its mix of ridiculous pratfalls and sly, wry intelligence. Howard helped me to see the mythic roots of such comedy in Trickster tales and Dionysian revels, in the sacred anarchy of traditional carnaval and rural folk pageantry. As I learn more and more about the roots of comedy from Howard, I find myself fascinated by lines of connection between the various forms of mask/puppet theatre and folk use of these arts in ritual form: in the Jack-in-Greens and Obby Osses of England, in the ceremonial clowns of North America's indigenous peoples, and in other folk rites and sacred traditions all across Europe and around the globe.

Punch & Judy woodcut prints  circa 1850

Punch & Judy by Percivall Arthur Wise

Mr PunchThe ritualized slapstick violence of Punch & Judy is problematic today, however, for we tend to "read" the story in a literal fashion, interpreting the action as domestic abuse, when it is best understood metaphorically, as the unleashing of childlike "naughtiness," mayhem, and gleeful anarchy. Mr. Punch is a Trickster figure: a manifestation of Trickster's sly delight in violating all social norms and constraints, brazenly knocking down every authority figure...which is precisely why children love him. The challenge for performers today is to craft a story that conveys this same archetypal spirit of contrariness and cheeky anarchy without tacitly condoning violence, domestic or otherwise, in the real world. Howard's re-telling of the Punch & Judy story treads this line carefully, without losing the glorious mayhem that gives children such delight. (See Emma Windsor's post on the subject on the Puppet Place News blog.)

That contrary old rascal Mr Punch

"It was in the early 1990s," Howard recalls, "while I was working at Norwich Puppet Theatre, that I began to carve my own Mr. Punch. Later, at the Little Angel Theatre in London, I carved several of the other characters found in classic Punch & Judy shows. I'm a puppet director and performer, not a maker, but the P&J characters are fairly simple and I wanted to try my hand at making them myself -- working in the Little Angel workshop under the Drawing from Punch Magazine  1854eye of master carver Lyndie Wright. I made Judy, Joey, the Baby, the Policeman, the Devil...but I never finished the full set. Other theatre work intervened, and Punch went into a storage box. Years later, when I moved to Devon, the box disappeared into a dark corner of the attic.

"Then, in the spring of 2016, I attended an excellent Punch & Judy workshop at the Little Angel, run by Professor Glynn Edwards (aided and abetted by Professor Clive Chandler) -- and when I came home, I searched the attic and rescued Punch from the dust and cobwebs. I'd dreamed of performing a Punch & Judy show for a long, long time, and now I was determined to do it -- but I had to work slowly, between other jobs, and the process spread over another two years: first finishing the puppets, then building the booth, and finally developing and practicing the show.

Building the Punch & Judy booth

The portable booth's collapsible frame

"I was lucky to have some expert help. My mother, a retired theatre costume designer, made all of the puppets' clothes, and covered the booth in traditional candy-striped fabric. The booth has to be light and portable, quick to assemble and disassemble, and her clever design of the booth's fabric cover allows for easy removal. I used a simple wooden frame for the stage, until our friend David Wyatt -- a multi-award-winning book illustrator -- stepped in. David generously designed and painted the glorious sign that crowns the booth today.

Howard & Jennifer Gayton

The booth in process (with Tilly's approval)

Punch & Judy sign by David Wyatt

"I then took my P&J booth on the road for trial performances in various public and private settings: learning the mechanics of the back-stage action, discovering all the ways that it could go wrong (in one show I swallowed the swazzle!), exploring each puppet's character and finding the rhythm and movement of the show.

Mr Punch & the Devil in Oxfordshire

"Highlights along the way included some wild off-grid performances with Hedgespoken Storytelling Theatre, birthday shows for Dark Crystal designer Brian Froud and fantasy novelist Delia Sherman, and two years' of performances at the Shambala Festival's Puppet Parlour. This summer I worked as the official Punch & Judy man for Teignmouth beach -- performing on a classic seafront pitch with Tony Liddington and his hilarious Flea Circus.

Punch & Judy, Teignmouth beach

Punch & the Baby, and the Flea Circus

PJ1

"I love contrary, naughty Mr. Punch, and the way he makes children scream with laughter, and plenty of adults as well. Despite all the entertainments on offer in our complex, fast-paced, digital world, these simple objects of cloth and wood, and a funny swazzle voice, can still create magic."

Punch & Judy  Southport Beach 1950

If you'd like to know more about the history of Punch & Judy, I recommend "That's the Way to Do It!" on the Victoria & Albert Museum website, curated to honor the show's 350th anniversary in 2012 -- a date based on the first known puppet play in England to contain a version of Mr. Punch, recorded by Samuel Pepys in 1662. He noted seeing it in Covent Garden, writes the V&A's curator,

"performed by the Italian puppet showman Pietro Gimonde from Bologna, otherwise known as Signor Bologna: 'Thence to see an Italian puppet play that is within the rayles there, which is very pretty, the best that ever I saw, and a great resort of gallants.'

Punch & Judy by Thomas Rowlandson (1756-1827)

"Bologna was one of many entertainers who came to England from the continent following the restoration of the monarchy in 1660. Unlike today’s Punch & Judy, performed with glove puppets in canvas booths with the audience outside, Bologna used marionettes -- puppets with rods to their heads and strings or wires to their limbs – and performed within a transportable wooden shed, and as such would have been quite a novelty. Pepys was so delighted by the show that he brought his wife to see it two weeks later, and in October 1662 Bologna was honoured with a royal command performance by Charles II at Whitehall, where a stage measuring 20ft by 18ft was set up for him in the Queen’s Guard Chamber. The king rewarded ‘Signor Bologna, alias Pollicinella’ with a gold chain and medal, a gift worth £25 then, or about £3,000 today. Other Italian puppeteers appeared in London, and on 10 November 1662 Pepys took his wife to see another show in a booth at Charing Cross performing: 'the Italian motion, much after the nature of what I showed her at Covent Garden.'

Punch & Judy by George Cruickshank (1792- 1878)

"Pepys usually referred to the shows as Polichinello, a name relating to Punch’s roots in the Italian Commedia dell’Arte, where masked actors improvised comic knockabout plays around a number of stock characters, and Polichinello was the subversive, thuggish character whose Italian name Pulcinella or Pulliciniello may have developed from the word pulcino, or chicken, referring to the character’s beak-like mask and squeaky voice.

Commedia puppets

A Punch & Judy voice swazzle"Punch’s characteristic voice comes from the use of a reed retained at the back of the Punchman’s (or Professor's) mouth, calling for expert alternation of reed use when Punch is talking to other characters. In Britain the reed is called a swazzle, and in France a sifflet-pratique. Its most common Italian name was pivetta, but also sometimes strega, or witch, and franceschina, after Franchescina, one of Punch’s wives in the Commedia dell’Arte who had a voice like a witch. Swazzles are made of thin metal today, but bone or ivory were formerly used, each equally tricky to master and easy to swallow.

"Mr. Punch made himself thoroughly at home in Britain during the 18th century. His wife was the shrewish Dame Joan who made his life a misery, and his hunched back and pot belly became more pronounced. The marionette Punch was the celebrity disrupting the action in puppet plays all around the country, in established puppet theatres and in fairground booths where puppets were a popular feature of all the great fairs and small country wakes throughout the century."

Marionette shows were expensive to operate, however, "and by the end of the 18th century glove puppet versions of the Punch show, performed in small portable booths became a familiar sight on city streets and country lanes instead."

Punch & Judy by Thomas Frederick Crane

"With Punch’s move from marionette stage to portable booth came new clothes and new companions. By 1825 we hear in Bernard Blackmantle’s The English Spy of his wife being called Judy instead of Joan: ‘old Punch with his Judy in amorous play,’ and of Punch’s having a Toby the dog, usually played by a real dog.

A role for Tilly, perhaps...?

Punch & Judy shows were not just for children in past centuries. As the V&A curator notes:

Aspects of the comedy such as the marital strife between Punch and Judy, and in Piccini’s show the relationship between Punch and his girlfriend Pretty Polly, obviously struck a chord with many adult members of the audience.  Punch was a well known celebrity with the satirical magazine named after him in London in 1841, children’s picture books published based on his shows, and images of him proliferating on all manner of household artefacts, from doorstops to baby’s rattles.

Punch & Judy

"As today, some censured the shows for Punch’s violent behaviour, but Punch & Judy found an ally in Charles Dickens, whose novels include several references to the shows. Dickens defended them as enjoyable fantasy that would not incite violence:

" 'In my opinion the Street Punch is one of those extravagant reliefs from the realities of life which would lose its hold upon the people if it were made moral and instructive.' "

Or as Mr. Punch himself would say, "That's the way to do it!"

Howard Gayton

For more information on Punch & Judy, visit the V&A's Punch & Judy pages, Punch & Judy Online, and the Punch & Judy Fellowship. For puppetry in general, see The Curious School of Pupptry (where Howard teaches), the Puppet Place News blog, Puppeteers UK, and The Centre for Research on Objects & Puppets in Performance.

The art above is credited in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the images to see them.) Some of my text comes from a previous post in the summer of 2016, when Howard began to put his Punch & Judy show together. All rights to the text quoted from the V&A website reserved by the V&A Museum, London, 2012.


Coming up this weekend:

Hedgespoken's The Singing Bone

Rima Staines & Tom Hirons are launching their summer show at Lowton Farm this weekend: The Singing Bone, a lovely piece of storytelling woven with music and puppetry. Soon after, Hedgespoken hits the road, carrying stories, art, and magic to festivals, communities, and off-grid performances spaces across the British Isles. We won't see much of them again until autumn, which is when they return to Lowton Farm to work on their first full-lenth theatre piece, The Hedgehog's Bride: devised by the Hedgespoken puppetry team, and directed by my husband Howard.

Beautiful Lowton Farm

Howard Gayton and Rima Staines at Lowton Farm

Tom Hirons at Lowton Farm

This weekend's event is also a celebration of the Hedgespoken dream, and of all who have supported it. Once upon a time this traveling folk theatre was just a gleam in Tom & Rima's eyes -- but after a successful crowd-funding campaign, followed by a lot of hard, hard work, this amazing couple have it all up and running as they'd planned, with several projects now coming to fruition.

The Hedsgespoken Truck

One of these projects is Tatterdemalion, a beautiful and deeply folkloric new book by Rima and Sylvia Linsteadt that has just been published by Unbound. The text, by Sylvia, was written in response to Rima's paintings, and the result is pure enchantment. Here's Sylvia explaining the project:

Below: Tilly gives our brand new copy of Tatterdemalion her seal of approval.

Tilly gives Tatterdemalion her seal of approval

If you're anywhere within striking distance of Devon, please come join us at the Hedgespoken show this weekend. (Tickets here.) I'll be there on Saturday, at the 3 pm show. Howard, as part of the Hedgespoken team, will be there on both Saturday and Sunday, debuting his new "Punch & Judy" puppet show as one of the side attractions.

Below: The wicked, incorrigible Mr. Punch making an impromptu appearance in the Hedgespoken doorway....

Mr. Punch makes an appearance in Hedgespoken's doorway

Rima watching Mr. Punch

Tom watching Mr Punch

Dame Judy confront the naughty Mr. Punch

Crow, that old trickster

  

Also, for any of you who live Totnes-way, Howard will be at the Totnes Party in the Town on Friday night, directing the performers who are part of Alice Oswald's poetry procession at 8 pm. (Look for the crows!)

  


Winter at Bumblehill

Into the woods

Well, creative projects have a way of taking longer than expected...or at least they do for me...so I'm still finishing the last bits of the Secret Something, which seem to be taking longer than all the rest of it combined. In the meantime, here are pictures of some of the other things going lately at Bumblehill....

After a long. sluggish stretch recovering from the flu that laid us low in December and part of January, Howard and I have both hit the ground running, trying to make up for lost time -- with Tilly, in her official capacity as Bumblehill Muse, cheering us on. The hound is always relieved when I'm out of bed, roaming the woods and hills with her again, which she considers an essential part of the creative process. And she's not wrong.

Frosty path

We've had a lot of frosty mornings this winter, but no proper snow again this year. Some days, mist rolls down from the moor...

Village in the mist

....and other days are bright and clear, lulling us with the hope (probably illusory) that spring is near.

Winter sky

On the best days, when the sun comes out, it's almost warm enough to work outside-- and after weeks house-bound with flu, it's worth chilly toes and fingers to be back among the trees.

Woods

Working in the woods

Working in the woods 2

The hills, staturated with rain, look like a watercolor painting before it dries -- the colors bright yet delicately rendered, slightly blurred together. Water pools among the bracken, swells the streams, and turns pathways to mud. I have new wellies (William Morris wellies!), so my feet are warm and dry, but Tilly comes home bedraggled and then sits and grooms herself like a cat.

Winter hills

Boggy ground

Winter rains

William Morris wellies

In the studio, Tilly naps as I quietly tap-tap-tap at the computer keys...

Napping Tilly

...but just beyond the hedge, in Howard's studio, there is a bustle of activity.

Puppets

Commedia dell'Arte mask

Howard and his partner (playright Peter Oswald) are launching a new company, Columbina Theatre, devoted to mask and verse drama. Their first piece, Egil, based on an old Icelandic saga, has already begun to tour -- and now they're at work on the second: a Commedia dell'Arte inspired romp called Sorry About the Poetry.

Costumes hanging on the wall in the two-room cabin that is Howard's office and theatre studio

Looking out the door of Howard's theatre studio

Jenny, my mother-in-law, pops by to do costume fittings (she's a theatrical costume designer by profession)...

Jenny Gayton adjusts Howard's costume

...and then the space is turned into a photo set to shoot publicity images for the shows.

P1360855

P1370044 copy

With the launch of the new company, plus Howard's on-going work with Hedgespoken Travelling Theatre, and teaching gigs, it's been a very busy winter (despite the flu) -- yet he's still pushing on with his solo project: the creation of a Punch & Judy show. Last summer I posted pictures when he began work on the puppet booth's frame: a complicated business, for the booth must be sturdy but also collapsible, and light to carry. Now the frame is built...

Tilly, Howard, and Mr Punch

...the mechanics of it are working. The booth will be easy to put up and take down again.

Tilly & Mr. Punch

The next step is to cover the frame with the traditional fabric of red-and-white candy stripes. This is where having a theatre seamstress in the family is invaluable, once again. Jenny sources the fabric, then comes over to drape and measure with Howard, working out the best way to constuct the tenting and attach it to the frame. In the photo below, we begin to see what the booth will look like when the striped covering is finished.

PJ4

As all this goes on, I'm beavering away on my secret project (trying not to get distracted by the goings-on next door). I do apologize for the time it's taking, and very much hope you'll find it worth the wait!

Mr. Punch


The end of summer, diving into "deep work," and Widdershins collage #1

Studio garden

Howard and I are developing the practice of taking regular Work Retreats: a few days in every month in which we hole ourselves up in our respective studios, the Internet switched off and the phone disengaged, in order to focus with greater attention than is possible during ordinary interrupted working days. Today is a holiday here in Britain, but starting tomorrow, and for the rest of the week, I'll be incommunicado in my quiet studio. Then I'll be back online again on Monday, September 5th.

Studio garden

Book & Burne-Jones coffee mug

Late summer morning

I'm working on a writing project right now, while Howard has several things on his plate, from Commedia to puppetry. Come step through the gap in the garden hedge that leads from my studio cabin to his....

The path from studio to studio

...where you'll find him at work (in the picture below) building the frame for a Punch & Judy booth.

Howard Gayton

Each day, a wide range of sounds floats over the hedge from his busy workspace to mine: sawing, singing, accordion or mandolin practice, the laughter of theatre collaborators. the distinctive raspy voice of Mr. Punch...

Punch & Judy puppets

The hound

Commedia puppets

...a steady murmur of creativity that is close enough to feel companionable, yet distant enough to preserve the peacefulness I crave as I write or paint.

Garden path

Meanwhile, the Widdershins exhibition at Green Hill has ended -- and I do remember that I promised to share my art for it here once the show had closed its doors. Below is the first of my six Widdershins collages. I've set up the other five for automatic posting each morning of the week ahead while I'm on Retreat, one per day.

This one is called Once Upon a Time....

Once Upon a Time by Terri Windling

Here it is framed in my studio before the exhibition, and on the wall at Green Hill with the other five pieces in the series:

Collages by Terri Windling

Alan Lee, and collages by Terri Windling

I hope the end of your summer is gentle, peaceful, and full of creativity. See you in a week.

Ripe plums

Studio garden

"Sometimes I need only to stand wherever I am to be blessed."  - Mary Oliver

Tilly, August 2016