Monday, 11 November 2013

Puppets at the Circus

Louisa Birkin from Giffords Circus on 2013's collaboration with the VERVE team at Pitt Rivers Museum...

The title of the show was decided: ‘Lucky 13’. We had a theme and an inkling of a show. Superstition, gypsies, chaotic Eastern European music, puppetry, shadows, the clash between the west and the east were all ideas conjured up. It was cold and snow lay thick on the ground at our remote base in Gloucestershire, but Giffords Circus were thinking of the long hot days of summer and planning our 2013 tour.

Working closely with Nell Gifford, I began to explore these themes. Responsible for the art department, I was looking for design ideas to help tell the story and visual references to use. Nell had been exploring puppetry in the early days of the shows’ development, and in particular shadow puppetry, so this seemed an interesting avenue to explore. We visited Pitt Rivers Museum to see their collections of shadow puppets from the Far East, as well as London to the V&A Museum of Childhood. I loved the effect of the silhouettes, and the idea of these dark figures in motion, on a journey and telling some sort of story. 

It was in these first stages of planning that we were approached by Pitt Rivers to work together in collaboration to extend our audience bases. It was somewhat of a coincidence that we had indeed already looked to the Museum for inspiration, as at the time they were unaware of our puppet theme. So it seemed only natural to form this friendship and use puppetry as our tie. Over the summer, staff from the VERVE team at Pitt Rivers came out to several of our touring grounds and created a children’s workshop area for families to interact in between show times. This added a new dimension to our site and proved very successful. 

If you missed this summer's show you can get a taste of it in this short video: 

After our season was over, we were offered the opportunity to put on a Giffords Circus display in the Museum. Happy to showcase the prop-making and design aspects of the show, I worked on ideas to include our initial puppet research and demonstrate how it influenced ‘Lucky 13’ and its final design. I incorporated elements of the set design with part of our scenery backdrop, some unusual costumes from the show and humanette puppets that we made and which were used to great comic effect by several of the performers. 

As well as being an interesting case to look at, hopefully it will teach a little of the behind-the-scenes work of the circus and, with any luck, reach some new audience members for Giffords. And conversely I believe some of the trusted fans of the circus may now be enticed to visit Pitt Rivers.

"Puppets at the Circus" is free to view on the Lower Gallery until 17 November 2013.

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