The Head That Bears opens in less than a week, so we thought we'd give you a quick look Behind the Scenes at how the set, costumes, masks and puppets were made. Directors Chad Porter and Charli Corrigan have one of the largest production teams ever on a single show, and we really think they've done a fantastic job bringing Lewis Garvey's script to life!
If you haven't booked your tickets yet, go the the UEA ticket booking site and order them now. It'll be a great show, by many talented members of our company.
On first read of the script, there were many challenges ahead for Kyle Davies and Anissa Praquin. Set in the middle of a woodland glade, The Head That Bears asks that a large tree is placed centre stage. Of course, the set designers rose to the challenge!
The tree, described in the script as 'larger and older and deader than the others', became the focal point for the set, as it is so vital to the plot. That also means that it has lots of functions to fulfil: such as being able to support one of the puppets, with space for three puppeteers to continue operating it.
After the set box was finished over Christmas, the tree was the first build to start after the new year. The original plan was to build the whole thing from cardboard, but the set team soon realised that cardboard wasn't strong enough to hold a puppet. Edward Dyer and Rob Little came to the rescue with a scaffolding pole constructure, around which the chicken wire and papier maché was constructed.
Once the tree was finished and embellished with braches and fungus, Kyle and Anissa could start looking at the other set items that could appear in a woodland clearing. Small mushrooms were made from foam balls, flowers from tissue paper and branches from newspaper to match the ones on the tree. It was important that everything matched, like the large mushroom, so everything looked like it belonged in the woods.
That wasn't to say that some things weren't taken straight from the woods themselves. The tree stumps, that last appeared in Jerusalem, make a comeback in The Head That Bears. They join a couple of branches and leaves from the woodlands outside the Studio.
"The whole process was enlightening, fun... I really enjoyed it! It was the first time I was in a production team. I would do it again. I had a good time and everyone was really supportive."
"I sometimes thought I'd taken on more than I could chew, it was one challenge too far! But that only meant it was all the more rewarding when it was finished."
Chad and Charli came to Eleanor Morton-Smith on hearing she was itching to get back to the sowing machine. With a cast of 10 (as well as a small puppet girl) on the costume list, Eleanor quickly measured them up, bought a whole range of sheets and dyes and got to work.
Eleanor's journey began when she started etching out the patterns for each of the costumes, based against the measurements of the whole cast. Using bedsheets bought in bulk, she matched them against the patterns and created all of the skirts you'll see on stage. Many of the tops, such as the waistcoats were made from Jersey, a stetchy fabric that provides the wearing with greater movement and flexibility. Pip William's waistcoat is made out of two pillowcases, sewn together!
The colour scheme was quickly decided by the directors, from Lewis Garvey's autumnal setting. It meant that children, Golbus, Godwin and Pendrid, were given slightly darker colours to make them look out of place in the woodland clearing. All of the other characters, however, were all dressed in browns and oranges to show how they belong amongst the trees. Eleanor found that creating the embellishments, like the leaves and the frills, were the funnest parts of the costume to create.
Death, our unnatural presents in the clearing, was a particular challenge. The cloak was made from stretchy black fabric and measured out against the size of the rostra Ella Green (as Death) is sitting on. It was all very mathmatical, to try and figure out the dimentions of the chair, against the corners of the rostra, to create a strange pyramid of fabric. The fabric for Death's cloak was so large so Eleanor had to sit on the kicthen floor to stretch it all out - no one was allowed to cook while she was sewing.
“There were a lot of costumes, but it was fun to be able to experiment with it and see how it all fit in with the set during the get in weekend!”
Jenny Fennell, our manager of masks, was set the task of making a range of Commedia masks, ranging from the lowly Zanni to the bachelored Dottore. The masks, like everything else in the woods, have become covered in twigs, leaves and even slugs.
She began the process by searching online for each stock Commedia character, something she didn't know a whole lot about, and then started sketching out their shape and getting a feel of each mask's look. She tried to consider what kind of woodland materials could be incorporated into each one, and would fit with their character type. For example, Il Dottore masks often feature bushy eyebrows or moustaches and a big red nose, which brought to mind perhaps using mossy clumps for the facial hair, and a toadstool for the nose. Other designs are based more off personality, like Pantalone, the smarmy traitor of the script. So to reflect his corruption Jenny made the mask look as if bracket fungus was growing on its face.
The process of actually making the masks began with buying plain, white masks and cutting them down to size, then mapping out the basic features using newspaper. Each one was then papier mâchéd, and then covered in a layer of brown crepe paper to give the effect of bark. Other elements were made from foam, like the beetle. Some details were even sourced from the woodland floor itself, like the pinecones and pine needles. Each one was given a coat of paint, with varying shades.
She found that the making of the masks went quite smoothly, with the exception of accidentally dissolving part of the foam beetle whilst trying to varnish it with nail polish! Overall, she was very pleased with how the masks came out. Everyone in the cast and crew loves what she's created: a wonderful hybrid mix of commedia-inspired, forest-based masks.
"I enjoyed the challenges of designing and creating, and now I've seen the cast try them on, I'm really proud of the work I've done and think they are going to look great in the show!"
As manager of all things puppet, Edward Dyer spent hours on end working through the mechanims for the two puppets called for in The Head That Bears. Chad and Charli came to him following the creation of the various puppets for Lewis Garvey's last Minotaur production of The Librarians.
The bear head was the first puppet part to be finished. One of the biggest challenges for this puppet was the pivoting of the head. Usually, puppet heads sit on top of the spine, which is fastened through the neck. With the Bear Head, it rotates so the bear can stand on its back legs to become more intimidating. Created from an old sponge mop he found in the bins behind the Drama Studio, bike cables and old hinges, the bear head came to life. The last step was to fasten fabric into the joints so there weren't large gaps in the head, and then it was given a final lick of paint.
Next on the list were the two bear legs. These needed to be flexible enough to walk naturally, but also be strong enough to be used to attack. The first step was the create the mechanism from knex, which, after a trip to the hardware shop, resulted in a bungee cord spring system fasted in the elbow of the leg. Braced supports were attached to the main shaft and chicken wire was fastened onto the supports. After a lick of paint and a quick sewing of fabric, the legs were done.
Ermine's Head was probably the most difficult and complex puppet to make. The first step was creating the mechanism for the blinking eyes: which was made from bathroom light-switch cord, a metal coat hanger and some wall cable-fasteners. Next came the mouth, which worked very similar to the bear's. After that, chicken wire was applied (like all the other puppets) and then painted. The hair is made from a repurposed hessian sheet and thick wool, woven through the holes.
The first step with the body was to try and measure the proportions of a small, 9-year-old girl. Luckily, the internet provided a handy chart with all the measurements. Wood was cut against the measurements and fastened in place with rope (to give the joint maximum flexibility). Magnets were placed in her hands to give her the abilty to hold onto magnetic objects. The chicken wire body, like the bear legs, was attached to the supports within Ermine's chest. Once that had happened, all the measurements could be sent to Eleanor to begin dressing her appropriately.
"The puppets were such a step up from anything I've done before. It meant that every single technique I tried would lead to another problem. It was a great challenge to find a simple, effective way to make the movements easy to operate, but create a magical effect."