Monday 31 May 2010

Joseph Grimaldi (18 Dec 1778 – 31 May 1837)

As it is Hay Festival week I thought I'd take five minutes to write about what I'm reading at the moment; 'The Pantomime Life of Joseph Grimaldi' by Andrew McConnell Stott. What I realised, when looking for the date of Grimaldi's death for this post, is that by pure coincidence today, May 31st, is the 173rd Anniversary of his death. Grimaldi is buried in London and his grave can still be seen in Grimaldi Park, Islington.
I'm not going to do a full review of Stott's book here, there are plenty online if you wish, but I will agree with all those that I have read and say that the style in which it has been written is far more than a biography, it is more like a 'journey' through the theatrical scene of London at the turn of the 19th Century. Stott has the enviable ability to write in such a way that you get all the facts and dates required for a biography, but at the same time he is able to paint a picture of the theatre scene that makes you wish you were there to actually see it, while at the same time thanking god that you weren't! He describes in detail the characters of the day visually depicting them, warts and all (in many cases literally!) and in doing so creates his own performance where you begin rooting for 'Joey' and wanting to 'boo and hiss' the less than trustworthy managers and owners of the most popular theatres of the day; Sadlers, Drury Lane and Covent Garden. Every so often Stott digresses slightly to tell another tale of London life and gives us in insight and mental picture that is so vivid you could, with little imagination, imagine you were there.
Joseph Grimaldi himself is quite a pitiful character at times, despite being the saviour of many London theatres (he regularly drew huge audiences) and to that degree doing quite well for himself, he was plagued by misfortune and injuries following the demands he would put on his body each night and a string of personal tragedies - his Italian father (also a clown) severely beat him and his brother, his first wife died in childbirth (along with his first child) his second child died in suspicious circumstances at the age of 30, following this he and his second wife draw up an unsuccessful suicide pact. Stott heavily relies on this melancholy personal life as the muse for his success as a clown, he theorises that he created the 'Sad comedian', a theme that has continued with current comedians; the idea that humour is derived through the battle with their own demons.
Joseph Grimaldi reinvented the clown, he was the first to use white-face make up and wear outrageous over sized and colourful clothes He was the first in a new culture of celebrityism that, until his day, had been reserved for only the Royals and the honoured few, An example of this is that his memoirs were published and edited by "Boz", a young Charles Dickens. Grimaldi is still remembered each year with a Church service in London attended by many clowns of the day.
Stott illustrates his life vividly and gives us a true insight into everything that was happening at the time, his ability to picture and then put into words the atmosphere of London is a credit to both his imagination and style of writing and the meticulous research he has clearly undertaken.
As someone who is fascinated with circus and the theatre of the 18th and 19th century I would quite clearly recommend this book, but I would recommend it not just to those with an interest in these areas but anyone wishing to gain an insight into the culture of London and the life of some colourful characters who lived there.
RIP Joseph Grimaldi (18 Dec 1778 - 31 May 1837)

Sunday 30 May 2010

Quentin Blake at the Hay Festival 2010

There is no question that Quentin Blake is a prolific illustrator, his work can now be seen virtually everywhere not just in books but on mugs, bags, greetings cards, wrapping paper, hospital murals and now even the sides of  buses! However despite him being one of Britain's most prolific illustrators, and certainly the most recognised and respected, the quality and charm of his work remains in each and every one of his drawings. That effortless sketch like quality his illustrations have is a style that is often copied but has yet never been matched.
We have met Quentin a few times and he is the most pleasant modest person you could ever wish to meet, quintessentially British, just like his illustrations, he is without doubt a national treasure. We had the good fortune to see him again yesterday at the Hay Festival (for which he designed many of their logo's see above). 
He gave a short talk about his work in front of hundreds but the highlight of the event was that Quentin just basically sat and chatted while he drew selections of the characters he has drawn throughout the years, (shown on screen via a camera above his drawing board) at times taking requests from the audience. Below is his replicating one of the first character designs for the BFG.
His wonderful 'free' style of drawing was demonstrated quite naturally as he moved from calligraphy pen, to dip pen, to quill and finally with a brush - at one point demonstrating the ability to create smoke (that was drifting from a hot pan of George's marvellous medicine) by scribbling with a watercolour pencil and then dipping his finger in water to smudge the pencil lines into clouds of bellowing steam. 
It was a delight to watch a true master at work and a real gentleman who quite clearly loves what he is doing; "I draw each and every day" - long may he continue!

To see more of Quentin's work go to his website; and choose the "Fossicking" link where you can look through some of his archived illustrations.

Wednesday 26 May 2010

War Horse - Casting in New York

A fantastic opportunity for any puppeteers I thought I should pass this on, good luck to anyone who goes for it! (we managed to see it in April and it is just terrific)

*Lincoln Center Theater is SEEKING PUPPETEERS for its upcoming production of WAR HORSE*, which it will produce at the Vivian Beaumont Theater in New York with The National Theatre of Great Britain, whose critically acclaimed production has been running in London to great success.

The puppets and puppetry in War Horse are created by the Handspring Puppet Company of South Africa. The puppets, which are hand made from wood, cane and aluminum, require strong, versatile performers with an open mind. Handspring's mechanisms have been developed over 25 years of puppet design, drawing on traditional African, Japanese and German mechanisms, and puppeteers will* not* be expected to have specific experience with these puppets. The puppets are substantial and are operated by three performers thinking, breathing and improvising together; the aesthetic of the puppet performance is one of understatement and observation of genuine animal behaviour. The puppeteers will need to be good actors and versatile stage performers with experience of working in an ensemble and with adult audiences. They will have to be dedicated puppeteers with an emphasis on subtlety and fine detail. A high level of physical fitness, endurance and strength is essential for these roles.

Please send picture and resume and/or bio. In addition to your professional experience, please make sure to list/describe all training. Also, please note your height, note if you speak any French or German (this is* not* a requirement, but useful information) and if you have any proficiency with specific musical instruments (again,* not* a requirement).

Information should be sent to:

*War Horse Casting*
*Lincoln Center Theater*
*150 W. 65th Street*
*New York, NY 10023*

Or emailed to:

War Horse is based on a novel by Michael Morpurgo, Adapted by Nick Stafford Directed by Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris

Performers are employed under an Actors Equity Association LORT A+ contract.

Rehearsals: 1/20/2011 (approx)
Previews: 3/17/2011
Opens: 4/14/2011

Google Pac Man Doodle causes a stir

Seems like a cool tribute, and a bit of harmless fun, has given Google some negative publicity from statisticians with nothing better to do then calculate worthless estimations. They have theorised that Google's tribute to 30 years of Pac Man has caused the world $120 million in lost productivity, as workers play rather than work.

Even if this was the case, the novelty will soon wear off, but think how much additional productivity Google  create every day by shortening times to find customer details, acquire specific data, locate a map etc etc and not least of all employ illustrators to create some of the coolest logo illustrations seen in many years - all of which can be seen on this great site;

And if you haven't played Google Pac Man yet click here ....just try not to do it at work!

Sunday 16 May 2010

Jim Henson - 20 years ago today

20 years ago today (May 16th) Jim Henson died. His death at the age of 53 shocked the world, a realisation that we had lost one of the great creators the world had ever seen. Not only had he done so much for puppetry, television and film but everyone wondered just how much he had left to give. Given today's technology and the developments towards 3D that Jim had already developed (think of Waldo in the Muppets 3D movie at Disney World filmed 21 years ago) we can barley imagine what we would have seen from him with so much available to his imagination.

I met Jim in 1986, when I was 7, I interviewed him and Kermit on Breakfast TV here in the UK. He was a tremendously generous man, not just in the gifts he gave but more importantly in his time that he would give up to you. We spoke several times since meeting and the last letter I received from him was just a couple of months before he died. He wrote to me telling me not worry about the deal with Disney (which was happening at the time) and that it would be good for The Muppet's - listing the various projects that were on the go and planned for the future. I had written concerned about the deal and that the Muppet's would disappear amongst the huge Disney base of characters. Although the deal did end quite abruptly after Jim Henson's death in 1990, Disney did eventually acquire the Muppet's a few years ago.

My own interest in puppetry, animation and illustration is all down to the influences Jim Henson and the Muppet's made upon me when I was young. The meeting and correspondence with him in the late 1980's gave me a link to a genius which I feel completely blessed to have had. Thank you Jim.

Wednesday 5 May 2010

The National Puppetry Archive

Puppetry in Great Britain has a rich and diverse history. From the Victorian marionette showmen with their elaborate travelling theatres and trick marionettes to the Punch and Judy professors in their booths on the sea front, each have played their own part in not just our puppet history, but our social history as well.

Items relating to puppets and puppet theatre are varied and reside in public and private collections throughout the UK and abroad. It is the aim of the National Puppetry Archive to bring these collections together, not physically, but virtually; linking our own digitised collection with other museum databases around the country. We also actively encourage those with private collections to share their items and the history behind them within our site.
The National Puppetry Archive and its collection is administered by The British Puppet and Model Theatre Guild, the oldest puppetry organisation in the world and co-curated by myself, Michael Dixon, and Ray DaSilva. The Guild’s own collection is currently being digitised and added to the database, forming the basis of the online archive.

I have been able to create a base for the archive that allows us to not only store the collections of both the Guild and the Puppet Centre but also offer a research centre with a library, archive, video collection and a selection of puppets on display.

We are now beginning the long and slow process of organising and arranging the items into relevant accessible files. The hope is to also begin scanning each item that can be catalogued and uploaded to the archives site;

Monday 3 May 2010

Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland

Just got back from seeing Tim Burton's version of Alice in Wonderland. It really is a feast for the eyes, obviously Burton is known for his dark and twisted imagination and that fabulous vision he has for transforming different worlds, but I was a bit unsure of this one and how it would be. 
It's such a well known story and has had so many incarnations that it would need to be very good to beat both Jim Henson's 'Dreamchild' and Jan Svankmajers 'Alice'. Despite the glorious design and costumes and the brilliant choice of actors and voices, I don't think it did quite beat either of those two. I agree with some of the reviews, it did feel at times a little soulless, a Johnny Depp band wagon, and in places the film became a slave to CGI (The Queen of Hearts soldiers should have been playing cards not Star Wars, Clone Wars soldiers!) but all that said seeing it in 3D just wowed me. 

This is the first time I have seen the newer version of 3D (aside from the glasses with two different colours, or the odd short film at Disney World) I have to admit the 3D effect was amazing and, although I was sceptical at first, if this is the way TV and film are going then let it happen, and happen quickly! There were times that the 3D effect drew you in so much that you did actually feel like you were standing there in the set. I loved that, it is a new dimension to going to the cinema. A reinvention which in this culture of 'staying home' is something that cinema's need badly.

Overall a good film and a worthy addition to the Alice adaptations with a few twists along the way. And if you can still see it in 3D -!

Sunday 2 May 2010

The Lanchester Marionettes at the Little Angel

On Saturday 17th April I gave an illustrated talk and performance (along with Chris Somerville of the Harlequin Puppet Theatre) at The Little Angel Theatre on The Lanchester Marionettes. The show was complete sell out and was really well received. 
We performed both the Lanchester's Underwater Ballet and the Grand Circus. After the talk and performances the audience were invited to come on to the stage and get a closer look at the Puppets.
For more photos of the Lanchester puppets see The National Puppetry Archive

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