Wagon Of Wonder: Designing for Outdoor Theatre

an arty photo of a woodland setting. The camera focuses on a fallen log and out of focus in the background an audience watch a theatre show

The Challenges

We are only a small company so for this outdoor theatre production I have overseen many elements; the designing, the making, the venue booking and the finances. It has been difficult to get a full tour this summer for a number of reasons, budget cuts,being the main one. The arts landscape has changed and it will continue to be in flux as we navigate through the cost of living crisis and with the prospect that the UK economy is unlikely to grow.

We already had our team in place for the summer show, with Phil as Director and Tara and myself as Designers and Makers. Phil and I were also the performers in our production Wagon Of Wonder. We managed to secure bookings through our networks and existing contacts. Marketing the shows is primarily Tara’s responsibility, but as a small company, we all share the load on all aspects of the business.

Two actors dressed in tones of blue against a wooden yellow cart. The one on the right operates a firebird puppet

Designing for the Elements

I trained in design at Rose Bruford a long time ago, I actually think the best training is by doing and after 23 years of practice things are starting to make sense. The design for Wagon Of Wonder came about because we had a story we wanted to tell and we wanted to be creative. This led to raiding our store and reworking an old trolley we had. It fitted well with the story and so I got to work on thinking about what was needed to help tell the story. 

My job as the designer is to support the story in every way I can, from music to lights to the costumes to props. When designing a touring production I know it needs to be easy to transport, set up, pack away and withstand the elements! For this production, I knew that the set would be used in a variety of locations, so, I created a design that was lightweight, modular, and easy to assemble and disassemble.

I used durable materials that could withstand the elements, and I designed the set in such a way that it could be easily adapted to suit the different performance spaces. The result was a set that was both functional and visually appealing, and that looked great in a variety of settings.

A yellow and blue wooden cart sits amongst the trees in a sparse pine forest.

The Magic of Outdoor Theatre

When I design for an outdoor theatre production, I’m excited by all the natural elements we already have: trees, grassy areas, massive skies (cloudy or blue!), and even the noise! From traffic noise to kids playing to birds singing to the wind blowing through the trees, it’s all part of the magic.

Since it doesn’t make sense to compete with nature, it’s important to consider all these factors when designing. It’s always a good idea to have something to stand in front of, just in case there’s a dog walker passing by or a road behind you. But what if you’re performing on the moors, with nothing but the landscape behind you? Why compete with such a stunning backdrop?

The key is to position the show so that the audience is facing the best way. If there’s a particularly beautiful vista in one direction, I make sure the stage is facing that way, equally if there’s a distraction, such as a car park, I try to position the stage so that the audience’s backs are to it. One of the key questions I always ask myself is how can we enhance the magic of the venue, rather than compete with it?

I’ve designed and produced outdoor shows for many years, there’s something magical about a natural space. Perhaps it’s the shared experience with both audience, actors and landscape, but whatever the reason, there’s definitely a magic to telling stories to an audience in a natural setting.

A theatrical performance is being held on the lawns of a grand house. The audience look on at the performance.

Blog Contributor: Mark Hornsey

Buxton Festivals – Making Large Puppets

Babbling vagabonds have been lucky enough to work with Buxton International Festival and Buxton Fringe Festival on an outreach project for Primary Schools in Buxton. This project would celebrate the festivals 40th years and use Saint Saens “Carnival of the Animals” as inspiration to create large puppets.

The idea behind the project was to inspire and ignite creativity in local year 5 pupils. The outcome would then be part of the Buxton Carnival Parade in July. Then displayed around town in the lead up to Northern Chamber Orchestra’s performance of “Carnival of the Animals” during the Buxton International Festival.

The Design

Using the theme Carnival of the Animals by composer Saint Saens we decided to choose four animals from the music he created. We designed the large puppets with the idea that they would be processed in Buxton Carnival this summer.

sketch ideas for "Carnival of the Animals
Carnival of the Animals: Initial sketch ideas

How the big puppets would look in a parade

Working in Schools

We then assigned each animal to a School and gave ourselves the challenge of creating these in one day. Working with around 10 school children at a time in short sessions we were able to construct a large puppet through the course of a school day. The impact was significant. The groups who worked on the animals in the first session could hardly believe the transformation of their work. 

Fish puppets
Fish for the Aquarium

Turtle made using willow and painted fabric
Turtle

Bird Puppets

Rooster
Rooster

Babbling Vagabonds ended up working with over 200 children, over four days, in four local Schools. The children work collaboratively and helped shape the finished sculptures. They gained new skills and were empowered by what they had created. It was a very positive experience for us as artists and the schools. It was certainly an ambitious project in the timescale but everyone rose to the challenge. We are proud of how the children worked as a team to create these wonderful large puppets.  I can’t wait to see them come to life in the carnival this summer.

Making Music – Our Process

Finding the Rhythm To The Music

When we compose our music for our productions, the process starts around our kitchen table. Not highly technical I know, but all we need is a space to be creative and the kitchen table seems to work well enough for the germination of ideas. Our musical friends come together and we give ourselves a day to do most of the groundwork for the songwriting. This has to be one of my favourite days on our calendar.

Musicians playing their instruments
Playing Out Ideas With Music

Playing with Ideas

Within the story, we will look for the scenes that would benefit from a song or music. Often a song can take you on a journey, explain more of the storyline and convey emotion in a different way than just dialogue. Once we have figured that out and talked about what the song needs to do within that scene we will start playing with ideas. I see it as a bit like writing poetry, looking for rhyming words and finding flow within music and the words on the page. Sometimes a melody will come first and the words are written to fit the tune. Other times words just tumble out and a rhythm is then found to accompany the words.

Writing the songs
Writing The Songs

It’s about listening to one another. Responding to the moment and not being afraid of putting an idea forward for it to be used or rejected. Some songs I find spine-tingling straight from the off. That excites me, wondering how it will feel when it’s sung out into an auditorium of people.

Guitar and playing chords
Music Making – Playing Chords

Some songs compose themselves quicker than others while some songs need more time to develop. This is after all only the beginning of the process. Matt Vale, our musical Director will then develop the musical score into something even more magical. In rehearsals, the actors put their own creativity into the songs so it then transforms into very much a shared collaborative process.

The music making process couldn’t happen without the creative input of Matt Vale, Rob Vale, James Swinburn and Bob Rushton and to them, I feel indebted.

Songwriting
Keyboard and keypad working together

Puppet Making – Our Process

First Steps In Puppet Making

Where do we start in puppet making? In our process, it starts with the story. Everything starts with a story! Once we have that we start to imagine what, where and when the puppet(s) may add to the visual storytelling. Can we add a puppet to help tell a section of the story? Take us on an otherwise impossible journey? Fly through the air, fight a deep sea monster or fall from an enchanted tower.

Types of Puppets We Use

Once those questions have been answered, then we have to decide what style of puppet we need. We tend to enjoy the use of shadow puppetry, tabletop puppetry and object manipulation.

Shadow puppets are just as it suggests, puppets that block light casting a shadow onto a screen or wall. We sometimes add colour and use 3D landscapes to give depth to a shadow sequence. Tabletop puppets are handheld. They need a platform to be seen by the audience, hence the name. Object manipulation is just that, using the same techniques as we use with a table top puppet but using found objects. A suitcase becomes a mouth of a crocodile or a screwed up sheet of paper an old grannies face.

Designing When Puppet Making

Sketches are drawn, ideas are gathered and once we have the feel for the puppet we make further drawings before we start to construct it.

Dinosaur Sketch
Initial Dinosaur Sketch

From these sketches, we develop the puppet into mock-up made of screwed up brown paper and cardboard. If you ever want to try this always add eyes (we have a drawer full of ping pong balls) as it makes everything come alive. This quick 3D version gives us a greater understanding of size and movability.

Initial mock up of a dinosaur puppet
Puppet Making In Its Roughest Form

Next Stages of Puppet Making

In this production, we have come to the conclusion that we need more than one puppet for the same character. This is because the puppet needs to do different things in different scenes.

We use clay to sculpt a version of our final idea from all the sketches we have made.

From this, we create a pattern. The clay version is covered in cling film and then masking tape. When its all covered, we cut it off and make a flat pattern. The finished pieces work in the same way as a  dress makers pattern. Using an Over Head Projector we can scale up the pattern to any size.

The pattern is then cut from closed cell foam, it is just like camping mats, only more robust. All the pieces are glued together and the form can come together quickly.

Pattern Making When Puppet Making
Pattern Making When Puppet Making

Any fiddly bits are sculpted from larger blocks of foam and then we piece it all together.  We work out the jointing system for the legs and head and figure out the mechanism needed to make any moving parts. It always takes longer than we think and is a challenge to make it move right but when it’s finished it is lightweight, strong and will hopefully stand up to the physical use within the run of the production.

Dinosaur puppet in its construction stage
Working Out The Moving Parts

Last Steps in Puppet Making

Once we are happy with the overall look and construction the last job is to paint it. Various sealants, primers and paints are used to create the finished puppet. Often perceptions of how it will be painted changes as the puppet forms and its character emerges. But working the way we do means we have the flexibility to make changes all the time. Many mistakes are made along the way, but its all about working together and solving the challenges that arise when puppet making.

Dinosaur puppet
One Of The Finished Puppets

Designing this puppet has been fun, but it has been a difficult process. Problem-solving has rated highly on this project. Mark has been the real brains behind all the working out and I’ve taken the lead on the fabrication and painting element of this puppet making process. Our budgets are never grand and we are always thinking of ways to make things cheaper. We reuse as much material as we can and always look at what we have in stock before buying any materials.

Time is another great factor. It’s a longer process than you might imagine. Many of our puppets are priceless due to the simple fact of the number of hours it has taken to produce a puppet which may only be onstage for a few minutes. When the puppets are finished you can always see room for improvement and what you would do differently next time. But that’s the great thing about puppet making. You are always learning.

How We Design Our Christmas Show

Our Set Design Process

The Babbling Vagabonds design process starts with the story we want to tell and a big sketchbook. We talk about the story and the scenes within it, the characters and the locations. Ideas are important at this stage and we try not to limit our creativity. It’s very much a collaborative process between the three of us. We are not afraid of being wrong when we voice ideas and to be honest I think the three of us have a very special relationship. We don’t censor our creativity, anything is up for discussion.

Sketchbook from The Dinosaur that came for Christmas
Getting ideas and thoughts on a page

Pinterest is a good source of inspiration for us and we have a shared board for the story. We look at characters types, environments, costume and Pin anything we think is relevant to our story.

Storyboarding Ideas

A storyboard of the essential action is drafted. We find creative ways in which to make the locations and where scenes can take place. There is usually only four actors in our Christmas show and whatever is designed has to take that into account.

Design sketchbook for The Dinosaur that came for Christmas
Mark sketches a storyboard for The Dinosaur That Came For Christmas

Making the Model – The World of the Story

This will be our 6th production at The Guildhall Theatre in Derby, we know space well and how to get the best from it. We don’t have to worry about touring the production and making the set fit in different venues, this means we can design a set that is bespoke to the venue. We have a scale model of the theatre and its within this miniature space that we start to realise the ideas from our sketchbooks.

Model Making for The Dinosaur That Came For Christmas
Starting To Make A Model

Making the model is all about playing. It is about seeing design ideas in a three-dimensional form and within this part of the process that you can see if an idea is going to work. We never see things as a problem, always as a challenge, and through design we find solutions. The model helps to see the theatre space as a whole and its often at this stage where you start to understand how certain scenes within the story will play out.

Working model for the Dinosaur that came for Christmas
The Beginnings of a Model for The Dinosaur That Came For Christmas

The model box changes all the time as we search for the ultimate design. Pieces are thrown away to make way for more exciting ideas and solutions. It is a vital part of the design process and an amazing way of sharing our vision. Colour becomes an integral element of the modelling stage and brings together all the elements of the design. The colour palette really helps when we venture into the next stage of building the set. Working as we do means we are flexible and have the ability to adapt throughout the whole process as things may change…again, and again and again.