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

Chin Up!

I’m not going to paint a picture all rosy and wonderful. But this feels like it’s been a hard first half of the year. I feel like our to do list has never been longer, yet our pockets are feeling emptier. This month we have had covid again, which has meant losing a week of rehearsals and now we have been given notice on our storage unit. 

But, keep our chin up, we must, and as like my good old Gran used to say, “When one door closes, another one opens.” 

Photograph of a woodland scene with the sun going down behind the trees

Adventure Shack

As we plough on with our new production, and change rehearsals schedules as Mark has covid, we continue to make wonderful discoveries in our storyline. This show will have our usual magic and there are enough moments where Phil and Mark are up to their shenanigans.

Two male performers dressed as sales assistants stand in front of a yellow cart. One holds a silver teapot towards the camera

The Future for Adventure Shack

Our aim for this production is to tour it to schools in September, October 2022 and then January, February 2023. We will develop it for night light experiences too, so there’s lots to get excited about.

So if you know someone who might be interested in either of these experiences then get them to contact me tara@babblingvagabonds.co.uk and I can send them more information.

We will turn up with the wagon of wonder and share some of the most magical stories that Madam Moo Moo has collected over the years.

Two male actors perform outside to school children. They are dressed in blue and there is a yellow wooden cart parked infron of leafy green trees

Charity Status Gets Closer

We have submitted the application to the Charities Commission, so we wait excitedly to see if they will accept our proposal. We really hope that it will enable us to provide more activities and creative opportunities for people in our local area.

A view of 5 animal shadow puppets that children are holding up

Set For An Adventure

As the dusky bluebells fade in our local woods, we get ready to put plan b into action. We are getting pretty good at implementing a plan b these days. Perhaps that’s called resilience? We didn’t get our funding for our exciting summer production, so instead we have come up with another idea.

Often it feels like we have so many ideas and when I look back I wonder how we got to the end result? Creativity is like a seed. Give it enough love and attention and something will eventually bloom. So, as we look forward to the next few months, what will you give your time and effort in order for something to grow?

Blubells fill the bottom of the photo as they sit amongst the trees. A dappled light gives the bluebells a smokey look

Adventure Shack

Dusting ourselves down and picking ourselves up from a funding bid rejection means we become even more resourceful. After flexing those little creative brain cells, we are proud to bring an outdoor experience for families this summer called “The Adventure Shack”

Escape the crowds, stray from the busy paths and discover the eighth wonder of the world:

Madam MooMoo’s Marvellous Magical Market Stall!

The Adventure Shack! 

The wondrous one-stop pop-up shop for all your adventure needs! 

Except today, of all days, Madam MooMoo is unwell, and so it’s up to her loyal assistants to look after her shop. Join Prentice and Dogsbury as they unpack the unusual items from her barrow of the bizarre and discover the fantastic stories each item has to tell. 

Epic tales of adventure, mystery, magic and derring-do guaranteed to heebie your jeebies and bump your goose. If you want to follow the progress of this fun experience, then follow us on the usual social channels. If you need no more tempting? Then you can book your tickets now by clicking on the venue details below.

Markeaton Park, Derby July 20-24

Grin Low Woods (Pooles Cavern and Country Park) Buxton July 27-31

We know how hard things are for some families right now so we have made Friday afternoon at Grin Low Woods, Buxton a pay what you can performance, but you still need to book a ticket. (it’s a numbers thing!)

A cart with a jumble of objects all piled up around it. Old suitcases, lampshades, kitchenware make up the arranged items

Happenings

We are thinking of hosting skills exchange workshops. We have learnt so much over the years we thought people might be interested in attending some days/weekends/evenings where we explore some techniques we use when we create our work.
This is still a seedling of an idea, but you can help shape it. What would you like to learn? If you are up for getting creative together, then hit reply to this email and let us know your thoughts.

A sketch book with a lightbulb drawn on a page with the word "Idea" written at the top of the page

When Life Gives You Lemons, Make Lemonade

For a long time now We’ve all been yearning for a summer adventure. We have been adapting and making ourselves flexible to deal with changing restrictions and adjusting to different working patterns and this month has been no exception. I write this newsletter in isolation as my children have tested positive for Covid. (6 days apart!) Luckily no one is very ill, and for that, I am very grateful.

We should be reworking “Here Be Dragons”, instead it is line runs over video calls and getting Phil to drop off various materials in our front garden. Distractions are plenty and focus is difficult but there are deadlines to meet and you just adapt to another way of working like everyone else. So I raise a glass of homemade lemonade to all of you and celebrate the coming of a new summer adventure.

A glass jug of homemade lemonade

Here Be Dragons

Come and seek out Mark and Phil at Markeaton Park on Wed 21-Sun 25 July. Brighten their day and spark your family’s first summer adventure. Check out DerbyLIVE’s website for times and book your tickets here. 

Join the brave zoologists, the ‘Monster Menders’ as they take care of strange and peculiar creatures. 

If you have a big imagination and are brave enough to take a step into the unknown, then this wild walk is just what your family needs. Every time you find the Monster Menders a different story is made, each tale a unique experience.

Phil and Mark dressed as the monster menders holding a suitcase which has the words "useful Stuff" written on it

Rosie Red Boots at Buxton Opera House

This has turned into such a lovely story and has been a very fun project to be involved in. Mark has been putting together the audio for this and it’s been fun recording with our kids too as they have taken on some of the voices of the characters. We had a rehearsal in June and got to grips with the soundtrack and shadows so now we can’t wait to share it with you.

Workshop : Aug 12 at 1.30pm & 3pm
Want to know how we create the magical shadow puppets in our productions? Get up close and explore behind the screen and find out exactly how we create the visual effects. Book your FREE tickets here

Performance: Aug 13 at 10.30, 1pm, 2pm
Is Rosie brave enough to save the day? Can she help her forest friends and bring calm once more to her home? With a little help from her cat, Rosie sets off on an adventure where she discovers that even when you are small you can make a big difference. 

Join us on this mini shadow play summer adventure. Watch in wonder as shadows dance across a specially created screen to a captivating audio soundtrack. Book your FREE tickets here 

a black and white image of Mark  behind a table operating shadows and lights

A Real Awakening For Students

We are always grateful for new opportunities, and none more so than working with students at Sheffield Hallam University. It was an intense 2-week process called “Awakenings” whereby a show would be presented at the end of it. A tall order considering everything students have been through these past 18 months. Using an old folktale as a starting point we transformed the Old Post Office courtyard into a theatre space. 

In a high walled courtyard, performers dressed in black carry boxes as an audience watch on

They didn’t disappoint and showed us just how willing they were to undertake the challenge. Working with students from various courses across the university they came together and devised a script, composed music, made masks, sculpted a huge puppet, and performed in it too.

A close up of a student sculpting a clay face which has over the top features of a large nose and wrinkly forehead

Adhering to the Covid restrictions meant we couldn’t have a large audience but the piece definitely bought smiles to everyone’s faces. (especially the young child on the front row who shouted out after the performance “That show was awesome!”)

A close up of a giant blue water dragon puppet behind a sea of blue fabric