In a show in which I am both the Director and playing the Director (whose stupid idea was that?) it has sometimes been difficult to separate reality from fiction. I could not tell you if at this moment this is me writing or my alter ego, The Director, which you will meet in this production. What I do know is we started this process of creating Meet Fred around 2 years ago when the wonderful puppetry company, Blind Summit, joined us to run a week of training workshops for our Academy students in Cardiff. What I observed on those days of training became the seed for Meet Fred.
Much of the week we focussed on cloth puppets much like the Fred that you will meet in the show. Blind Summit practice a form of Bunraku (three man puppetry which originates from Japan), which they have coined “extreme puppetry” due to the extremes of emotion that you can explore with these puppets. It was fascinating and inspiring to see the characters that were created from these literal blank canvas puppets, and the depths to which they could be pushed. Also as a skill, to perform as a three operating these puppets is a constant unspoken improvisation between the puppeteers, with little more to communicate with than their own breath.
The challenge now was to train our students with learning disability to get a feel for this very complex form of puppetry. We contacted Blind Summit who made us eight cloth puppets in the style we had used on their residency. We then spent the next six months using a session a week to work with these puppets with our Academy students. We learned a lot – what you can and can’t do with a puppet. Potential sequences and characters emerged, some of which you will see in Meet Fred. We also discovered that puppetry was an extremely difficult skill and to be honest, very easy to make very difficult to watch.
In the end we invited three of the students that had shown promise during these sessions to join a more focussed group for a two day intensive R&D into what was at that point known as The Puppet Project. These were Richard Newnham, Lindsay Foster and Martin Vick, alongside local performers Denni Dennis, Jon Kidd and Craig Quat (actually a juggler by profession). During these two days we explored a couple of scenarios that appear in the show today, but crucially the character of Fred began to emerge and the concept of Fred being a puppet that wanted to be a part of the everyday. It was not until this point that the parallels became clear between the relationship between Fred and his puppeteers and that of dependence and interdependence that exists in the daily lives of many people with disability and learning disability. The show became Meet Fred.
In October 2015 we went into our next stage of R&D a week long process leading to a scratch performance at The Other Room. We were joined for the final two days by Tom Espina, Associate Artist with Blind Summit to be a puppetry dramaturg. Lindsay, Richard and Martin joined us again, along with Craig Quat, Jon Kidd, Ellen Groves, Dan McGowan, Film Maker and Musician Jonathan Dunn and Designer Jessica Jones. The pressure was on to create something for the scratch, along with find a concept that could create copy, images and a film teaser for the tour. So we started the week focussing on our story arc, taking potential scenes we already had and thinking about what we could add to these. We then improvised these scenarios, filming everything, as we started to pull a script together via these improvisations. We were working with Fred as a puppet, but to be completely honest I had in the back of my mind that Tom was arriving at the end of the week and we would focus on the puppetry then. In hindsight an error, but a fortunate one. On Tom’s arrival, when Fred finally did wake up, he awoke to a room full of plans he had no awareness of, no concept of this show that had been thrust upon him. Suddenly, and quite organically, we had a whole new twist to our show and one which I hope the audiences enjoy as much as we’ve enjoyed exploring it.
During this time Martin, one of our performers with Down’s syndrome, was desperate to operate the legs of Fred and I had been as desperate for him to succeed, but eventually as we approached our first public performance I had to sit him down and say, “Look Martin, I can’t have you on the legs.” Was this cruel? In the end I had to accept that he was never going to achieve the dexterity and the understanding of the breath and the communication that it took, at least not in the short time we had, if ever. It takes Japanese Bunraku puppeteers ten years to train in the legs, we had a few days. It felt bad, but I had to prioritise the production. For this concept to work the puppetry had to be believable. Unfortunately for Martin this was just not happening. At Hijinx we have always believed that you cast people to their strengths, unfortunately for Martin to be on the legs was as exposing for him as it was for the production. In the end, and quite naturally, Martin has carved out an ideal role for himself as my put upon Stage Manager.
We began final rehearsals for this tour on 1st February, for which we have been joined by another associate artist from Blind Summit, Giulia Innocenti, with the final creative team being Dan McGowan, Morgan Thomas, Craig Quat, Richard Newnham, Lindsay Foster and Martin Vick, plus Ceri James on Lighting Design and Tom Ayres as our Stage Manager/Technician. Despite what Fred might say, I can confirm that the whole project has been a truly collaborative process, many of the concepts and much of the text you will see and hear has come directly from improvisations undertaken not just by the cast you see today, but also be artists involved in all stages of R&D. I would like to thank everyone that has contributed the creation of Meet Fred. We hope you enjoy it as much as we enjoyed making it.