We caught up with Claire Hills, the artistic director of Topsy Turvy Theatre, to find out more about the work they create, their artistic choices and their wonderful children’s show, Isabel’s Well.
First of all, why puppetry?
I was introduced to puppetry as a jobbing actor in my mid-twenties. I had never used puppets before, but I did have experience in street theatre where I would have to wear big costumes. I seemed to have a natural affinity with the puppets I was using. Of course I had to work at it, and I was happy to, but I found that I was quite taken with the effect a puppet has on an audience. The puppets which we create for our shows are, on the whole, designed to look almost like toys. We want our little audiences to feel like we are just playing, telling stories and using toys to do so. Anyone can tell stories, and we want to use puppets to inspire children to tell their own stories too.
Isabel’s Well will soon be at Little Angel Theatre, but who is Isabel?
Isabel is my 10 year old Goddaughter!
What’s your favourite part of creating a show?
I am heavily involved in all parts of the making of a show and in my head it is like one big jigsaw. All of the pieces are needed to create the final show but there isn’t really a specific place to start. My brain becomes something of a melting pot, gently simmering away with ideas for a piece of scenery or thoughts of a character and the best way to create it, or a silly concept for a song. I get a lot of enjoyment from finding out quirky facts about a specific animal (or in the case of Isabel’s Well – different vegetables) and exploring ways of sharing the information with the audience in a fun way. It is then really interesting to share with other performers in the production and workshop the ideas to how we can develop the characters and flesh out the story.
How did you make Isabel’s Well?
Laura Hudson, a very talented graphic designer and all round excellent maker of things, worked with me to build the scenery for Isabel’s Well. Neither of us had ever made a well before, so there was an element of trial and error. We started with what we wanted it to do – open up and allow puppet Isabel to lower herself down in a bucket in order to show how she was going underground. So we made our well in 4 sections that would jigsaw together and pull apart. The well looks really sturdy and solid – so much so that parents have been known to try and sit their children on it for photographs! However we have to put a stop to that because it is actually very light. It is hollow inside and the bricks are actually made from foam. Laura did such a good job with the paint work that people think it is real stone.
We like to take inspiration from materials we find. Laura and I have been known to go hunting around furniture charity shops to see if anything sets our creative cogs in motion. The tree in Isabel’s Well is made from three bedside tables and foam. We call it up-cycling set build – or scrapheap set build! We even once ran a workshop with young people at The Grand, Leeds, where we gave them a room full of junk and 2 hours to make something from nothing. It is amazing what you can create when you start with bizarre materials.
What inspired you to create Isabel’s Well?
My Goddaughter inspired me to write Isabel’s Well. I used to sing a silly song to her – “I found Isabel, Isabel, she was down a well, down a well” when she was a baby. I thought the idea of Isabel going on an adventure down a wishing well sounded really fun. I wanted to write a story for Isabel that she felt was just for her, and in doing so hoped to inspire Isabel to write her own stories as well and lose herself in a land of make believe and play. Isabel has grown up seeing me performing in productions and understands that I am an actress and I tell stories that she and other children come to watch. However, it took me until Isabel was nearly 8 years old to finish Isabel’s Well, and she and her sisters and friends watched it for her 8th birthday celebration.
Isabel now has two younger sisters. Katie, the youngest, has lent her name to our production of “Christmas is Cancelled…Katie Saves the Day” but as yet I have not started work on Eden’s production. Eden, however, assures me that she has lots of ideas and will help me write it…and build the scenery…and make the puppets. There won’t be anything left for me to do.
How did your theatre company Topsy Turvy Theatre start?
Topsy Turvy Theatre started for a few reasons. I have been an actress working in children’s theatre since I graduated at 21. Very early on in my career as a jobbing actor I realised that children’s theatre really was what I wanted to be doing. Not everyone is lucky enough to find what really makes them tick, but for me, working with children and creating work to entertain little audiences is what makes me get out of bed on a morning. I was 28 when I decided it was time to listen to the voice telling me to be brave and start my own company. A story I had read a few years before had never left me – I felt it had the potential to be adapted for the stage and would be a story that families would really enjoy watching with their children. So in 2010 I spoke to Jonathan Emmett about his picture book Ruby Flew Too! and asked if we could adapt it for the stage. He jumped at the chance, and so Topsy Turvy Theatre began! Ruby Flew Too! was our first production and started touring in 2011 to theatres and schools. There was no master-plan, I just knew that I wanted to create something that mattered to me and share it. The company has also benefited hugely from working with such talented performers and makers, all of which are people I have met either at university or at some stage in my career. Because they all know me and know the care I take in creating the work, they too have taken great care in their contributions.
Isabel’s Well will be on stage at Little Angel Theatre Fri 5 – Sun 7 Aug 2016. Click here for tickets and more information.