Puppets in Edinburgh: The Royal Mile and Beyond

As promised on our previous blog post about Gail’s adventures with puppets, here is the second installment of the journey, Edinburgh:



If you’ve ever had the fortune of attending the Edinburgh Fringe Festival you know what a glorious shit-show the Royal Mile is during the month of August (Side note: this chaos goes on for a bit longer than you’d think as in typical Scottish fashion, “the lang Scots mile” [Tam O’Shanter, Robert Burns] stretches approximately 12% further than what we know as a mile in the good ol’ US of A).

















(The Royal Mile photo credit ESB )  (Kelsey Hogan and Bob working the Mile, photo credit ESB)

There are people EVERYWHERE: some tourists, some theatre fanatics, some poor locals who didn’t manage to join the annual mass exodus, but mostly performers of all shapes and sizes pushing the crap out of their Fringe shows on the many passers by. It’s a fantastic place to go if you came for the Festival and the measly brochure detailing hundreds of shows with a brief paragraph and tiny image is not offering you enough vivid detail to make an educated decision, or you came to see the sweet little city, but stayed on for a few too many days and have run out of things to do, or if you want to see some previews of what you might buy tickets to like the fabulous La Putyka Circus pulling out their stops on stilts, or discover new favorite bands like The Buffalo Skinners, or you just want to shop around for vested, bearded, talented cuties most likely possessing a delightful accent and then blog about it .














(A fellow puppet on the Mile, photo cred. ESB)


























(The Buffalo Skinners, photo cred. ESB)


























(A Royal Mile Extravaganza, photo cred. ESB)


The Royal Mile during Fringe is a lot of things, most specifically chaos, and being asked to busk on the streets in the misty, often rainy, Scottish weather to garner attention for your show can feel like a thankless effort…






















(Defeat feat. Dylan Wittrock and Kelsey Hogan, photo cred. ESB)

… until you get a puppet.














(Mickey on the Mile, photo cred. ESB)

Once we put the puppets on, swarms of people turned heads, stopped to listen, or even have a conversation with Mimi or Mickey or Bob, our little puppet babies. Children were dragging their parents over and we were explaining on repeat that there were elements of the show (such as a 15 ft. long Dick puppet)





















































(Some of our flyers we gave out on The Mile, design by Outcast Cafe and ESB)


which may not be appropriate for their four-year old, which still didn’t deter the adorable little girl in a polka dot dress who made friends with Bob and came to visit daily with her grandmother. The work became play, and it was a lot easier to stop feeling like an annoying, nagging asshole, when it wasn’t you who was doing the nagging, but a little, loveable piece of foam and cloth on your hand.










(Babies love Bob, photo credit ESB )


These little buddies not only became the highlight of the show for many, but also became one of our main draws and the some of the hardest workers in our company. I remember the sense of inspired delight when the babies would “pop!” through the drape and ripples of laughter would occur, or later they would meet their short ends when drowned to death, and some would be moved to tears. What had started as a solution to a delicate aspect of our storytelling ended up becoming much more in bringing us a whole new audience, a different sense of charm and reality, and a harking back to ancient themes of storytelling and play, as we tend to do at the Outcast Café.

We belonged to a new club, the unofficial Puppet Club, which would turn out to be one of our best assets in marketing but also a great new exposure to some like-minded artists using like-minded “tools” of storytelling. We saw many fascinating, entertaining, sometimes ridiculous, sometimes incredibly dramatic and moving new works during our month at the festival. The use of music, poetry, dance, projection, and circus arts were all inspiring and provocatively employed. But what stuck with me most, the shows I still talk about, were the ones that belonged to the Club, the ones which utilized the transportable magic of puppetry.

I remember a rainy afternoon in Edinburgh, when most of the cast and crew put on our wellies, or whatever else we were keeping dry with, on and marched down to a vacant lot behind a brick building to discover a rag-tag gypsy tent unfolding off a rickety trailer. Upon entering, we discovered the very stuff of enchanted fairie-folk tales children (and us whimsical adults) only dream of: many rows of closely fitted benches arrayed with multicolored pillow cushions facing a spectacular little stage on which we witnessed the most magical puppet play, Little Matter by The River People. It was an epic coming of age/ morality tale full of whimsy and warnings, and was told primarily by handcrafted pieces of wood, fabric, paper, and other tidbits; secondly by a bunch of talented musically inclined riverpeople






(Our Hero in Little Matter, source www.threeweeks.co.uk)


This was not our only puppet foray at the Fringe. Some of our other favorites were the amazing performances by Blind Summit and Cirk La Putyka.

In Blind Summit’s The Table we watched several pieces of well-sculpted cardboard transform into the crotchety, grumbly, 24” tall little man who promised to perform “the last 12 hours of Moses’s life on top of a table.”1980-0064-2












(Our Friend from The Table, source http://trampenau.co.uk)


In Cirk La Putyka’s La Putyka, puppetry played as an element in this circus extravaganza, when a beautiful woman in a red dress, waltzed romantically (and drunkenly) with this “man” here:cirk-la-putyka










(Drunken Waltz from La Putyka, source http://www.sideshow-circusmagazine.com)


Throughout the witnessing of these mesmerizing instances of story telling, I continued to be surprised by how “real” it all felt. I was stunned by the fact that I felt more connected to the inanimate objects most of the time, than I did the very humans who interacted with or manipulated them. It was in Edinburgh that I first discovered my passionate belief in puppets and forever wanted a membership to the Club.

(Moved to Tears feat. Gail Shalan, Kelsey Hogan, and the Babies, photo credit ESB)


                                                                                   Written by company member Gail Shalan

My First Foray With Puppets: A Throwback



(Mimi and Me in rehearsal in S. Lee, MA, photo credit Emma Sims-Biggs)

Three years ago, rehearsals began for The Dick and The Rose. I showed up for rehearsal in an old church in Lee, MA with the promise of puppets and was greeted by a bag full of white socks and a bin of magic markers. We were told to put the sock over our hand, hold it so that we could make it talk, and look for the face; then draw what we discovered onto the sock. This felt goofy, fun, juvenile, and ultimately, to quote one of my favorite acting professors, a little “fake-it-till-ya-make-it” in nature.

What then proceeded was a phenomenal discovery of the delicate and magical manipulation that happens both from within and from somewhere completely outside of oneself to bring an inanimate object to a free, vibrant and animated life. The only other times in my life I could equate this experience to, were studying the liberating art of mask during my training at LAMDA and BU, and to the early days of play in my imaginative child hood. It was a time when my playmates consisted of about fifteen Beanie Babies who fully functioned with illustrative personalities for an audience of two; my patient little brothers.

The plush creatures’ personalities were so distinct, that for years, I never forgot the cadence of a voice, the history of emotional moments in their little lives; I definitely had many a conversation with them, even when no one was there to listen. And, undoubtedly, this lasted a little longer for me that for most, after all, I still do it, but it was a universal experience, something children all over the world for years, and years, and years had experienced.



 (Mimi meets a fellow baby, photo credit ESB)

So, after allowing the inhibition and judgment of being a socialized adult to pass, we listened, looked, and allowed creative inspiration to flow through us; for the “puppets” to show us their hidden voices, thoughts, and personalities. Then, after paying close attention to the sock at hand (literally), our “puppets” were allowed to interact with the other puppets on other players’ hands.

Eventually, our fabulous puppet designer, Jim Day, brought in about six different hand designed puppet babies, that each came in three iterations of themselves at different ages, which sat inside of themselves like little nesting Matrushka dolls. We ceremoniously revealed the babes to ourselves and the rest of the company and allowed these pieces of hodge-podge fabric, foam, and thread to introduce “themselves” to us.264725_254336767914573_5046766_n

(The first time I met Mimi, and her larger iteration, Francine, photo credit ESB)


These little pieces of magic stayed with us every day through rehearsals in the hall, at our previews to Shakespeare and Co. and The Topia Arts Center, and eventually were road warriors stuffed in a suitcase on their way to Scotland. They then functioned as our primary source of audience heckling for the duration of our month in Edinburgh. But the story of Scotland is a whole other tale for another day. As is the continuous presence of puppets in my life and in the growing lives of the many stories told by the Outcast Café.


                                                                                                                             written by company member Gail Shalan