An Interview with Birdlife Productions
New Zealand puppet-theatre company, Birdlife Productions, are touring Europe this summer. The Mumble had a chat with man & wife maestros, Roger & Bridget Sanders
When did you first develop a passion for theatre?
Bridget: I lived in London when I was a teenager and it was the 70’s – a fantastically vibrant and creative environment to be immersed in. In those days you could cycle into the West End and queue for theatre tickets to all the best shows for only a £1. After that I went to Leeds University and studied Theatre and Dance and Art at Bretton Hall.
Hello Roger. So what for you makes a good piece of theatre?
Roger: Hello! I go to the theatre to have my mind and imagination opened. I want to be totally transported to the world that is presented to me and fully absorbed by it. I want to make theatre for the same reason.
What is it about performing in front of other people that makes you tick?
Roger: Actually I don’t really know the answer to that. I think it might be something to do with the opportunity to be totally present in the moment with a group of people, sharing something of value through creative expression.
In a world where entertainment is on demand – what makes theatre so special?
Bridget: The difference between theatre and video is like the difference between seeing a picture of the ocean and actually swimming in it – what’s to compare? Theatre is something that envelops us and we immerse our whole selves in it. We hope that Theatre is always entertaining – but I think we go there looking for more than that – we want to be changed by it – if only momentarily.
How did you you two meet?
Bridget: Roger and I met in the wilds of West Wales – we were both looking for something outside of the mainstream or something more to life. We had babies and lived in a Tipi but from early on we promised ourselves that one day we would make our living from being creative together.
How does being in a romantic relationship influence your professional partnership?
Roger: It actually really helps! Our Theatre company is our livelihood so we have to get through things – there is no walking away. We understand each other very well and are able to have a lot of fun, which helps us deal with the challenges.
What does your perfect Sunday afternoon with Bridget look like?
Roger: Being out in Nature laughing about life!
Can you tell us about Birdlife Productions?
Bridget: Up to a few years ago we were both involved in The New Zealand based BodyInSpace Theatre Company. I had started out as a props and costume maker and my involvement gradually morphed into performance. When that company folded, Roger and I decided to form our own company – we really wanted to try and make a living from the thing we loved. ‘Birdlife’ was the name of our first production and the name stuck!
What are the key tenets to telling stories without words?
Roger: Understanding and communicating the emotional journey, effective use of visual symbolism, recognising the way body language reads and visual timing. Simplicity helps!
Can you tell us about the design process behind creating your puppets from inception to performance?
Bridget: Puppetry is a very fluid Artform – anything can become a puppet. I have learned over the years that having too fixed ideas about a particular puppet can be restrictive to the process. I usually start the rehearsal or devising process with a mock-up of a sort of puppet that fulfils the character and then the actual mechanics of the puppet come much later, when we know how sophisticated it needs to be or how much it needs to communicate. Our creative ethos is very much about the ‘hand-made’ – we want children to be inspired to think they could do it themselves so we like to keep the puppets as simple as possible, often making them out of recognisable stuff like junk and household objects.
You are bringing a show to Europe in 2019 called ‘Kotuku and the Moon Child’ – can you tell us about it?
Roger: A Moon Child gets trapped on Earth – how will she find her way home? This is a 50-minute family puppet and mask show that uses modern puppetry techniques mixed with the spirit of traditional fairy tales which have been shaped and inspired by the New Zealand landscape – it’s light, colours and bird life. The story unfolds using only the languages of mask, puppetry and music. It is accompanied by a beautiful original piano score by New Zealand Composer David Sanders, who also
happens to be my brother.
Where did the idea of ‘Kotuku and the Moon Child’ come from?
Bridget: I was on holiday near an estuary and a lone Kotuku (white Heron) came to visit every day. In New Zealand, the Kotuku is a very rare and auspicious bird that brings good luck. The story, somehow, came to me fully formed over a weekend – although we have made quite a few tweaks to the story over the past year!
The play has already been winning awards in your New Zealand home, can you tell us about this?
Roger: We debuted this show at the New Zealand Fringe Festival in March this year. The judges gave us the ‘GREEN LIGHT LIST AWARD’ which was a new award to honour and encourage a show that did not fit into any particular category. We then went on to the Dunedin Fringe Festival in April and won ‘OUTSTANDING DESIGN’ which was a terrific honour, and unexpected for a children’s show.
The themes seem universal, are there any age restrictions, and if not how do you think each end of the age-range will be entertained, and those in the middle too, of course?
Bridget: Yes, the themes are universal, but also very relevant. Our New Zealand debut came the day after the terrible recent shootings of Muslims in Christchurch. In our story, the Moon Child is a little immigrant who finds herself in a foreign place. She learns to communicate, make friends and empower herself. It’s a story for children about empathy, relationship and healing. We use no spoken language in our show so all of this is conveyed through gesture and music. In these days of constant digital media there is very little opportunity for children (and their parents) to be fully immersed in gentle vibrant theatre. There is no age barrier to following our story and all ages seem to have been delighted by it – there is even enough adventure for teenagers. Having said that, children under 5 find it harder to sit still for the full 50 minutes and often need to verbalise what they are seeing, so it is better for 5 years and up – all the way to 95 years!
You’ve got 20 secs to sell the play to somebody in the streets, what would you say?
Roger: Step out of your world and give yourselves and your children a treat. Spend an hour with us immersed in a world of visual and musical wonder! It will make you happy!
Kotuku and the Moon Child
24th to 28th May, Prague Fringe CZ
12th to 16th June, Festival Valise, Poland
23rd June, Ludlow Fringe UK
28th to 30th June, Barnstaple Fringe UK
6th July, Small World Cardigan Wales
13th July, Guildford Fringe UK
19th – 20th July, Great Yorkshire Fringe UK