The success of The Woodcarver Story and its tour gave us a new confidence. North West Arts and the Arts Council increased our support grant that year to £17,500 (equivalent to £56,000 now). This was also the first year that Horse + Bamboo was constituted as a company. Up until now it had simply been a spin off of my work as an artist. Walter Lloyd was our first Chair of the company, which we called ‘Little World’ Ltd. This new status also helped us in applying for additional grants. The extra funding meant that we could tour with a cast of 9, including three musicians.

Selling the tour had been more successful too; we organised a tour that started in Hebden Bridge, then travelled by truck and horsebox to Scotland, where we toured Dunfermline, Pittenweem, St Andrews, and Kirkaldy. Then south into North-East England and Alnwick, Alnmouth, Amble, Acklington, Ashington, Gateshead, Jarrow, Biddick, Cleveland, Yarm. It finally ended at Darlington Arts Centre.

The show was based very loosely on the story ‘On Discovery’ from Maxine Hong Kingston’s novel ‘China Men’. It’s the story of a shipwrecked sailor, who finds himself washed up on the shore of the Land of Women. At first, rescued by the inhabitants, he thinks he has fallen on his feet. As he undergoes the routines, restraints, habits and tortures (foot-binding, hair plucking etc) that the women endure, he realises that he is slowly and painfully being transformed into a woman himself, and that it’s no joke.

16mm film

We began the show with a 15 minute film, made in a 16mm black-and-white period style. This demonstrated the ‘enchanting fantasies’ acted out by Victorian magicians on their female assistants. To do this we spent weeks in our workshop painstakingly recreating many of the tricks from the early cinema. Doing this we came across the magician, showman and pioneering film-maker Georges Melies. We used an old Bolex camera and black and white film stock, sending off each days’ rushes and receiving them back from the lab early the next morning.

The film included an ‘Expanding Head’ trick, then the ‘Wandering Jew’ made an appearance. In this Adam Strickson appears as a figure travelling through a painted mountainous landscape, starting as a small puppet figure in the distance then bursting into the foreground holding a staff, all burning eyes and wild white beard. Next was the ‘Framed Lady’ (a woman steps out of the frame of her portrait as the artist dreams lascivious thoughts). Then levitation tricks and that old favourite, sawing a beautiful woman assistant in half. It ended with the ‘Brahmin and the Butterfly’, in which a caterpillar turns into a beautiful winged butterfly lady. These tricks were either created within the camera, or with the help of a conjuror friend, Bim Mason.

After this the curtain fell inside the marquee to open up the theatre space. The image of the Butterfly Woman gave way to the story of a butterfly hunter who is ‘captured’ by a small group of women. We follow his travails in yet another Land of Women. Finally, once the audience have left the marquee, there was a short puppet show. This was based on a Moomintroll story,’The Fillyjonk Who Believed in Disasters’. We later (2007) radically re-worked into Storm in a Teacup.

Pittenweem Festival

We were able to promote this edgy and feminist production as a ‘family show’, something I don’t think would be possible today. At the first show at the Festival at Pittenweem, a member of the audience stood up and announced that it was ‘disgusting’. Ironically, given the story, he ordered his wife to leave with him. He then asked the audience to join him in walking out in a mass protest. Nobody moved, but he nevertheless reported us to the police. The police in turn asked Joyce Laing, the Festival Director (and the Art Therapist at Barlinnie prison) to check out the show. As she hadn’t yet seen it, Joyce came to the very next performance, and we waited with bated breath for her verdict. Which was, ‘nay problem’.

For the last night of Pittenweem Arts Festival we improvised a raft with a fire sculpture built onto it. The idea was for it to be lit, then floated out to sea from the harbour after the Carnival Parade – the finale of the week-long festival. Unfortunately that night was unusually still and the sea untypical calm, and the raft refused to leave with the tide. Not wanting to disappoint the crowd of spectators Melissa Wyer, one of our performers, stripped down to her underclothes, jumped into the harbour and towed the raft out to sea, swimming with the tow rope gripped in her mouth.

BOB FRITH, KEITH BRAY (m), DAVE GILES (m), MELISSA WYER, ADAM STRICKSON, MOIRA HIRST (h), RONA LEE, LUANA DEE, CLAIRE HEWLETT, AMANDA SPEED (admin).

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Bob Frith founded Horse + Bamboo Theatre in 1978. He now manages the Dave Pearson Studio and is active in support of Apna Rossendale.

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