In 1998 I received a postcard from Sandy Spieler, the Artistic Director of ‘In The Heart of the Beast’, a mask and puppet theatre based in Minneapolis. She wrote about a good friend of hers, an ‘awesome maker’, called Alison Duddle. After 5 years working with the US theatre company Alison was moving back to the UK with her husband Richard. Alison and Richard were both English, but he had a research post at the University in Minneapolis. Now, however, Richard had been offered a new post at Manchester University and had accepted it. Sandy strongly recommended Alison to me, and suggested that I might like to meet with her.

Alison visited late in 1998, and briefly helped on a Guided Imagery show. Later she helped by making some of the puppets for Harvest of Ghosts. She was indeed a very good maker, with a natural sense of draughtsmanship and design, as well as being genuinely excited by mask and puppet theatre. Overall, Alison was a breath of fresh air for the company, and it happened that we got on very well, both personally and as colleagues. It was inevitable that I would ask her to work with me on our next production.

The Girl Who Cut Flowers

The Girl Who Cut Flowers was, strictly speaking, the last horse-drawn show that we undertook – in Ireland. Alison worked with me to help develop the script, and she took the lead on one of the main sections of the show. The show was inspired by the nursery rhyme drawings and paintings of the Portuguese artist Paula Rego. It was also notable for being performed in a small and claustrophobic set with a highly forced perspective. It was a fairly dark show, but turned out to be very popular. Alison made the majority of the female masks, and I the males and the animals. Somehow that particular division of labour became our habit over the next decade.

During this period the Arts Council were becoming nervous about artist-led theatre companies. One of their anxieties was around ‘succession’ i.e. who would take over when the lead artist/director left. As a result our Board began, for the first time, to worry themselves with this new concern. Already by 2002 it was clear that Alison seemed to have the potential to undertake this role well. As a consequence there didn’t seem to be any real need to take any further action beyond making sure that she was given room to develop her directing skills within Horse + Bamboo.

Company of Angels

I was happy with this arrangement, and so with our next show, Company of Angels, Alison worked closely with me. It was a sensible and natural development for our company. We shared equally the writing, designing, making and directing the show. It was very much a joint effort even though the original idea and outline had been inspired by a visit I made to an exhibition of paintings by Charlotte Salomon at the Royal Academy.

Salomon had been murdered in Auschwitz. Despite only being 26 she produced an amazing series of vivid gouaches telling the story of her life. Her visual story included the background to her immediate family; the growth of nazism, and the series of events that led her to death in a concentration camp. These Charlotte planned to be bound together as ‘Life. Or Theatre?’. It was an ambitious and almost operatic concept which included some text along with suggestions for music alongside her paintings.

Despite the grimness of the subject, Salomon’s work is full of life and colour, even humour. It’s a remarkable testament, and remains seriously under-appreciated. We worked with the Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam, who hold Salomon’s complete collection. We paid them for copyright for some of the material, but they wouldn’t allow any direct use of the images in our production. This forced us to re-imagine and re-make all aspects of her story. Although we decided to follow Charlotte Salomon’s style closely, in some ways the limitations imposed by the JH Museum liberated us from copying things too slavishly. Again, it was a very successful show, and understandably generated a lot of interest from Jewish groups and Holocaust survivors. As a result many of the shows included an introduction (or post-show discussion) from survivors.

It also led to a tour of the USA in 2004. We used a new US cast, with the exception of Jonny Quick, a regular performer and maker with Horse + Bamboo, who had also been in the UK production. Alison’s ‘In The Heart of the Beast’ contacts in Minneapolis were invaluable, and she went back to the USA in order to direct the show and its subsequent tour.

pPod

In 2004 and 2005 Alison and I worked together on a series of small puppet shows that were created for a specially designed and built structure that we called the ‘pPod’. This was built in Hamburg as an experimental space; it won an architectural award, and was the subject of numerous articles in design journals. Unfortunately, it’s mainly remembered as being devilishly difficult to erect. The shows though were short, roughly 15 minutes each, with one made by each of us, and one created jointly. That year we also toured a new version of A Strange (& Unexpected) Event! It was an especially busy time, and at this point I was mentally exhausted; close to a breakdown. Over the next few years I could see that I needed to slow down my work rate. Alison was able to both support me and take a lead on new projects during this period and I remain enormously grateful that she was there. 

In The Shadow of Trees

In 2005 I wrote a script that providing an opportunity for Alison to direct it herself. We had an inquiry for a children’s Christmas show at Manchester’s Royal Exchange Studio, and my story, In The Shadow of Trees fitted the bill perfectly. Alison directed as planned, and I designed and made the set. We both contributed to the masks and puppets. Chris Davies wrote and played music, with the Exchange’s Richard Owen devising an impressive lighting design.

The resulting show was a big success and it won two MEN awards, for the design and for the production. My stage design was included in an exhibition of contemporary stage designs at the Victoria & Albert. In The Shadow of Trees toured for two years.

Little Leap Forward

With Alison increasingly confident as a director, it was also becoming clearer that her first love was for children’s stories. She was influenced by some of the excellent illustrations in many children’s books, always looking at the possibility of using them as a source of inspiration for her theatre work. Somehow during this time she hooked up with Barefoot Books. Barefoot was a publisher that concentrated on books for children, and Alison got into discussion with Tessa Strickland, their founder. They were about to publish Little Leap Forward, which was a new venture for them as it was an autobiographical story for older children and adults. The author was Guo Yue, who had already achieved some fame as a Chinese classical bamboo flute virtuoso – and a chef.

We met with Yue and his wife Clare Farrow, who had translated the book, in late 2007. It was decided that Clare would work closely with Alison on the stage play. Meanwhile I would I design and build the set for the touring production. Yue would also work closely with Loz Kaye, our Musical Director, on the music. Yue contributed his own flute parts, which were central to the story. By now we were mainly touring without musicians, using recorded soundtracks as a way of cutting costs. Technical advances in sound equipment and recording had made this far more acceptable. It was never a complete substitute for having live musicians on stage, and whenever possible we would revive this practice.

For this production it was vital that we worked closely with Yue and Clare, but they were both very busy with other projects. It meant that the development of the show took considerably longer than previous H+B productions. Eventually the show opened at the Royal Exchange in Manchester, May 2009 and then toured into 2010.

Guardian Review
4.6.2009 Little Leap Forward **** By Lyn Gardner
The Chinese flautist Guo Yue, whose name means Little Leap Forward, was eight when Mao Zedong declared the Cultural Revolution in 1966. Like many intellectuals, his school-teacher mother was declared a counter-revolutionary and sent to the country to be “re-educated” and dig mud out of the river.

Inspired by the children’s book of the same name, but suitable for all ages, Horse + Bamboo’s show – a ravishing, wordless mix of mask work, puppetry, shadow play and music – tells Guo Yue’s story. It captures all the intensity of being eight: the brightness of the colours, the vividness of sound, the swooping shifts between exhilaration and sudden fear.

The story is linear, but this fleeting hour is so textured that the overall effect is impressionistic. The cut-out style paper design is just one of many visual pleasures: Mao’s marching Red Army is depicted by tiny puppets springing out of the kitchen drawers; the perspective is constantly shifting – one minute you feel as if you are looking down on red fish swimming up a river, the next you are watching a tiny puppet bird crossing the wide sky. The song bird, captured and caged, becomes a metaphor for Guo Yue himself, his lost mother and for the music career that eventually leads him leave China. The violence of the Cultural Revolution is never shirked.

The piece is full of grace and simple beauty – if it has a fault, it is that the storytelling is sometimes a little unclear, and it is not always easy to work out who all the characters are: it’s worth reading the programme beforehand. But this is a lovely, maverick show that focuses on ordinary lives overtaken and trampled by history.

Alison Duddle and Bob Frith

After this Alison and I continued to work together, both on touring shows and on other aspects of creative and planning work for the company. However, her love of children’s stories meant that we tended to increasingly look in slightly different directions after Little Leap Forward. Alison also became more involved in developing the Boo as a venue and as a centre for puppetry, especially for young children and families. I focused on writing, planning and directing productions and events for older audiences.

GIRL: BOB FRITH/ALISON DUDDLE (dir), JENNY BRENT, NICKY FEARN, STEFF RYAN, CHRIS DAVIES (m),
COMPANY OF ANGELS: BOB FRITH/ALISON DUDDLE (dir), NICKY FEARN, JILL PENNY, KATHY KIM, ANDREW KIM, LOZ KAYE (m), JONNY QUICK, VICTORIA LEE
SHADOW OF TREES: BOB FRITH (wr), ALISON DUDDLE (dir), CHRIS DAVIES (m), JONNY QUICK, MARK WHITAKER, NICKY FEARN, VICTORIA LEE
LITTLE LEAP: ALISON DUDDLE (dir), BOB FRITH (design), LOZ KAYE (m), JONNY QUICK, MARK WHITAKER, NICKY FEARN, KATHY KIM

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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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