Cal Crozier sits down with the director of the Musical Theatre Society’s Spring Showcase, Ben Chamberlain, to discuss the theme of journeys, the challenges of directing, and the exciting addition of a most unwieldy type of performer.

Why did you want to direct a showcase?

To start with they always say: “Don’t direct a showcase just because you want to direct.” That’s the important thing to remember, because I think we’ve had that problem before and it does cause problems. Philip Hunt said to me: “There’s no-one pitching for spring term” and I was like “Oh, I have an idea, if nobody else does.” And I threw an idea out to Michael, who kind of went “yeah cool whatever” and left it. And then I thought: “It’d be really cool if we did puppets for this number” and we picked it up for one number, and then I thought “It’d be cool to do puppets for that number”, “and puppets in that number, and puppets in THAT number.” And I was like “oh no”. And then proceeded to spend the rest of the months leading up to this pitch getting more serious about it and thinking: “this is a great idea, we can do this”. And then I had to make all these puppets!

The theme itself, which kind of gets lost amongst the puppets, is journeys, which is probably one of the worst themes in the world because every song is a journey. I mean you can definitely just say anything is a journey, so we threw in a couple of songs which actually deal with physical journeys just to be like: “oh yeah no, we’re about journeys”. The decision to direct the showcase was kind of a desire to pastorally make some change, and at the same time create a show that people were going to enjoy, and was going to challenge us. Obviously I wanted to direct as well, but mainly because it’s something new, something to push me, and something to inspire change. If you want to see change, bring the change yourself. I’m sure there’s a better quote for it but you understand where I’m coming from. Just saying: “let’s apply this, let’s do it”.

So, why puppets? What inspired that?

Why puppets? As is always with these things, it was like “that’d be funny”, and then it was like “okay let’s do it”. Puppets were a terrible idea, I hate puppets now. I never want to see puppets ever again. That’s not true. I thought it would be something new. You see, not that there’s anything wrong with all the other previous showcases, but it’s been a case of presenting a theme and executing a theme in similar fashion as before. It turns out that the puppets were a terrible idea, in that trying to sing, dance, act, and do puppets at the same time is really hard. I sit there unable to do it, so I’m glad everybody else is doing it and not me. And the puppets fall apart all the time. We never have to do it again as the idea has been done now, but it just opens up something new.

What kinds of puppets are you using?

There are four types of puppets: there’s the rod type, which are the hand-built ones, and they’re just foam and fur and things. The second type is like a hand puppet, which we bought, and are generic hand puppets. The third type are the stylised animal ones, I hate those the most. And the fourth type is just Muffin, who is the massive one operated by Richard Yuill and Fergus Macdonald, my lead puppeteers as they’ve been aptly named. And people get really excited because they think we built them, but we didn’t build them. We only built about half, and a lot of work from other volunteers went into it. The best puppet is a kingfisher. If you know Pocahontas, there’s a little hummingbird called Flit that flies around, but it’s essentially too small, so in the end we made a kingfisher. Tasha Saxby, who is playing Elle Woods in Legally Blonde, made it and it’s fantastic. It’s the best puppet we’ve got because it’s a string puppet, so technically we have five types of puppets. It’s beautiful, and admittedly I have not made the best puppets, but all of the puppets involved are great.

You already briefly mentioned it already, but what challenges arose with the puppets? And how did the performers deal with them?

They are so unruly! I mean, we’re going to see more of the challenges on the day of the show. The big challenge of the puppets is that they can’t move themselves. They can’t change their own costume, they fall apart continuously and take hours to make. I have absolutely no previous history in puppetry whatsoever; I’m not skilled in puppetry. And I know that I’ve broken all the puppetry rules, because there are regulations about where you look when you use a puppet and how you do it, and I’ve broken all of them. Essentially, we have people that are quadruple threating, as you could call it. Our choreographers have done a fantastic job in that they’ve essentially had to choreograph a dance twice, where they choreograph it for humans and then choreograph it for humans with puppets. And things like the fact that your puppet can only lift one arm, or you just can’t lift any arms, so all they can do is wave around. They’re a nightmare, but I’m hoping it’ll be worth it because they’re fun to look at. They’ll be entertaining, definitely.

That answered my next question about how one dances with a puppet.

You just get by, really. I can’t praise the choreographers enough because they haven’t worked with puppets before either. Amelia, Anna, Camilla, and Lilly, who just take it in their stride, and just do it. I told them that there would be puppets and left it up to them. The credit is down to them when it comes to the dancing, because they adapt the moves and make it look fantastic. And to the performers for practising really.

Do all of the numbers have puppets in them?

No, and I’m happy with that because I didn’t want the theme of journeys to be squashed by the puppets. I mean, let’s be fair, the theme has been squashed by the fact that there’s puppets but a lot of the solos are devoid of puppets. And there are a couple of just solid, straight up people numbers, usually smaller numbers. But I wanted that because it’s not just a show about puppets, it’s a show about journeys, which has puppets in it.

I was wondering about the more emotionally heavy songs, are there puppets in them? And how does that work?

There are. I’ll Cover You (Reprise) is the main one, and yes, there are puppets in that number. If I’ll Cover You (Reprise) can work where the puppets come on-stage and nobody laughs, then we’ve succeeded. I don’t think they will, generally because I’ve cheated. The soloist, Emilie, again is fantastic and his voice is beautiful. He sings a lot of it, the lighting will be different and the puppets will be set back so they’re not so obvious. They don’t move, they just kind of sit there. But I wanted to create that dynamic. I wanted to see if we could make sad puppets and happy puppets. We’ve kind of cheated because a lot of it is just Emilie singing his heart out. In terms of thematically, I wanted to essentially have a theme where the bitter, older characters are usually human and the more naïve, younger characters are puppets. It’s a question of seeing it really. I’ll Cover You is going to sound fantastic, so I don’t think people will laugh, but that’s the theme of it.

How do you feel about directing versus performing?

Well you’ve kind of caught me at a point where I don’t know what I want to do. For years I felt like I wanted to be an actor and performer, but I don’t think that’s what I want to do any more. I think I prefer, not necessarily directing, but just caring more. I mean I’m doing a terrible job, but its impossible to ever get it right. Just to get the respect, and then do what you think is going to make a change that’s positive for people. I said that this show would be fine without me. If I had just made the pitch and went to my team: Gracie who I say is really a co-director, not an assistant director, and went “there’s the idea” and I just walked away the show would be just as good. The vision’s important, but anybody else could convey that. I’m merely here pastorally; I’m really here to kind of check that everybody’s okay because it can be stressful. I think I do prefer the more directorial side of it now rather than performing. But that’s a very broad, sweeping statement. It’s not necessarily directing, but all production, I think, and that interests me more than just performing.

Do you have a favourite number from your show?

I don’t want to say that I don’t have a favourite number; by the end of the show I will have a favourite number. But numbers that look good, well Dancing Through Life for one. Lilly has done a fantastic job with that and it is so long. I mean, those who are in Dancing Through Life and One Short Day just before the end of the first act literally just go for ten minutes. They’re real troopers, as it’s tough to go through that much. But Dancing Through Life looks fantastic; the harmonies in I’ll Cover You (Reprise) are brilliant. The solos are absolutely magical. Journey To The Past, which Antonia sings beautifully, Astonishing with Dottie, and of course Gracie doing Ladies Who Lunch, are all beautiful numbers. But I don’t want to discredit any other numbers. I will have a favourite by the end of the show, I just don’t necessarily have one now.

Is there anything else you’d like to say?

Is this where I shamelessly plug the show?

Essentially, yes.

All right, then come along to the Coyler-Ferguson on 27 and 28 Feburary at 19:30. It is going to be, at the very least, an entertaining piece of theatre. And anyway, who can resist the allure of puppets?

Come along to the Colyer-Fergusson Music Hall on Saturday and Sunday to join Ben on this journey into the realm of musical puppetry. Tickets are priced at £8 for adults and £5 for students and concessions.