Here’s a review of a talk by Ray and Bev Langton from Shrewsbury Morris about how they ran a project to build a giant puppet – Septimus the Giant Shrewsbury Cobbler. The project was undertaken with professional puppeteers from Thingumajig Theatre and successful funding applications. It was held on 7th February and attended by over 40 guests.
“You are at a Morris practice (remember those?), and it has been announced that you have been invited to perform at an important festival. You have practised all your dances to perfection and re-invented your processional, but you still feel you need something spectacular to add to the performance. Among the various ideas put out at random, someone is heard to say, ‘Why don’t we make our own giant?!’ And there is huge enthusiasm. ‘We can take it to other festivals!’ ‘We can enter in the local carnival!’ ‘We can dance with it around the town!’
“Hang on there! Before you start, have you considered:
- How are you going to make it? You are going to need help.
- How will you pay for it? You will have to apply for funding.
- Where will you make it? You will need sole use of a venue for at least two weeks.
- Who is going to make it? Involve the local community as well as the Morris side.
- Who is the giant going to be? It is best if it is connected to the locality and have its own story.
- How will you perform with it? You may need new music, dances and performing techniques.
- And then there is height, weight, animation, portability, transport, ease and speed of assembly, storage …
- And maybe associated projects: banners, an exhibition, new publicity, new T-shirts …
“All these considerations and more were covered by Bev and Ray Langton of Shrewsbury Morris, when they introduced us to Septimus, the Giant Cobbler of Shrewsbury and took us through the project which led to his construction and eventual first performance. As Bev said, this was a one-off project that cannot be replicated as it came about through a series of unique features and ‘happy co-incidences’, which included working with Thingumajig Theatre and also tapping into the various skills of members of Shrewsbury Morris whose many talents include story-writing, graphic design and having a contact for hiring sole use of a village hall for two weeks.
“First, we were given the background. Ray and Bev were approached at Sidmouth in 2018 by Andrew and Kathy Kim, professional puppet-makers and performers with Thingumajig Theatre, with the idea of collaboration between them, Shrewbury Morris and volunteers from the local community to make an animated giant to be used in performance around the town of Shrewsbury. This led to successful funding applications from the Arts Council England and Shrewsbury Town Council and vast amounts of planning in terms of logistics, construction and performance. A character and name were chosen by Shrewsbury Morris and one of their members, a professional writer, wrote his back-story. New dances and new tunes to be performed with the giant were written and practised upfront.
“With two weeks to go until the first performance, Andrew and Kathy moved in and construction began, all recorded by a professional film company. This film provided the second half of the talk and it was riveting. With the action speeded-up it enhanced the incredible skills of puppet maker Andrew as he modelled the huge head and beautiful face from wet clay, painted the so-lifelike green eyes and supervised the construction of the frame.
“Thingumajig Theatre specialise in animation, so Septimus was designed to move. His head was made to turn and his arms to move individually, each moved by separate puppeteers. Meanwhile, teams of pattern makers and sewing machine operators were working on the clothes and flags. Everything was finished late in the evening, the day before the first performance in The Square, Shrewsbury, when Septimus was introduced to the town.
“So what did we all take away from this talk? We certainly learned the complications and considerations involved in making a giant and in devising a wider project. But we also learned that, although giants may not be within reach of every Morris side, we all have our own talents, interests and creative abilities that can be used to make or create something that that will compliment and enhance our performance and that will become unique to us. We were encouraged to involve other artists in performances and days of dance, and to get to know and work with our local community. So look forward to some exciting shows when we all get back onto the streets again.
“Thank you, Ray and Bev, for your practicality and your inspiration.
by Gail Duff, Rabble Folk Theatre in Maidstone, Kent
Thingumajig Theatre are professional puppeteers who worked with Shrewsbury Morris to build Septimus. Like so many professional artists, puppeteers and performers, they have lost so much of their work since March 2020. Participants helped buy them a few coffees: https://www.buymeacoffee.com/ThingumaTheatre/we-love-puppets-puppeteers-need-coffee
Resources: On the Shrewsbury Morris website www.shrewsburymorris.co.uk, if you hover over the tab for ‘Septimus the Giant Shrewsbury Cobbler’ you will find 3 sub-sections:
- The Making of Septimus – see the 12 min video: https://youtu.be/KPL5xKIv02E
- The Inaugural Performance of Septimus – see the 3 min video: https://youtu.be/RrL0w0cXp5U
- Septimus – The Exhibition
Thingumajig Theatre is a visual theatre company based in West Yorkshire, specialising in creating and performing innovative puppet plays and interactive giant puppets. Photos and info about Thingumajig Theatre’s other exciting past projects may be found at: http://thingumajig.info/past-projects/