Family theatre company Stuff & Nonsense whose live shows include The Gingerbread Man, The Elves and the Shoemaker and Goldilocks & The Three Bears, return to Waterside this Christmas with a new show, The Man Who Wanted to be a Penguin. Carmel Thomason chats Stuff & Nonsense artistic director, Niki McCretton to find out what to expect.
It’s great to see Stuff & Nonsense back at Waterside. What is it about the venue that works so well for your company’s work?
Niki: “It’s so great to be back! We love working with venues who really care about their audience having a brilliant time – from friendly ushers greeting them when they step in the venue to highly skilled technicians ensuring all the lighting and sound effects are polished and professional. We always experience this at Waterside.
“This time, as we’re here for a few weeks, the team at Waterside are going the extra mile and helping us to give workshops at local schools and dress the foyer space inspired by the show, lots of extras that help audiences get to know us and have an even better experience”.
Can you tell us briefly what the Man Who Wanted to Be a Penguin is about?
Niki: “The main character is an enthusiastic, curious man who spends much of his time tinkering in his shed inventing things. He becomes fascinated by penguins, and language, and plans to travel to the Antarctic. He first learns to speak the penguin’s language, and the audience learn a few words too!
“When he arrives in the Antarctic he has to find his way to fit in with a community that’s very different to what he’s used to. When he uses his invention skills to help them find a genius solution to a very time-consuming problem, they accept him with open arms/wings!
“The play explores individuality, being different, learning to communicate, and fitting in. Overall it is great fun, joyful and exploratory. The first half of the show is set in the man’s garden, where he interacts with various characters (notably a neighbour and postie) and the second half in the Antarctic”.
How do you create the characters on stage?
Niki: “We create the characters alongside the story, always thinking about how they would react to certain events to help build their personalities. We only have two actors but they each play lots of different characters – either human or puppets.”
Can you tell us a bit more about the puppets?
Niki: “Our brilliant puppet-maker Holly Miller creates mock-up puppets for us initially, that we use when we’re creating the story and scenes, and then she designs each one individually and hand makes them in the studio at our base, The Lyric Theatre in Bridport, Dorset. We use a variety of sizes and types of puppets, and all are operated by the two actors in the show – this keeps the actors very busy!”
Did you create the show with a Christmas show in mind?
Niki: “We never make our shows with a Christmas-y theme as they need to be suitable for touring throughout the year. Plus, we want our shows to be a treat for everyone, whether or not they celebrate Christmas. And often parents tell us that they appreciate a break from the Christmas overload at this time of year! What we do have in mind however, for each and every one of our shows, is that feeling of going somewhere as a family for a special treat, building memories together and talking about it for years to come”.
What makes it a great Christmas show?
Niki: “This show has a magical, wintery feel. The snow, penguins and icy scenes are really seasonal. Children always go home talking about our shows, maybe making things they’ve seen, singing the songs, acting out scenes or pretending to be characters they’ve met. So this gives families lots of inspiration for things they can do at home, especially during the winter holidays when we spend lots of time together indoors.”
What age group is it aimed at?
Niki: “It’s particularly aimed at children aged 3-10, but we always receive feedback from audiences that whole families have enjoyed our shows. We have lots of grandparents treating grandchildren, and lots of littlies for whom it’s their first theatre trip. We make sure that there is something for everyone to enjoy, whatever their age”.
Can you tell us a bit about the digital workshops you are running this half term?
Niki: “This is something new for us, building on some of the digital work we did during lockdowns. They’re a chance for families, or school groups, to join our artists and test their creative skills! You can either make a puppet, or learn how to make your own song. No previous experience or specialist equipment is needed. You can either follow along with us, or let your creative juices flow and do something quite different! For the crafty puppet making sessions we encourage people to use recycled items like newspaper, cereal boxes and yoghurt pots. Anyone can give them a go, you don’t need to have seen the show. We recommend them for ages 6+”.
How do you keep your imagination creative and fresh as a child’s?
Niki: “By playing and spending lots of time with children! Children co-create our shows with us. This means that they are with us in the rehearsal room coming up with ideas, sharing their feedback and critiquing the development of the show at each stage. This is essential to us, as we need to keep reminding ourselves how children think differently and imaginatively. We also do lots of research, including watching a huge variety of films and reading lots of books, to continue widening our perspectives”.
If you could be a penguin for a day what would be the most fun part of that for you?
Niki: “Using my roller skates on the ice. Oh wait, would my skates still fit if I had penguin feet?…”
Is there anything else you’d like to say about the show?
Niki: “If you’re nervous about bringing young children to the theatre for the first time, we’d love you to just give it a go; you will be very welcomed. We don’t mind at all if your children don’t sit still and quiet the whole way through; our actors have worked with children for years and have seen/heard it all!”
Stuff and Nonsense Theatre Company presents The Man Who Wanted to be a Penguin at Waterside Arts, Sale from 30 November to 31 December 2022.
Digital workshops on puppet making and song writing designed by Stuff & Nonsenseare available from October half term (22 October) at £10 per workshop from Waterside’s website.