Caro Meets Children's Show Interview Theatre Interview

Sue Buckmaster: The Global Playground

By | Published on Friday 25 June 2021

As some of you may be aware, the Manchester International Festival is beginning soon, and like many festivals this year, it has a fair few events happening online.

One of the shows that’s happening in person – but can also be viewed digitally on demand – is ‘The Global Playground’ from family show specialists Theatre-Rites, who celebrate their twenty-fifth anniversary this year.

I wanted to find out more about ‘The Global Playground’, as well as the company behind it. So I spoke to Theatre-Rites’ Artistic Director – puppetry specialist Sue Buckmaster – who is also director of the show.

CM: Can we start by talking about what to expect from ‘The Global Playground’ in terms of genre and style? What kind of show is it?
SB: We are creating a live in-person and digital experience for family and school audiences, and if you were to label the genre, it would be contemporary dance theatre featuring live music, film and puppetry.

Pre-pandemic we had planned an immersive audience experience, but it became impossible to imagine asking audiences to move around in crowds. However, whilst they will be seated, they will still feel immersed in the world of a film shoot.

CM: Who is it about and what story does it tell?
SB: Essentially, it’s a show about all of us, about our collective and individual experience of the camera and how we connect with it and through it.

The audience will enter into a space filled with lights and diffusers where they will meet the director of a film. The director is overwhelmed and under-prepared and his camera seems to have a life of its own.

The dancers he has booked for the film arrive one by one and, as he tries to take control, his camera has other plans.

CM: What themes does the show explore?
SB: It investigates and celebrates our experience of finding both pleasure and difficulty in our real and our digital playgrounds. It emphasises our human need to always remain connected and seen by others, and explores how we should go about meeting this need with kindness, fun and respect.

CM: Can you tell us a bit about the creative team behind it?
SB: I’m the director of ‘The Global Playground’ and, since 2019, I’ve been working with the incredible South African choreographer Gregory Maqoma and designer Ingrid Hu – who I previously collaborated with on Akram Khan Company’s ‘Chotto Xenos’ – developing ideas for this project.

The music has been created by the wonderful composer and musician Ayanna Witter-Johnson who, together with sound designer Nick Sagar, has created the soundscore for the show.

We were delighted to work once again with the brilliant lighting designer Guy Hoare and production manager Ali Beale. And the final member of the creative team is Martin Riley, who has overseen our digital film and production, guiding us through the complexities of creating the digital offer.

CM: Can you tell us about the cast?
SB: We are working in person with four exciting young dancers – Jahmarley Bachelor, Annie Edwards, Kennedy Junior Muntanga and Charmene Pang – who have been rehearsing the show in Manchester. Our fifth dancer, Thulani Chauke, from South Africa, could not travel, but appears on film in both the in-person and digital offer. The talented puppeteer/performer Sean Garratt has embodied the life of a scatty film director, and all of the show is accompanied by the wonderful percussion of Merlin Jones.

CM: As you’ve mentioned, the show is going to be available digitally as well as being performed to live audiences. Lots of shows are offering digital streams at the moment to reach wider audiences whilst social distancing still applies. Can you see the practice of streaming performed events continuing once social distancing rules are relaxed?
SB: I think it’s essential that this offer continues, where possible, not just for those in society who will feel anxious once social distancing rules are relaxed, but because there will always be people who, for many reasons, cannot access the spaces where theatre traditionally takes place.

It does add additional demands to any rehearsal and production period, but we are all striving to create digital offers that honour and embrace the audience in equal measure to the in-person experience. It feels like a new artform and we are still finding our way.

CM: The company, Theatre-Rites, reaches a 25 year milestone this year. Can you tell us a bit about the company? How did it come together, and what are its aims and ethos?
SB: Theatre-Rites was founded by the late and inspirational artist and theatre maker Penny Bernand, who invited me to work on ‘Houseworks’ in 1996, a site-specific show with puppetry and object animation that put the company on the map.

Together our vision was to offer family audiences the same quality of experience as the best theatre being created for an adult audience.

We ensure that children’s needs are always considered, acknowledged and catered for, and that they are allowed to discover who they are and to reflect on the world around them.

Play is a major part of our creative process, and by having our childhood selves at the heart of our work it allows us to remain curious and groundbreaking.

CM: Difficult question, but: what would you say are the highlights of the past 25 years?
SB: Happily, there are far too many to choose from. Often the highlights are not the awards or premieres but the less visible and showy experiences.

From the joy of meeting new artists, to having a school group visit rehearsals to provide feedback, from those unexpected audience reactions, to the stories people tell us about how their children, now in their 20s or even 30s, still remember their first Theatre-Rites show.

Everything has been possible thanks to a huge family of friends and colleagues and we are proud to have played a part in the transformation in people’s understanding of puppetry and challenging, thought-provoking theatre for children.

CM: What are you doing to celebrate the big anniversary?
SB: We are planning a moment to celebrate with an in-person and digital event on 28 Jul, which is the day before publication of our new book, ‘Theatre-Rites: Animating Puppets, Objects and Sites’, written by me and company board member Dr Liam Jarvis.

The online celebration will be a free ticketed event available via our mailing list and will feature appearances by familiar faces, short clips from the last 25 years, and an ‘in conversation’ with me and Juliet Stevenson.

CM: It must be great to be looking forward to performing again after the lockdown. How has the company managed through the pandemic?
SB: A few weeks before the government announced the first lockdown we made the difficult decision to cancel the imminent rehearsals and tour of ‘Big Up!’, our co-production with 20 Stories High. After the pain of ‘unproducing’ we were able to work with the amazing ‘Big Up!’ team to create some playful digital content inspired by the show.

We took time to care for the wellbeing of our core staff and our extended family, to give people space to breathe, but to also adapt our practices and explore what would be creatively possible through digital collaboration.

We created two online masterclasses, two short films for the Spark Festival in Leicester, a short 35 minute film of ‘The Incredible Tale Of Robot Boy’, which premiered at the Festival Of Curiosity in Dublin, and we worked with one of our associates to deliver a week’s training residency at the Tramshed in London.

And, of course, we continued to cast and develop ‘The Global Playground’ with Manchester International Festival, including two weeks of research on Zoom. It’s not a year we’d like to repeat, and on reflection we may, like many, have felt the need to create too many online offers, but we learnt a lot.

CM: What aims does the company have for the future?
SB: We want to continue to challenge ourselves, to work with new artists and artforms, and to support and develop puppetry skills across the theatre sector.

It is likely to be a difficult few years ahead for live arts and at the mature age of 25 we have a responsibility to support, nurture and build resilience in a generation of new talent.

And, of course, we will continue to offer our ever-changing young audience theatrical experiences full of imagination and wonder.

CM: What’s coming up next after this?
SB: Immediately after ‘The Global Playground’, we’ll be launching our book and starting pre-production for our next show, ‘Zoe’s Peculiar Journey Through Time’, which we’re creating for Burgtheater Vienna.

‘The Global Playground’ is on at the Manchester International Festival from 2-18 Jul, and will also be available to watch digitally on demand. For more information and to book, see the festival website here.

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Photo of Jahmarley Bachelor: Chris Nash