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This article first appeared in On Tour 2004, the bi-annual drama and dance magazine published by the British Council. Reproduced here with kind permission from the author and publisher.

-Acting Strange-

Last September, with support from British Council Paris, Welsh puppet company Green Ginger arrived in the French island of Réunion armed with twenty life-size puppet heads and a plan to make a pilot TV show. Terry Lee reports

There’s something superficially safe about a puppet - it’s hard to take offence at a toy, which can mean that puppets can go where actors may not. To Palestine, for instance, where Green Ginger performed in the streets and refugee camps on the West Bank during the first Intafada. Most recently, my work with the company has taken me to the French island of Réunion in the Indian Ocean, where, in partnership with the island’s own puppet-theatre company Théâtre des Alberts, we gathered personal testimonies from a wide selection of the island’s 700,000 population for Acting Strange, a pilot TV show featuring our trademark latex puppets.

This project evolved out of a previous one we’d undertaken with children at a secondary school in the valleys of South Wales. Eighteen students were interviewed about their attitudes towards relationships, sex and gender roles, and their responses were recorded on minidisc. The morning recording session separated boys from girls and focused on how each group viewed the other. In the afternoon they came together for improvisation workshops on similar themes, which were again recorded. Five hours of sonic material were edited down to a ten minute soundtrack. Meanwhile, a set of puppets of adolescents had been produced and a temporary TV studio set up in a nearby arts centre. Over a week, the same students were taught puppetry techniques and then filmed whilst manipulating puppets to their voices on the soundtrack. The resulting video was shown to the school on the final day. The puppets offered anonymity for the young people, distancing them from their own remarks and thereby providing them with a valuable tool for the expression of difficult issues. The students’ self esteem was tangibly lifted by a process which valued their voices and what they had to say. Their pride was evident at the school screening.

This working model was replicated in Réunion, where, armed with puppet-heads, workshop puppets, a laptop, microphones and minidiscs, I arrived in September 2003 with Laurence de Jonge, a Belgian AV editor. On arrival, we contacted youth groups, schools, the Conservatoire, homeless organisations and families with adolescents. We offered free drama workshops to any young people who would let us record their voices; requesting that they signed release forms to allow us to use the material in a puppet-film. This time the plan was to separate the voice gathering from the puppetry and to train a team who could produce a broadcast quality TV programme that could be seen by a wider audience.

Twenty puppet-heads, depicting teenagers from all communities on the island (one of the most racially mixed populations in the world), had already been created in Wales with financial support from British Council Paris. The heads, carved from foam, were covered in chamois that was then airbrushed to achieve the different skin colours. The bodies, built around inflatable travel cushions, and costumes collected from visits to second-hand street markets, were made on the island at Théâtre des Alberts’s workshop. Inside the company’s small theatre, we built a blue-screen TV studio and outside, facing fields of sugarcane and geraniums, we offered a week’s training in TV puppetry techniques for 12 islanders. The trainees were taught how to lip synch with life-size hand puppets and learnt all about blue-screen techniques. They achieved astonishing physicality with their performances on a hugely ambitious shoot.

The heart of the process, however, was the gathering of the sound-recordings. By collecting and storing hundreds of responses to a raft of questions, we built a library of wonderfully strange conversations, around which the TV show could be based. The questions we asked the islanders went beyond the gender issues that we had focused on in the Welsh Valleys project. Starting with ice-breakers, such as asking for recommendations for tourists visiting the island, we moved onto passions, hates and fears. Our interviewees were always encouraged to lie and questions on imaginary diseases or weird neighbours proved rich sources for humour. We became interested in who these people could pretend to be as much as who they were – as invariably, when instructed to lie, people say truly perceptive things about themselves.

In five weeks we recorded 170 Réunionnais replying to impertinent questions. Some of the island's communities, like the Chinese, are more insular and difficult to get access to. Direct questions to Muslims on sexuality were clearly inappropriate. Some sources were much richer than others; our highest success rate was at the Conservatoire which produces the best young actors on the island. Yet chance meetings by the side of the road yielded stunning voice recordings. Invariably female groups produced more quality material than male ones. One session recording five young women from A.T.D Quart Monde (for those in need) lasted three hours. Adolescent males on the island found talking about themselves, even in an imaginary way, much more difficult.

Meanwhile, from the bulging sound library, we assembled absurd conversations which the puppets lip synched to in a series of pilot three-minute episodes. After two weeks of editing, all who gave their voices were invited to the première which was projected onto a giant screen. Many wanted to see it three times. Before leaving Réunion, we delivered DVD copies to the educational establishments with which we’d collaborated and had meetings with various government agencies and production houses on the island. It seems likely that the future of this project will lie in selling it directly to TV producers in France and Belgium. The pilot film has generated great interest already and will be screened at several short film festivals later this year. In the meantime, the puppet-heads are safely stored in Réunion, awaiting either the TV series or the next multi-racial project.

In Réunion, the project’s legacy has been terrific: the Conservatoire has decided to include puppetry in its curriculum (Green Ginger is currently in discussion with them about its future delivery) and three of the twelve puppeteers we trained are working on their first solo shows. Workshops are usually bolt-on additions to touring shows, but the Acting Strange process is different because it offers a commitment of time for the sound gathering which in itself becomes a cultural exchange. It can carry an agenda: sexual health, politics, old age or social-exclusion. Or it can simply enjoy the way that people speak.

Terry Lee founded Green Ginger in 1978, and is the co-writer/deviser with Chris Pirie of the company’s successful touring theatre shows: Frank Einstein, Slaphead and BAMBI the Wilderness Years (which won the Best Production prize at the 2002 World Festival of Puppet Arts in Prague).

A DVD of the Réunion project is available from Green Ginger by emailing Green Ginger is actively seeking international partners for forthcoming projects.