Every year at Christmas time, the Birmingham Rep offers something a little bit different to the traditional panto fare. This year it is bringing an eagerly awaited production of 101 Dalmatians to Birmingham and last week, on World Theatre Day, I was lucky enough to get behind the scenes at the Rep, to watch a rehearsal, chat to the cast and director Tessa Walker, designer Jamie Vartan and puppet director Jimmy Grimes. It was a fascinating look at what goes into the production of a Christmas classic.
In this first post I am going to bring you the chat with director Tessa and puppet director Jimmy, who talked about why they chose 101 Dalmatians for this year’s adaptation, and the problems of illustrating 101 dogs on stage.
After watching a rehearsal scene where all the dalmatians have escaped from their captors and are hiding in a barn, Tessa chatted to us about the production.
She explained that she had wanted to do the show for years, but the rights had only become available last year. Tessa loves the story as it is ‘such a beautiful story, a real classic but with room to make it contemporary’. She explained that in some ways the show is loyal to the Disney cartoon which is full of beautiful pastel coloured backdrops, with all the poise and elegance of the 1950s period. Tessa also loved that the story is something that couldn’t happen today ‘101 missing puppies would be all over Twitter.’
Tessa has previously worked with puppies on the adaptation of ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’ and was keen to work with them again. She admits to being obsessed with how to make it work when there are such a lot of dogs, and only 12 cast members to work them all. The main difference in this production and ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’ is the scale, that had one huge puppet, whilst 101 Dalmatians has lots of smaller, different puppets. But there is also a difference in the tone, this is a story of love, greed and consumerism, and there is a new score sung by Cruella – all her monologues are in song, so this is very exciting.
Tessa explained what they were looking for in Cruella.
We were interested in someone who identified with what she was doing. Wanted to give Cruella a heart, too easy to just say she is greedy and wants a coat. We needed someone who would get some sort of sympathy, but also someone who could sing the monologues. There is something about when someone stops talking and starts to sing, it takes the story up another level.
I asked Tessa if there was a reason why the Rep always produced something slightly darker than the usual Christmas offering. Tessa explained that they look at what the city of Birmingham has to offer in terms of theatre and try to offer something different, something darker. Tessa believes the darker the story, the more lightness you can find. You have to be mindful of how much the children in the audience are scared, but children do like the darker elements, and love rooting for the good guys.
Jimmy gave us a fascinating chat about the puppets used in the show. He explained that the puppets need to look physically realistic and recognisable in their mannerisms. There would usually be one puppeteer per dog, but this creates issues in a play called 101 dalmatians so you need a solution. The solution was a wide range of different puppets, from dogs that are just heads on sticks, to dogs that have no back legs.
We are asking the audience to fill in the gaps, with the puppets bodies blending in physically with the physicality of the puppets.
Jimmy explained that one of the most wonderful scenes that illustrate the scope of the puppets is the dogs with their owners walking in Regents Park. We were shown a Scottie dog on wheels – this simply needs to walk so doesn’t need as much range. Jimmy explained that this puppet was influenced by the Fisher Price dogs and ducks on wheels that were popular in the 1970s/1980s, something the audience might recognise.
Jimmy explains that the dogs face big emotional scenes, lots of running and escaping so they need to be able to move in a range of ways. In addition, the dogs need mannerisms that are recognisable characteristics – the poodle struts and wiggles her bottom, a cat who has slower movements that pick out the essence of her character. The main dogs are slightly human in order to convey their emotions and feelings.
Birmingham Rep Theatre
30th November to 13th January 2018
Click here for ticket information