“I have had a most rare vision. I have had a dream, past the wit of man to say what dream it was.”
—William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Bristol Old Vic, in association with Handspring Puppet Company, will present the American premiere of their production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream during the 2013 season of Spoleto Festival USA. The production is director Tom Morris’ first collaboration with Handspring since their Tony Award-winning WarHorse, and the result promises to be spectacular. We are tracking the progress of this remarkable show, from development and rehearsals, to its world premiere in Bristol, its arrival in Charleston in May, and through its Festival run.

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Guest blogger Joseph Wallace, Puppetry Associate on A Midsummer Night’s Dream, discusses the integral role of puppets in the production

In our version of Shakespeare’s famous comedy, puppetry is used as more than just a technique, puppetry makes up the fabric of the world; it doesn’t just support the story, it is the story. “Carved figures and puppetry are part of the belief system that sustains this world,” says Director Tom Morris. The show uses puppetry as a way of finding life in the inanimate, as a form of social communication and as a metaphor for power and control.

Handspring Puppet Company’s Basil Jones discusses the concept of instilling life in a puppet: “Our ultimate philosophy is ‘every object has a right to life’ so anything can come alive. As puppeteers we are purveyors of life, that’s our job, we bring objects to life and here we’re in a society where it’s part of the culture to bring found things back to life. The thought that all things have the potential of life inside them is an old animist idea.”

The fairies in the piece are amalgamations of borrowed things; objects, natural forms, living bodies and tools. As Basil elaborates, “Adrian [Kohler—of Handspring Puppet Company] invented quite a few things these fairies had stolen or appropriated and become. So there’s one fairy who’s got a radio strapped to its back and the radio is the found object, but then there’s another fairy that is the found object, and the fairy’s inside of that.” Each object suggests a reference or visual context to the audience; they are relics that work as clues to a world that once existed.

At the beginning of the rehearsal process, Handspring spent a week doing puppet training with the actors, something some of them had never experienced before. Basil and Adrian worked through their principles of puppetry—breath, focus, movement, energy, timing and tempo—then almost as soon as the rules had been learned, they began to be broken as a radical and experimental puppetry language emerged in the room. When puppets are made, a certain movement or action is envisioned and they are built for a considered purpose. But when the actors get their hands on the puppets a whole other process of questioning, testing and playing gets underway and often new perspectives and functions emerge, the puppets having a second life before the show has even opened to the public.

For some people the idea of seeing the puppeteers so visibly on stage will be an unfamiliar one, although this has become common practice in contemporary theatre. Handspring are clear that the presence of the puppeteer is an essential and wonderful part of the performance. This convention invites the audience to suspend their disbelief by exposing the artifice of puppetry. We are not pretending these objects are real; we know they are puppets but if you believe with us, and come with us on this journey, you may experience something that can be incredibly moving.

Read other articles in this series:

Chapter One: The Dream is Dreamt
Chapter Three: Dream Becomes Reality


For more information on this, and other, Festival shows, please browse the season overview.