Interview- Laura Purcell Gates and Tobi Poster from Wattle and Daub Figure Theatre

TB Co-Writer-in-Residence  Tom Wainwright spoke to Laura Purcell Gates and Tobi Poster from Wattle and Daub Figure Theatre  about their upcoming all day event at Tobacco Factory, Performing The Freak

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Pic by Paul Blakemore

TOM Now then Performing The Freak is a fascinating looking event. And a good deal more than just a basic puppetry workshop, yes?

LAURA Yes – the morning workshop is geared towards using puppetry not just as puppeteers, but to engage with issues of disability. The idea is that this kind of approach could be used for other issues as well, so the skills learnt would apply broadly. The afternoon section brings together the show’s artists, medical students who have been involved in discussions that have shaped the show, and a professor who specialises in the show’s core theme: monstrosity in the 18th century. It’ll be a sort of behind-the-scenes combination of puppetry, musical recital, and medical/philosophical debate.

TOM Whoa! You need to back it up here – this is blowing my mind! Remember, you’re talking to someone who’s last piece of work was a rapping beaver. This sounds epic. How can puppetry be used to engage with issues of disability? You say “this kind of approach.” What is it? The approach?

LAURA Remember that we’re still working on the show – Tobi’s just on the phone with the composer to see if we can incorporate a rapping beaver (we’ll be in touch).The approach draws on the standard therapy technique of using puppets to stand in for ourselves or others; the difference is that in this case participants will be making puppets and exploring the unique ways in which they can move and live in the world, which challenges the idea that there is one ‘right’ body to have. We’ll also be building puppets that address the ways we feel ‘monstrous’ and might be perceived as monstrous by others. Does that make sense?

TOM Well hang on – I need to check with my agent that’s OK.

…Yeah he says that’s fine. Really looking forward to working with you. And yes, it does make sense. The making process divides into two hemispheres, one that empowers participants by taking ownership of their feelings of monstrosity, and the other that empowers participants by celebrating who they are, or rather how they are. At which point I completely overstretch myself by drawing comparison to this short film by Pro Infirmis last year. Assuming I haven’t got this full wrong, I can imagine, no doubt incorrectly, how you might go about the latter. But how do you go about addressing people’s feelings of monstrosity? That’s a very sensitive area, no? (Don’t worry, I won’t hyperlink to a Dove viral)

LAURA That’s great news; the composer’s working on a bring-down-the-house number for you as we speak.The Pro Infirmis film is a really interesting example of directly challenging our perceptions of ‘normal’ or ‘perfect’ bodies, which is one of the aims of our workshop. You’re absolutely right that we’ll be treading on sensitive ground around self-perception and feelings of monstrosity. This is why we’re using puppets (who allow us to be at one remove from what we’re exploring) and also why the workshop will be facilitated by us but led by the participants, including how deep they want to go into the issues. It’s about creating a space within which we collectively examine our own and others’ perceptions of normality and monstrosity. 

TOM That’s great…Barry [The Beaver]’s got some lyrics for your MD to compose to…”I don’t understand the internetI go click clickand it makes me incredibly vexed.” Let me know if you’d like more.Sounds like people will have achieved more between 10 and 12 on the saturday morning then many of us do in forever. Now the afternoon: I’ve heard of performance lectures. Is this more a performance seminar, or “perfeminar?”

LAURA Excellent; Barry’s scansion works perfectly with the soaring ballad we have in mind.A ‘perfeminar’ is pretty much what it is – we’ll have music, a lecture, discussion and debate, and of course puppets. Basically we’re bringing a composer, a librettist/puppeteer, a director, two singers, four medical students, and one professor together on stage to explore the ways in which this show engages with issues of monstrosity in the 18th century and today. We’ll be looking at the history of medicine, ‘freak shows’ in the streets and in hospitals, and how theatre and science can have a dialogue with each other around these issues.

TOM That’s the sort of outside the box outside the box thinking that people suggest at Open Space events and then make solo shows about rapping beavers. How do you think theatre and science can have that dialogue?

LAURA The interesting thing is that we already have been having that dialogue, meeting with medical students from University of Bristol’s Medical Humanities programme over the past few months and talking through the show with them. The show is based on the true story of an 18th-century man who couldn’t stop eating (including cats, snakes and human remains), his recruitment by the French Revolutionary Army, and the unsuccessful (and quite unpleasant) attempts to cure him. This is the kind of thing the medical students have had a great time digging into – someone with a strange medical condition whose doctor referred to him as a ‘monster’. They’ve been using the story to examine the history and ethics of this medical profession they’re entering. And we’ve learned so much from these discussions, which have influenced the direction the show’s taking. It’s really taught us how limiting it can be to think of theatre and science as operating in separate spheres when they have so much to offer each other.

TOM This poor man! I’m already having Elephant Man-esque attacks of empathy for him. Is this the sort of story that’ll reduce us all to floods of snotty tears?

TOBI  It’s an interesting comparison – as our medical students have pointed out, Tarrare is a slightly harder sell than Joseph Merrick, a sensitive soul who loved poetry and wild flowers and never ate amputated human limbs. Empathy is absolutely the right word though; we don’t want the audience to pity Tarrare, we’re just trying to humanise his story without shying away from any of the details that made people consider him monstrous. I certainly think it’s hard to remain unmoved by the plight of a human being so much at the mercy of their own appetites (actual amounts of snot and tears produced may vary).  

Performing The Freak takes place at Tobacco Factory Theatre on29/03/14, 10am – 2pm & 2 – 5 pm

Workshop only: £10 / Afternoon only: £12 / Full day: £20 (£18 conc)

Booking: 0117 902 0344 or go to