About this Blog


This research and development blog is supported by Wellcome Trust and maintained by Research IT at Bristol University

Project Partners

Dr Alan Bates, Honorary Senior Lecturer in Pathology, University College London
Dr John Lee, Director of Intercalated BA in Medical Humanities, Bristol University
Professor David M. Turner, Swansea University

The Depraved Appetite of Tarrare the Freak is supported by

Wellcome Trust
Arts Council England
Tobacco Factory Theatres
Bath Spa University
New Diorama Theatre
Puppet Place
Bristol Ferment at Bristol Old Vic
Theatre Bristol
Weston College

Creative Team

A Chamber Opera by Tom & Tobi Poster
Director // Sita Calvert-Ennals
Associate Director, Director of development process // Laura Purcell-Gates
Story in collaboration with Hattie Naylor
Produced by Strike A Light // Executive Producer, Sarah Blowers; Producer Ellie Harris
Production Design // Rebecca Wood
Lighting Design // Mark Parry
Puppet Design // Wattle & Daub with Emma Powell
Music Director // An-Ting Chang

Demoing new songs for the directors

We demo some new songs to the directors. It would be fair to say that we are not singers, but I am comforted by the story of Todd Duncan, the original Porgy, who recalls hearing the opera for the first time when George and Ira Gershwin “stood there with their awful, rotten, bad voices and sang the whole score”…

Meanwhile the storyboard continues to take shape:


July R&D Period

A week of further R&D supported by the Tobacco Factory. Several days of storyboarding (see pic below) and devising are followed by a day exploring the possibilities offered by a) integrating the singers into the onstage action and b) the male soprano voice, courtesy of Dan, who is thrown into the deep end on his first day meeting the company!

Throwing around some ideas:

Storyboarding in a local cafe:


Laura on singing puppets


More observations from the director:

A central question we brought with us into this R&D process was about the relationship between music, movement, and puppetry. How can puppets express themselves musically, both through movement informed by music and through ‘singing’? While I am personally a huge fan of the Muppets, we want to avoid ‘Muppet-style’ singing for our puppets. This has proved a challenge, in no small part because Muppet-style movements for singing or speaking puppets has embedded itself so deeply in the movement vocabularies we tend to fall back on when puppeteering.

In an attempt to create a different kind of movement vocabulary for puppet singing – particularly the slower, more emotionally expressive songs in the piece – we’ve spent some time researching musical theatre performances including performances from Sweeney Todd and West Side Story. We looked closely at performers’ bodies, as our puppets must rely on bodily shifts for expression, having fairly static faces (their jaws move, but part of our aesthetic is keeping the faces rigid and finding the ranges of expression within something that is intentionally left looking like a material object rather than like an organic being).

Movement analysis of ballads in these shows has taught us several important points about the body’s relationship to emotional expression in song. First, that less is more – clear focus and restrained use of head and hand movements focuses meaning into those gestures that are used. A related point is clarity of thought – by giving a puppet a specific focus for each independent thought in a song, the meaning of the song is conveyed much more clearly. This is related to a technique that I learned from director Lisa Wolpe which she applied to Shakespearean acting, a technique she called ‘geography of thought’, in which the performer physically locates each separate thought in a monologue within the theatrical space, shifting her focus from one location to another as the thought (as expressed through the text) shifts. We played today with having our puppets do this, and it proved successful in clarifying the meaning of songs, telling the ‘story’ of the song with specificity and energy directed outward (a key point for encouraging the audience to emotionally engage with the puppet). For example, if a puppet sang the line ‘before you arrived there was only me and my sister, the others dismissed her and I’, the puppet would ‘see’ an image of her and her sister being ridiculed in the upper right corner of the audience, and direct her focus (via the puppeteer) to that image. Then as soon as the thought shifted, her visual focus would shift to another part of the theatre, where she would see a new image.

Another lesson we learned from movement analysis of musical theatre performances was the importance of physical levels of tension, particularly in the sternum. As songs build in emotion, singer/performers tend to increase the level of tension in the torso, particularly around the emotionally-expressive centre of the sternum. We initially weren’t sure whether this would translate to puppet physicality, but found that – at least with the puppets in this show – it does: they can increase tension in their torsos, and expand or collapse their sternums, in order to convey particular types of emotional engagement.

We’re looking forward to more discoveries around this theme of movement/music/puppetry, and also to hearing Ferment audience feedback on how they found the puppets’ singing of their more emotionally-charged songs!

Observations from the director/more photos!

Laura discusses a key aspect of her process as director/facilitator:


One of the challenges of directing a devising process is figuring out how to facilitate exploration outside of pure discussion—facilitating on-your-feet, improvisatory material generation that resists the temptation to just sit around and talk about what should be in the piece. In the case of this process, we had already done a fair amount of talking about the piece as we collaborated on the narrative with writer Hattie Naylor, who developed a ‘treatment’ of the story that we brought into the rehearsal room with us. The task was to take this treatment and bring it together with the puppets in an open way that allowed the puppets themselves to lead the creation process within an existing structure.

We used a facilitated improvisatory process with the puppets, in which I led each puppet individually through a guided improvisation based partly on what I already knew of them from the narrative, and partly on how they responded to verbal prompts drawn both from the narrative (such as ‘how did you feel when you realised you couldn’t help?’) and from the space (such as ‘what’s so interesting to you about the ceiling?’). The puppets were silent throughout, except on rare occasions when I needed clarifications on a detail, so most of the improvisation was movement-led.

We found this process extremely helpful in digging into the deeper levels of each character, and in developing the dramaturgies of specific character arcs – developments that informed both the subsequent staging and the writing of lyrics. The fact that the verbal prompts were influenced by the puppets themselves (I never knew at the beginning of a session where the improvisation was headed, and the puppeteers were just as often surprised by how the puppets responded) meant the puppets themselves were leading their own development – an important point for us as we want our work to be puppet- or object-led as much as possible, as we believe puppets/objects have their own meanings and stories embedded within them that can be discovered, rather than imposing our own ideas on them.

Some behind the scenes process photos:


And some pictures from the songwriting and promo recording sessions:


Q&A with Aya

We’ve been hard at work writing and recording the score (we’ll be performing the work-in-progress with live singers but recorded piano – ultimately we hope to use a live chamber ensemble). We’ll be puting up some promos of the music in the next day or so, but in the meantime, here’s a Q&A with one of our key collaborators, performer, deviser and maker Aya Nakamura, on her experiences so far working on the show. Enjoy!


What drew you to working with Wattle & Daub Figure Theatre?

The fact that they are puppet orientated company, rather than a theatre company who would like to use puppets in their project. I knew they would be much more sympathetic toward what puppets and puppeteers need. And they also make their puppets themselves. So the process of making show and design of puppets (aesthetically and technically) would be intertwined. This is how I work so I found their way of working is much comfortable to me and I knew I would learn a lot from them as well as I would have a lot to share with them.

Can you describe your background and interest in puppetry?
I have worked as a puppeteer and puppet maker for last 6 years. I have worked with many companies, and the shows I have worked on are wide range; live art type, commercial shows, street theatre, carnivals, TV adverts, short films and texted based show with puppets. Well anything to do with puppets! I am an associate artist of Rouge28 Theatre where we have created a one-woman puppet piece called Urashima Taro. This piece was presented in well-established puppet festival at Charleville in France which I am very proud of. My particular interest in puppet is a relationship between a puppet and its puppeteer and how puppeteers can make puppet appears to be alive. I fell in love with puppet while I was studying theatre design in London and decided to pursue puppetry further. I did MA in puppets and trained under German puppet artist Ilka Schonbein in France. Currently I am developing a burlesque/striptease humannette (human face with a puppe

t body). I am originally from Japan if you wonder from my name but spent more than half of my life away from Japan! More information about me is at www.ayanakamura.com

What inspires you about the story of Tarrare the Freak?
Tarrare’s amazing but sad skill is well illustrated by using a puppet, rather than using a human actor trying to stuff himself in front of audience! It is an incredibly sad story but there are a lot of elements that can be comical and fun. 

How has it been working with the company?
It has been really fun and great. Laura and Tobi were very welcome to my point of view and respected what I wanted to share. But more than that, they are very generous and lovely people. I am so lucky to work with them. As I have mentioned above, their way of developing a show is similar to mine so I found easy to get into. And there are so many things that I’ve learnt, especially applying Laura’s traditional acting method into puppets and super organised rehearsal schedule!

What skills do you feel you have brought to the company and this performance?
My understanding of puppeteering; for example, in our solo show I puppeteer a puppet and perform with it at the same time. I have found this experience very helpful for the character Celeste and Marie who I am puppeteering/performing in this show. They dance very weirdly and my butoh dance training was also useful for that! And my puppet making experiences makes after-rehearsal puppet making evenings shorter.

What kind of experience do you think audiences are going to have at this showcase? 
I think this show is a very unique puppet show. It’s a chamber opera with puppets! How can it not be very unique!? That’s not what you would see everyday! There are a lot of layers of elements in this piece; gorgeous music with great lyrics, live singers, shadow puppets, grotesque but charming puppets etc. I think it’s a fantastic show (and it’s not because I am in it!).

And a picture of Aya with her favourite puppet from the show – The belligerent, foul-mouthed Charlatan!


Photoshoot 1: Meet (the rest of) the Puppet Cast

Toby from Farrows Creative came in on Thursday to take some process shots and early promotional photos. Too many good pictures to put them all up at once but I thought I’d start with a proper picture of each character:

The Doctor




Marie & Celeste


The Charlatan


The Recruiter


…and the Director


More photos soon. We’re working on shadow puppets over the weekend, and finishing various sections of the libretto in preperation for the final songwriting session on Monday!