Notes from Advisory Panel Meetings

Laura and Tobi met with the following 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 Turner, Swansea University

‘Incurable Freaks’

David discussed the term ‘incurable’ – Tobi had chosen it for its paradoxical quality; David confirmed that in fact the term ‘incurable’ existed in 18th and 19th-century France, when there was an interest in the fate of the incurables, who by definition fell outside of medical care and were often thrown out of hospitals. In 1710 a boy was thrown out of St Thomas hospital for being incurable, and died on the streets.


We asked what treatments might have been carried out on Tarrare in the hospital, in order to write the song ‘Cures’ in which the Doctor describes what he is doing to Tarrare and to gather ideas for staging the scene

  • Suggestions that ended up in the show included:

    • bloodletting by knife or leeches (Tarrare’s arm is cut open by the Doctor’s assistants)

    • enemas (the Doctor’s assistants give Tarrare an enema)

    • purging (Tarrare vomits following his enema as the Doctor sings about purging)

    • force feeding (Tarrare is force-fed eggs by the Doctor’s assistants)

  • Other suggested treatments that didn’t end up in the show:

    • cupping (according to Alan this wasn’t a very painful treatment)

    • psychological

    • dark room

    • locked in cold bath up to neck


We asked for examples of insults that might have been used against someone like Tarrare, particularly as the term ‘monster’ did not have the same negative connotations as it does today. Suggestions were incorporated into the libretto, and included:

  • beast

  • unnatural

  • degenerate (degeneration a big theme)

  • primitive

  • savage

Why was Percy so interested in Tarrare as a case study?

Alan suggested that Percy was probably more interested in studying Tarrare than in actually curing him; the way to get patients is to promise to cure them, but actual motive is to study them – combination of actual curiosity and publicity for him. John pointed out that in the 19th century there was a great deal of work on Hamlet and his patient – the idea of a case history that gains you public attention, giving you status. Alan suggested that Percy uses medicine as an enlightenment project.

Freak show as performance; public autopsy as performance

  • Wattle & Daub have been interested in incorporating the theme performance into the show as much as possible, as this is part of our aesthetic of making the workings of performance visible (puppeteers that can be seen, the makings and working of puppetry are always visible), and because staging a true story is an act of interpretation and therefore inherently a performance. This is helped in this show by the fact that Tarrare was put on display (a performance) in two ways: the freak show, and the public autopsy

    • David pointed out that by dramatising two performances in the 18th century (which had different sensibilities to today), we’re making the audience complicit in these kinds of performances

    • John discussed the fact that in France public dissections were bodies of criminals, so going to watch it has a moral value; part of process of justice by going to see it

    • Alan pointed out that in this country public dissections were purely symbolic (just a little cut in abdomen, then sent off to get actually dissected)

    • David discussed opposition to this practice – even dissecting a criminal for some people goes beyond what’s acceptable

  • We discussed how we are positioning the audience (as audience to autopsy – med students & high-ranking military people e.g.), as audience to freak show (general public – seen as lesser, more threatening)

Why did the Doctor never find the golden fork?

  • This was a fact taken from Baron Percy’s autopsy notes – he searched for the golden fork that Tarrare claimed had killed him, but never found it. For Wattle & Daub this becomes a metaphor for a failure of understanding the other – for the Doctor and for everyone who came into contact with Tarrare.

  • At an advisory panel meeting, we discussed the question of the golden fork:

    • Alan: Golden fork is a metaphor for pathological findings he never makes – he describes what he sees but does not understand. Like taking apart a car and just being left with parts of a car. Intangible part of humanity he isn’t going to get at. But there is something valuable – how can everything about a human being be captured within one knowledge system?

    • John: One of many well intentioned beginnings that don’t arrive anywhere – this is one step on a much longer journey.

    • Alan: Percy’s had plenty of time to look at the whole picture but he looks for only one thing.

    • Fork represents unknowable medical/bodily thing; also represents his humanity; John discussed interest in personality at time, what makes a personality)

    • Within medicine monsters were seen as something to be systematised and cured (therefore they disappear). Percy wants to understand everything. Wants to make everything fit. Freaks don’t fit.

Tarrare doesn’t fit into any of the worlds that try to contain him

David suggested this idea that Tarrare doesn’t fit into any of the worlds that attempt to contain him (the world of the freak show, of the military, and the hospital – the three worlds that Hattie Naylor helped Wattle & Daub identify within the narrative arc of the story). David talked about the uncontrolled side to Tarrare – fear of what might he do next. This is what people don’t like about him. The three worlds of the freak show, military, hospital all attempt to fit him into their respective civilising project, yet none can contain him. David suggested that, for instance, in the freak show there’s a sense that he’s gone too far when he eats/rips apart the cat (the audience are horrified).

This idea became a central motif for Wattle & Daub’s approach to how Tarrare engages with each of the three worlds of the freak show, the military, and the hospital, informing planning with Hattie Naylor and Director Sita Calvert-Ennals.

The freak show

David discussed freak shows in the 18th century, describing a sense that the freak show is impolite – it becomes popular/unseemly for the elites to be present; so the space of the freakshow is disreputable. He talked about adverts advertising both the difference of the freak and all the ways on which they are similar to ‘regular’ people – marriage, good manners, politeness. This both normalises and emphasises their difference. John talked about Caliban as a perfect example of the monster/human juxtaposition within this framework.

The Doctor’s mess in the autopsy room

Order/disorder – the Doctor ends up in mess of blood and guts in the autopsy room at the end; everything has unravelled as he’s tried to classify it, to use medicine to make order. This was based on a suggestion from Alan, who liked the Doctor’s mess and confusion at beginning of the autopsy in the work-in-progress – he described his work as a pathologist as really being a bit like that.

Wellcome Trust Small Arts Award

Delighted to have been successful in our application for a Wellcome Trust Small Arts award. This will support both the creation of the show as well as meetings with medical and scientific advisors and a series of related events (post-show discussions and Performing the Freak – A Dialogue between Theatre and Science about Monstrosity), an 8 page programme with information about the research and scientific collaboration underpinning the show, and a project website.

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:


Review of work-in-progress performance in Exeunt Magazine

Click here to read

An excerpt:

“Somehow this company, with a devising period of three weeks, have created magic through the careful concoction of puppetry and opera. The gruesome becomes fascinating, the disgusting becomes acceptable, the foul is humorous and the desperate is mesmerising, almost enchanting. In choosing this particular theme of human appetite, Wattle and Daub push the capacity of the puppets – playing with their ability to represent real, visceral human beings whilst continuing to acknowledge the fact that they are only puppets – a caricature, an idea.”
Geraldine Harris

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:


Promo video for Tarrare now up!

We now have a short promo featuring music and images from the show. Enjoy!

The Depraved Appetite of Tarrare the Freak
a chamber opera for puppets
by Wattle & Daub Figure Theatre

Appearing as a work-in-progress extract at Bristol Ferment
Thursday 19 July, 6:30pm at Bristol Old Vic

Created in collaboration with Hattie Naylor
Music and Libretto by Tom and Tobi Poster
Devised by the company and directed by Laura Purcell Gates

Performed by Tobi Poster and Aya Nakamura
Vocals by Francesca Best and Michael Longden
Supported by Bristol Ferment and Arts Council England

Photography and promo by Farrows Creative

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

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!