Back to Basics: Theatre-Making in Lockdown

Empty Shop CIC
6 min readJun 13, 2020

by Toby Olié co-artistic director of Gyre & Gimble

Two weeks before lockdown officially began, when social distancing was an emerging ideal, I was leading a puppetry training week with the cast of Regents Park Open Air Theatre’s production of 101 Dalmatians. There were over twenty performers in a small rehearsal room, all working in close proximity, operating puppets in small groups and collectively breathing for their canine counterparts — little did we know that all of those (relatively!) normal things in a rehearsal room would soon feel like an oddly distant memory; a goal that one day we’d all hope and long to re-achieve.

101 Dalmatians poster

Since then I, like so many others, have had work cancelled, postponed, or put on hiatus. Adhering to lockdown rules for over 12 weeks also gave me plenty of time to finally send the invitations to my wedding — only to be forced to postpone that too a few weeks later! Granted I have been actually been very fortunate in the face of the extraordinary circumstances facing the world in the outbreak of COVID 19, and have taken every disappointment on the chin knowing that frustrations and far worse upset are being felt worldwide.

The thing I’ve felt less prepared for is the increasing uncertainty and ‘not knowing’ surrounding the future of theatre and live performance as lockdown continues.

Instigated by a creative movement called Scene Change I started engaging in conversations about what forms of performance could be created when lockdown is eased but distancing measures are still in place. Suggestions included focusing more on outdoor performances, or theatres selling one in four seats, and staging shows with small casts. But even with such resourceful thinking, I couldn’t help but be aware of the fact that my chosen discipline of performance, puppetry (and particularly the style of work I make within it), relies on close proximity and contact between performers, and wasn’t going to resume as it was anytime soon, even when people could attend performances.

Close contact - Rehearsal images form Running Wild and War Horse

Like many others I have been enjoying the streamed performances being offered online by the National Theatre, Chichester Festival Theatre, Young Vic etc. but pre-lockdown, aside from making a show trailer or behind the scenes feature, digital content wasn’t something I associated with my work, and certainly not in any performative capacity. It was a few weeks into lockdown when I noticed the extensive digital output of the Little Angel Theatre in Islington, London. Having opened a show at the theatre in February, I was hyper-aware of how lockdown was having an immediate impact on smaller arts organisations without regular funding like theirs. But seeing their array of storytelling videos, home crafts and short performances made me think I could channel my creativity into generating something that could keep others occupied in these strange times, and create awareness of the situation facing the arts.

Having spent my childhood making theatres and puppets from every shoebox, cereal packet, and toilet roll I could find, it seem like a fun prospect to employ this kind of home-spun making into what was to be a performance created entirely in lockdown and filmed in my flat!

Table top theatre and Anteater puppet -

I chose to adapt one of my godson’s favourite books What Does An Anteater Eat? which is written and illustrated by Ross Collins — his drawings are so characterful they cry out to animated. It was an exciting challenge to work around not only the confines of space and the materials I had available, but also the fact that, as a solo performer, my usual way of designing a puppet would have to be adapted. Each animal character would be limited to a one-person mode of operation, so decisions like which limbs would be passive and merely swing, which parts of the creature I could move without direct control via a rod, and how I could use the floor or momentum to animate, were key.

I’m used to working across multiple aspects of puppetry, usually encompassing the design, making and direction of the characters in a single process, but the responsibility on what I’d considered a ‘small project’ was fast becoming overwhelming. I found myself also thinking about the technical set up, including the lighting and sound, and post filming (how I was going to edit it). I’ve had the good fortune of working on some very large scale projects over the years, but I was mind-boggled by how something I was making on the dining table, as I had done as a child, was proving so comedically stressful! It was only when I stepped back and evaluated the process that I realised my efforts and means were somewhat out of balance, and the result had been strangely unnerving. I was overcompensating for the domesticity of the show’s creation and set-up by moving at a rate of knots — with the same ideals, discipline, and enthusiasm as I would be making a show with a cast, fellow creative team members, production team and a theatre. Instead I should have been celebrating it for what had been achieved in the given circumstances instead of what it could have been in ‘normal’ working conditions.

As distancing measures transition us into the next stage of living post lockdown, and the aftermath of uncertainty facing the arts materialises, one of the main challenges facing artists and theatre-makers will be not letting the means affect the process. Whether the limitations of performance are financial, logistical, spacial or material; the ideals, intentions and creativity behind it are ever present.

Watch What Does An Anteater Eat? here:

Follow the progress of Scene Change here:

Toby is a director, designer and performer who trained in puppetry at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama. As Gyre & Gimble, work includes: co-director/puppet designer of The Four Seasons: A Reimagining (Shakespeare’s Globe), The Hartlepool Monkey (UK tour) and The Elephantom (National Theatre & West End). As well as co-designer/director of puppetry for The Grinning Man (Bristol Old Vic & West End) and Running Wild (Chichester Festival Theatre, Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre & UK Tour).

Other work includes: puppetry designer/director of Pinocchio, Peter Pan, The Light Princess and Hansel & Gretel (National Theatre), Don Quixote (Royal Shakespeare Company), Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (Royal Ballet), The Wind in the Willows (Royal Opera House & West End), Disney’s new staging of The Little Mermaid (in Holland, Moscow & Tokyo) and he was the hind puppeteer of Joey in the original production of War Horse (National Theatre) before moving to Joey’s head for the subsequent West End transfer.

Commissioned by Empty Shop on behalf of Hartlepool Borough Council as part of the Tees Valley Great Place project.

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Empty Shop CIC

Art // Regeneration // Collaboration. Empty Shop CIC is a not-for-profit arts organisation and practice-based consultancy from the North East of England.