With puppetry growing every more popular at the Fringe and more adult orientated productions available, Neil McEwan took the opportunity to interview Henry Maynard, Artistic Director of Flabbergast Theatre about Boris & Sergey, their hugely popular and frequently offensive puppet duo.
Could you tell me a little about Flabbergast – the company behind Boris and Sergey?
We formed in 2010, I guess for a small piece which was actually the beginning of Boris and Sergey. It was set in a gambling den in an abandoned shop in Bond St which a company we’d been working with had taken over. There were thirty-two different companies doing thirty-two different pieces of work all through the night and we did that about ninety times in five weeks. Basically we set ourselves up to work with physical theatre, puppets and improvisation. A lot of our work is based around the commedia dell’arte way of working which means that you’ve got a structure – a beginning, middle and end and various bits that are choreographed, but quite a lot of what we do is improvised in reaction to the audience. I feel that this means our productions have a really fresh feel to them, people come back again and again because every show is slightly different. We’ve worked a little bit with existing texts, but predominately with devised stuff using improvisation as a tool to create material and then putting it in front of audiences and seeing what flies and what doesn’t.
Given the complexity of the type of puppets you’re using, how easy is it to improvise using puppetry?
Once the skill level is there it starts to become a lot easier. It does take quite a long time for the puppeteers to get to a level where they can improvise together. With Bunraku puppetry it takes three people on each puppet, so you get this little being which is being created by three separate people at once. It’s really important that they’re sympathetic to each other and work well together and they know how each other are going to react. We use breath a lot to sync together which is a really useful way to create impulses. As a puppeteer you can suggest something and then can’t be too precious if the other guys don’t get it, but if everyone is on the same page suddenly something really magical happens. We do quite a lot of physical improvisation as well and it’s really exciting to see three people working so closely together in sync and creating something like that.
Could you tell me a little about Bunraku puppetry?
Bunraku puppetry is a very old tradition in Japan. One person who operates the head and the left hand, one person operates the right hand and the back and then one person’s on the feet. We borrow the style from Japan, but we don’t adhere quite to the strict traditional way of performing which is very stylised and you have to spend twenty years on the feet before you are allowed to touch the head. That style creates a really naturalistic and beautiful movement, it looks really human as opposed to something like a marionette which I’ve never been a massive fan of.
How did Boris and Sergey come to life?
Again, that all came from improvisation. We already had the Sergey puppet and we’d been asked to create this piece based around gambling dens, so we just started improvising with the puppet, we tried various voices and characters out and eventually we hit upon this Russian accent that just seemed to stick. Through the improvisation it was decided he was called Sergey. I was making another puppet at the time and it just sort of clicked into place that Boris was going to be his slightly younger, thicker brother and they just really seemed to work together. We think of them like little clowns, Laurel and Hardy-esque. You’ve got Sergey who’s desperately trying to get things right and do things well and Boris who’s much more innocent, less pretentious and caught up in his own problems who basically ruins all of Sergey’s plans. They kind of fit into that classic double act pattern.
This current show is themed around the idea of the Victorian travelling freakshow. What attracted you to that subject?
The first show was vaudevillian adventure and it’s always appealed to me the vaudeville, cabaret style. That aesthetic has always appealed to me: the faded decadence, trying to make something look really good with about two pennies to rub together. Also the bombast and building things up with big speeches and then you go into a little tent and see something that’s been shoddily put together with bad taxidermy. The way these things were always run on scams, Boris and Sergey are always trying to make a few bucks here and there, but always failing to do so. Their schemes never quite come together. That idea lent itself to the travelling freakshow and travelling circus setting.
The shows have become famous/infamous for people walking out. You’ve toured the show, have you found that different places find different things offensive?
The Australians seem to love it. It goes down well with their sense of humour. It depends really where we are and what we’re doing. We’re not the kind of kiddie puppetry show that quite a lot of people have come to expect, we’re much more interested in creating content for an adult audience. I think some people are easily offended or come thinking “oh puppetry, that’ll be quite twee” and then they come and see Boris & Sergey and it certainly isn’t twee. It depends, we do really well with the thirteen to thirty-five, even older in fact, last year we were in a magazine for top things to see for the over sixties. It’s just about taking thing a bit sort of tongue in cheek. We never do anything to overtly offend anyone, there’s no racism or sexism or homophobia. The characters can be a bit brusque and sometimes they can come across that way, as long as people understand it’s all done in humour then they get us.
Puppetry has grown over the last few years on the Fringe. Do you find audiences are more sophisticated about puppetry now?
Certainly, the puppetry work has certainly grown in the last few years. I was in Warhorse and I know that helped a lot. Blind Summit is another company I worked with who were really instrumental in bringing it to an adult audience and certainly the audiences themselves have become more aware of what’s going on, actively seeking puppetry and thinking “this is something that I’m really interested in” which is really nice. It means there’s a community of young emerging theatre companies who are using puppetry in a really edgy kind of way and it feels really nice to be a part of that and hopefully it will carry on growing.
You’re in the Underbelly which is a small venue. Do you think your show works better with that level of proximity to the audience?
Absolutely, with the size of puppets, because they are relatively small – we have larger puppets, but these are only for a particular tour – it’s much nicer in an intimate venue and it really relies on the audience. Because it’s so improvised and because it’s a cabaret setting it relies on the audience being involved and enthusiastic and certainly the smaller and more intimate venue feels more like that. We were offered a space at the Pleasance, but it wasn’t quite the right sort of set up in terms of where the audience were, they were a little too wide and spaced out. At the Underbelly we’re in a little tunnel and it feels like everything is being focussed towards the stage and we can get to people, we can see them, we can get them up on stage so it’s definitely much much nicer and it feels like they’re almost part of the action.