Renowned for creating weird and wonderful characters, Tunbridge Wells-based mask and puppetry company Strangeface performs theatre that speaks to audiences of all ages. We meet Bethan Tomlinson, the general manager, to find out more about their work
HOW WAS STRANGEFACE BORN?
It all started in 2001, when I was approached by a friend who was involved with English Heritage and he asked if I had a piece of theatre I could take out to one of their sites. Having trained at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, I was a jobbing actress at the time and I didn’t have something I could just do, so I put him on to someone else. But the next year he asked again, saying it would be really interesting to work with me because he knew my partner Russell Dean, who is now Artistic Director of Strangeface, was a mask maker. He mentioned that it would be an outdoor show and there is a tradition of outdoor theatre with commedia dell’arte, so it’s got an immediate hook. The second time he asked we put together a piece, performed it and they asked us to come back the next year! We had four summers doing that and it was fantastic.
In 2005 we went to Edinburgh and started to make connections in theatre, which is when it turned a corner. We had an association with Farnham Maltings, a regional development agency that really nurtures young and emerging artists. They showed me how to ﬁ ll in an Arts Council application form and we’ve not looked back! It’s been a brilliant period in our lives.
ARE YOUR SHOWS JUST FOR CHILDREN?
No, we’ve always tried to layer our content. Children are natural puppeteers – they naturally engage in that world of make-believe and they play hide and seek with identity. You only have to spend 10 minutes with them and they’ll pick up something – it might not even be a toy, it could be a toilet roll or a set of keys – and they’ll want to animate it. But I think that all people do have a deep connection with puppetry. When people see Punch and Judy, they do have a warm feeling for it, and Greek theatre was all about mask, so it’s in our DNA. Sometimes you just have to point to where those links are.
When we created work for English Heritage, it was for family audiences. But although children’s theatre is a fantastic thing, family theatre is very different to children’s theatre and we’ve always tried to create content that was stimulating for both children and adults. What’s interesting is that adults feel they’ve got permission to come and enjoy it because of the children. Having done that initially, we have created work aimed speciﬁ cally at adults.
HOW IS YOUR WORK FUNDED?
It’s quite a mixed bag now. In the early days we used quite a bit of Arts Council funding and with that money, we took work into communities and made it accessible to people. That subsidy meant we could take theatre to places like St Barnabas School in Tunbridge Wells and keep ticket prices realistic for people. Recently we’ve received a Welcome Trust grant and since 2004 we’ve had support from Kent County Council – we’re developing our work with them to take table-top puppetry into wellbeing settings. So it could be a question of taking our table-top show into a hospice, or a home where people have dementia. The theatre can come to them so they don’t have to travel, and they can experience something that they share within that circle. It means a lot to artists to know that when we take our work into people’s lives, it really does make a difference to them.
Sometimes I think people confuse the funding source. With the Arts Council, it’s all lottery funded. People might say “that’s taxpayers’ money” but most of the money that comes to arts organisations comes through trusts, which is different.
WHY STAY IN TUNBRIDGE WELLS, INSTEAD OF BASING YOURSELVES IN LONDON?
We love living here and our children are happy, it’s absolutely beautiful. But there are also lots of artists working in West Kent and although it might not always be obvious, in the 11 years we’ve lived here the climate has completely changed. People like Applause Rural Touring have been massively supportive of our development. Of late, we’ve come together to form a cultural consortium, comprising Strangeface, Mascalls Gallery, the Assembly Hall, Hoodwink, the Tunbridge Wells Museum and Art Gallery, Applause and the Tunbridge Wells Puppetry Festival. There’s an opportunity here; we’re starting to come together and joint projects are emerging, so it’s really exciting.
IS IT IMPORTANT TO KEEP THE ART OF PUPPETRY ALIVE?
I think it really is, because it offers a number of useful learning objectives. One is about literacy and being able to identify archetypes. You can look at Shakespeare really easily with mask, and explore the goodies and baddies, and it’s a really good way for people to engage. If you use long words like literacy and archetype, that’s tricky for an eight-year-old to understand, so it’s a really good use of mask workshop.
I also think that mask does something for a class dynamic. Someone who might generally be seen as the class clown might perform something with real pathos, or those who aren’t seen as the brightest ones verbally have the chance to shine. They’re allowed to explore because at the end of the session, they take the masks off and it’s not real. If the shy boy at school or the kid who has fallen into the idea of being the naughty one can have that shift, you don’t know what inﬂ uence that could have on them from day to day.
SO WHAT’S NEXT FOR STRANGEFACE?
We’ve taken work internationally in the past and in terms of the future, mask is an art form that has an international opportunity. Our work has always been verbal, so to create something non-verbal could take us abroad. We’ve been talking with a Canadian company about possibly doing a piece involving food, which would be fantastic. We’re also really enjoying the opportunities that are coming in connection to working with wellbeing. Our key strength is having direct conversations with the people who come to our shows. There are different tiers of work and there are some amazing British puppet companies that should be celebrated nationally and internationally. But we really get a lot out of being celebrated by the people we’re in the room with at the time.
For more information about Strangeface visit www.strangeface.co.uk