Before the Glow Christmas experience opened in Cork at the weekend, Ellie O’Byrne went behind the scenes to see the preparations
Behind the scenes in Santa’s Workshop, there are a lot more power tools than you might expect. At the studios of Dowtcha Puppets, the street theatre company behind this year’s Glow Christmas experience in Bishop Lucey Park in Cork city, it’s all go.
About 230m of painted fencing, six life-size elf puppets, Santa’s sleigh, and a specially constructed postbox for children to post their letters to the man in red are amongst the props getting the finishing touches in preparation for transport to the park, where the work of assembling the magic of Christmas is about to get under way.
Some of the people working on the props and painting are also amongst the 10 performers, clowns and puppeteers that will bring the Glow experience to life, and are busily working away as real-life elves, but Dowtcha director Cliff Dolliver is a little too busy to be amused by this example of life imitating art.
The theme for this year’s Cork Christmas Celebration is Santa’s Cork Workshop: a walk-through experience in the park that captures the magical tingle of anticipation that children feel in the lead-up to the big day.
Families who take a walk in the park will be treated to the sight of behind-the-scenes preparations at Santa’s Cork HQ: elves packing presents and performing quality control on toys, reindeer being taken through some final training, and of course Santa himself.
With the count-down on to Friday’s grand opening, Cliff is working hard, but the end goal is always in sight. “At this stage, I’m really looking forward to getting the public into it,” he says.
“Because I know they’re going to love it. People will walk away with life-long memories, and pictures of their kids with silly reindeer and Giant Santa. This year is going to be very special.”
He points out a scale model of the park, describing the various surprises in store for visitors.
“The aesthetic is what I’m calling Cork and Western: it’s a kind of cartoony, classic Hanna Barbera look,” he says. “The first thing families will see when they come in is the sleigh being loaded up, and the bags of toys all have the names of areas of Cork painted on them, so parents can point out a bag for their area to children. I think that’ll be really exciting for younger kids.”
The last time Dowtcha won the commission to present Cork City Council’s Christmas park walk-through was in 2014. Cliff worked on a Celtic-themed Christmas called Tír na Nollaig, with specially commissioned traditional music, lush costumes and 17 live actors.
A Tasmanian who has developed an abiding love for Irish culture in his two decades in Ireland, he was keen to inject a little more cultural relevance into his production than the bland, commercial, TV-inspired fare often on offer at such events.
But despite an attendance of over 80,000 visitors to Tír na Nollaig, some punters did say that the experience wasn’t “Christmassy” enough: where was Santa, where were the reindeer?
This year, Cliff feels he’s met a happy medium, a production that can deliver all of the visual palette expected at Christmas, but blended with touches that instil pride in a uniquely Irish, and Corkonian, heritage.
“We’re picking up from where we left off the last time in 2014 because we did really like that presentation, but we’re making it more Christmassy and traditional,” he says. “It’s also a longer and more interesting route this year.”
Dowtcha’s 10 live performers are a very talented bunch, including Italian clown Elisa Gallo Rosso, Cork stage actress Rosie O’Regan and Belgian puppeteer and performer Serge Vandenberg, who also frequently works behind the scenes with Dowtcha, constructing their set pieces.
“For an acting CV you have to start somewhere,” Serge jokes, as he paints a set of weighing scales for the elves’ present-packing station, which will be just one of the areas where families can observe and interact with the performers.
Cliff is full of praise for the talents of the cast. “I really think that’s something that makes a huge difference in what a child will experience, so we’re incredibly lucky to have this bunch on board.
“It’s been really easy to bring this together, because they’re a competent, dedicated, talented team. And it’s the effort of the team that will really bring the spirit of Christmas to this, at the end of the day.”
In another room in Dowtcha HQ, hilarious reindeer puppets are in the final stages of completion; in a reindeer paddock at the end of the park, children will be able to watch Rudolph’s brethren undergoing special training for their Christmas delivery run.
A unique sensory addition to Santa’s Cork Workshop is a ‘Bell Tree’: a huge construction bedecked with 1,500 bells, to add a magical jingle to the atmosphere in the park, which will also be heightened by Cork City Council’s lighting scheme and the musical arrangement by sound designer Cormac O’Connor.
This year, queuing on the winding route inside the park will be kept to a minimum by ensuring that photo-opportunities are accessible from many different angles at once, although due to the perennial popularity of the free city centre amusement, there will still need to be a queuing system in place outside for access to the park.
“Then there’ll be elf stations for wrapping, sorting and quality control,” Cliff says, “And of course, right at the end, Santa Claus himself, who is a really beautiful giant puppet.”
As a puppetry company, it’s a natural addition for Dowtcha to mix puppets in with the live performance at Santa’s Cork Workshop and to give puppeteers the chance to show off their skills, but it’s a physically demanding job for performers.
“There are lots of little challenges to figure out,” he says.
“The big puppets are quite heavy, and difficult to operate for four hours at a stretch. But we’re busy devising a clever, theatrical way to work in a shift change so puppeteers can swap roles while staying in character.”
There was one other major nail-biting factor for the Dowtcha team as the opening night approached: facing into 12 nights of an outdoor show in December, the weather is one of the only factors that leaves the production completely in the hands of fate.
Does it make Cliff nervous? He shudders for effect, but laughs: “I think at this stage Cork City Council think we’re jinxed with the weather, because there’s always something. All I know so far is that I think there’s a cold snap forecast? That wouldn’t be so bad. The elves can have gloves.”
All practicalities aside, it’s still an exciting job, Cliff says.
“It can be quite humdrum when you’re putting props together and worrying about ordering enough paint, but the reward is that first time you see a really small child walk in and look around and grab their parent’s hand tighter: you can see their imagination light up and start working in front of you.
“No matter what Christmas means to you, that’s a gift.”
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