IN DOWTCHA Puppets’ headquarters, two men are wrestling a giant high-heeled shoe. It’s pantomime season, and Dowtcha’s artistic co-directors, Cliff Dolliver and Davy Dummigan, have been drafted in to produce a giant glass slipper prop for Cork Opera House in their guise as set designers and props builders.
The Cork-based puppetry company also have their own production up their sleeve: Cork’s first ever puppet pantomime.
Inspired by the style of The Muppets and Sesame Street, a cast of life-size puppets will interact with actress Irene Kelleher, who plays the part of Sleeping Beauty in their take on the classic fairy tale.
Dolliver puts down the giant shoe and gives a tour of the Dowtcha workshop, where the puppets are being completed and costumed. “This is Thickie Bigears,” he says, picking up a large rod puppet with predictably large ears and a gormless expression. “He’s the prince that the queen and king want Sleeping Beauty to marry. But he’s kind of dense, and he’s only interested in hunting.”
In his hands, the half-finished puppet springs to life and looks around the room. It’s always entertaining to see how even adults spontaneously interact with a puppet animated by a skilled puppeteer. Dolliver says that the magic of seeing an audience suspend disbelief and respond to puppet characters is one of the joys of his profession, and especially important for their production, where 10 puppet characters will be manipulated live on stage by five puppeteers.
“The TV guys have the advantage of the cropping device that is the camera, but this works,” he says. “The puppeteers are right there and they’re using their own faces as well as the puppets. You look at it for the first time and you think, ‘That puppet’s got no legs and I can see the person standing behind it’, but once the puppet starts moving, it really quickly stops being a problem.”
Enniskeane playwright Ian Wild penned the quirky script for Dowtcha Puppets’ hour-long panto. With biker fairies, a crisp-eating horse, and an uncooperative handsome prince, what elements are still in keeping with the pantomime tradition?
“There’s a pantomime horse in most pantos,” says Dolliver. “There’s no ‘He’s behind you’ in this, so it’s missing some of the pantomime elements, but Greebo, the handsome prince’s father, is a tutu-wearing biker fairy so I suppose he’s kind of the dame.”
Irene Kelleher plays both Sleeping Beauty in her human guise and the puppet Fairy Beastlyboots in the show.
Dummigan and Dolliver met Kelleher while designing the set of Mrs Shakespeare and were impressed by her versatility. “We designed the set for Mrs Shakespeare and we saw Irene perform and went, ‘wow!’” says Dolliver.
Dummigan, who does community arts outreach work in schools around the city, has assembled a cast of experienced puppeteers as well as members of Dowtcha Puppets’ new Youth Ensemble.
“I just wanted to raise the bar for us a little,” he says. “We’ve been ambitious; each puppeteer is working two puppets at the same time which turned out to be really challenging. But it’s going to be fantastic, and a really good show for all the family.”
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