Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in!
Earlier this year, I took part in The Manchester International Festival’s (MIF) Sea Change which involved volunteers dancing down a main road in Manchester for a couple of hours. I thought that would be the end of my artistic experience, yet here I am again participating in MIF’s When the Birds Land.
When the Birds Land is the climax of a travelling arts festival called The Walk. Created by the theatre company Good Chance in collaboration with Handspring Puppet Company and with artistic direction from Amir Nizar Zuabi, The Walk sets out to raise awareness of challenges facing refugees. The centrepiece of the project is Little Amal—a nine-year-old refugee girl, whose name means ‘Hope’ in Arabic and who is looking for both her mother and a new place to call home having walked from the Syria-Turkey border, through 65 cities, towns and villages, been welcomed by artists and communities at over 120 events.
The twist is: Little Amal is a 3.5-metre puppet created by the company behind War Horse.
A bad case of cabin fever after lockdown pushed me towards getting involved in Sea Change. Now things are a bit easier, it is harder to identify what prompts me to take part in When the Birds Land. It is hard to ignore the worrying signs restrictions might be tightened again in the future; mainly the Government denying they intend to do so, which usually signals they are going to do just that. So, there is the temptation to grab every chance to participate in social events just in case they cease in the future.
Besides, the MIF do not cut corners. Involvement requires participants to construct, and learn how to animate, a large swallow puppet which will accompany Little Amal on her walk. The workshops on the building of the puppets are run by the Curious School of Puppetry under the direction of Sarah Wright and the chance to go backstage with a professional company and learn the tricks of the trade is hard to resist. Also, I get to keep the puppet afterwards.
Photographs of The Walk so far are online showing Little Amal in some stunning locations—captured on beaches at sunset. This raises some niggling doubts about the suitability of hosting the climax of the event in the open air in Manchester, a city synonymous with rain, on a late autumn evening. When the Birds Land is to be staged at Castlefield Bowl. This was the site of my first artistic venture some ten years ago: taking part in one of photographer Spencer Tunick’s live installations of mass crowds of naked people. Castlefield Bowl is hardly a coastal area but there is an open stretch of water and I can confirm the cold winds that blow across even such a modest space have a humbling biological effect.
The puppetry workshops are held in the Upper Campfield Market which is close to the Bowl. The hall, participants are warned, can be chilly. I don’t need warning. Decades ago, the RSC experimented in taking a production of Henry VI in a touring module to unlikely venues, one of which was Upper Campfield Market. It was so cold, the audience did not try to sit near the stage but huddled at the top of the module near the heaters. However, snow was simulated by foam falling from the roof which caused condensation to form around the heaters and red-hot drops to drip onto the audience. This combination of a nuclear winter and acid rain made it a bit difficult to concentrate on the play.
The initial meeting gets off to a dodgy start. Arrangements for a parade taking place at the same time are close to a military coup. Whole streets are closed off by impenetrable barriers and enquiries to intimidating officials as to how one might pass are met with a blunt lack of concern. Welcome to Fort Manchester; if this is how the city treats residents, a refugee like Little Amal might be right out of luck.
The temperature in Upper Campfield Market is, as predicted, chilly but there is no mistaking the warmness of the welcome. It quickly becomes clear I’ve underestimated the scale of the event. Sea Change lasted hours and involved hundreds; as only 40 of us have been invited to take part in When the Birds Land and it is scheduled to last just over an hour, I had assumed a more modest show. However, a video introduction mentions "taking theatre to the streets" and it soon becomes apparent this is intended literally.
When the Birds Land is to be a full theatrical experience that just happens to take place in the city centre rather than a venue. It involves dancers, a brass band, a choir, a local, if not national, treasure, drag artists, poets, a local pop star, and even fringe venue 53two—a welcome acknowledgement of the contribution made by the venue to Manchester’s theatre scene. There is to be a definite conclusion to Little Amal’s journey, which means the event has more of a storyline than some theatre productions I’ve seen recently.
The first part of the meeting is series of exercises which, when described by actors, always seem a bit precious. However, as Curious School of Puppetry take care to clarify the purpose of the exercises, they become less silly. Passing a ball to one person while calling out another’s name or the next in a sequence of numbers is intended to promote the ability to multitask. This could be handy as during the event we will have to animate the puppets while descending a staircase. Throughout the importance of following the leader, to minimise the risk of volunteers wandering off, is emphasised. Safety is high on the agenda; on the day, we are assigned an MIF assistant to whom we can report concerns or from whom we can request assistance.
A Blue Peter atmosphere develops during the construction of the swallow puppets, which can, we’re told, be made at home using basic household materials like cardboard, drinking straws, bamboo poles and wire coat hangers. Thankfully, the body, tail and wing templates have been pre-cut and the wire is already shaped leaving us to assemble the pieces and cover the puppet in layers of coloured papier-mâché and glue which both simulates the colour of the bird’s feathers and hopefully acts as insulation against inclement weather. Everyone remarks on the return to primary school feeling that comes from messing around with paper, glue and scissors and, if you stand a long way away, say Liverpool, my bird looks pretty good.