Tom Inniss Journalist and podcaster

Interview with Katie Underhay of Mumblecrust Theatre

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Hello!

Could you first introduce yourself to the reader?

Hi there! My name is Katie Underhay and I’m co-artistic director of Mumblecrust Theatre with Anthony Burbridge, creators of The Tale of the Cockatrice.

Let’s get this out of the way off the bat… where did the name Mumblecrust Theatre come from?

Mumblecrust is a medieval insult for a ‘toothless beggar’! We came across the word when we were researching insults to use in the show and we loved it so much we had to take it as our name! The ones we went with in the show were ‘wiffle waffle’ and ‘muckspout’, but another one we liked was ‘driggle-draggle’ which means an ‘untidy woman’. Of course, Anthony started calling me that. So, I retaliated and started calling him a ‘fopdoodle’ – ‘an significant or foolish man’!

How did you first get into the art of puppetry?

I started a Musical Theatre degree and after the first year I realised it wasn’t for me, so I went to the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama to study Theatre Design. I loved the course, loved making and designing costumes, props, set… but one thing it lacked was performance! After my first year I realised I needed making AND performing in my life. Luckily, the end of year project was about puppetry. Not only did I learn a lot about designing and making puppets but, because of my previous performing experience, I was given the lead role in the show! That was when I absolutely fell in love with puppeteering and all things puppets. I love the way you can create an entire character from scratch. It combines all my loves and talents perfectly!

Mumblecrust Theatre is a relatively new production company. What were you doing before that?

Before Mumblecrust and The Tale of the Cockatrice, I was working as a freelance designer/maker/performer (as I still am now). I’ve had quite a variety of jobs including Butlin’s as Pip in the Skyline Gang (there are some hilarious videos on YouTube!); acting and designing with Anti-Bullying organisation Actionwork, and lots of puppet commissions! Since 2015 I’ve been in Stuff and Nonsense Theatre Company’s 3 Little Pigs, which I still tour with all over the country.

Your current show, The Tale of the Cockatrice has been met with exceptional praise. Can you tell us about the show? Where did the idea come from?

The Tale of the Cockatrice is an original piece of family theatre full of storytelling, puppetry, live music and general tom-foolery! It’s loosely based on a little-known legend from British Folklore. In our retelling, a young nun, Sister Mary-Ann, discovers a deadly Cockatrice – a monster who can kill any living creature with its deadly stare. Anthony read a story about a cockatrice as a child and he thought it would be an interesting idea. We both liked how quirky and scary the story was and, as we delved into some of the real-life history behind the legend, we realised just how beautiful and uniquely English it was too. So we ran with it!

What was the planning process like? Is it difficult to incorporate puppets into a play, especially when the focus is as much on you as them?

We had lots of vague ideas and decided that we’d keep applying for festivals until we got accepted, and then we’d create the show. We got accepted by the first one we applied to, and we had to move fast! Puppets were always going to feature very heavily but, since we made the puppets as we were devising and writing the script, what we needed and where came together pretty naturally. We always knew the cockatrice had to be a puppet – how else can you portray a chicken-snake-bat hybrid monster on stage?!

How long did the puppets take to make? Were there any that were particularly challenging?

We really did not have much time. It was manic! Sister Mary-Ann (our beautiful nun) came together reasonably easily. The cockatrice, however, involved almost sleepless nights of sawing, screwing, sewing, glueing, and painting! Since it’s a mythological creature, the whole design was our interpretation and we had to get creative to make this monster believable. We had a lot of challenges: glowing eyes, chicken legs, snake neck, and only two puppeteers.  We also needed to be able to take it apart so we could transport it! But now we have an absolutely magnificent puppet that we’re incredibly proud of, so our hard work paid off.

There is also a musical component to The Tale of the Cockatrice. What was the songwriting process like?

Anthony is the musician of the company and has been writing his own music for years. I’m no good at arranging, but I can write lyrics and hummable melodies! I wrote lyrics and melodies for the first two songs, and Anthony added clever chords and accompaniment. The 3rd song (which I like to call the ‘epic’) is entirely Anthony’s invention. It’s devilishly clever and so much fun to perform! It’s uptempo, changes time signature a lot and is entirely two-part harmony, it’s a bit of a beast!

Are you a naturally comfortable singer?

My talent for singing is what made me pursue a career in theatre. I have always sung – choirs, drama clubs, competitions. My childhood dream was to be in musicals on the West End. It’s probably what I’m best at, maybe second to puppetry!

I reviewed the show and absolutely fell in love with the charm, modesty and creativity of it all. What motivated your decision to use household objects for some of the characters?

Found Object Puppetry (or Object Theatre) is something I’m quite intrigued by. Breathing life into a puppet is one thing, but making a pencil or a spoon into an anthropomorphised character is very cool! I always start my puppetry workshops with found objects. In our show, I love the way we arrive on stage pulling a cartload of junk, but then each item becomes an important prop or character in its own right. Audiences love figuring out what all the junk will end up becoming!

You performed at Brighton Fringe and won multiple awards. Tell us about that experience?

The two of us had a very hard week! It’s tough for two people to be actors, producers, promoters and stage managers all at once. The IYAF Best of Brighton Fringe: Children and Family Award was announced before we’d even arrived in Brighton, so we’d had a bit of time to adjust to that. However, when we found out we’d also been nominated for Best Newcomer it was totally overwhelming – it seemed like a dream come true! We certainly didn’t expect to win, it was a genuine shock! After a week of such intense work, it all just seemed totally surreal. We hadn’t planned any kind of acceptance speech, so we just spouted absolute nonsense on the stage. I’m sure it was hilarious for the audience!

You then took the play up to Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Was this your first time at the Festival?

Anthony and I had both been to the Ed Fringe with King Kong the Musical in 2013, which is how we met. I was an actor and Anthony was the composer and musical director. For me, it was a very different experience this time around. Bringing your own show is so much more intense than acting in someone else’s!

Why did you decide to take the play up? 

We had a few goals to achieve this year: to get reviews and industry feedback; to invite programmers to get our tour up and running; to have Edinburgh and Brighton Fringe in our company’s history, and to promote our show to audiences! We certainly achieved reviews and industry feedback in Brighton, so we wanted to capitalise on these new accolades in Edinburgh and invite as many programmers as possible!

How did you find EdFringe? What was the reception like?

We had quite a few programmers attend, some we’d invited and some who contacted us directly! We had some nice press coverage, including an awesome picture in the Metro and being featured in The List’s ‘5 Puppetry Shows To See At The Fringe’. Our audiences were fantastic – warm, friendly and supportive – some people came twice!

Have you made any changes to the show based on feedback?

Lots and lots. This time last year we did a scratch performance at the Lyric, Bridport, to try out new ideas and get feedback from kids and parents to take on board for the new year. This really helped shaped the show, and we owe Artistic Director Niki McCretton particular thanks for that. But even now we’re making changes here and there to get it perfect! Anthony has just been editing together our Edinburgh show footage to send to promoters, and he’s always ringing me up with new notes! The show is never truly finished and is always evolving, this is what makes it so enjoyable and keeps the show so fresh.

It is just you and Anthony Burbridge on stage operating the puppets. Do you find this daunting?

It is daunting and very physically demanding. It’s obviously important to us that audiences have the very best show we can give, and an hour is a long time to keep up those energy levels, particularly when you’re multi-tasking. With just the two of us doing everything ourselves – even operating our own sound – there really is no backup if things go wrong. But it also keeps things very simple and pure, if you see what I mean, and the audience likes that. In the devising process, we knew that only having two puppeteers would be challenging, so we invented ways to get around this, like puppets on wheels, using magnets and well-choreographed swapping of hands!

During the creative process, are you both always on the same page or are there debates over particular decisions?

We’re both perfectionists and this is great because it drives us on! We both have a lot of opinions and ideas about the best way to approach things – but we’re not always on the same page! Sometimes it’s a challenge not having a third party around to settle differences! Passions do rule occasionally, and that’s fine – we have a great show and I don’t think it would be that way without us both feeling strongly about it. Saying that, we have both learned to be ultra-diplomatic!

What has been the highlight of your career to date?

Funnily enough, I think it would have to be winning the awards at Brighton Fringe! It’s always been a dream of mine to start a theatre company – something I thought would happen far later my in life. It’s not often you get that kind of reassurance so early in a career and it really has been life-changing.

Is there anything you would have done differently, looking back?

We would have brought a director into the mix sooner. We conceived, staged and directed the first incarnation of this show ourselves. We later had sessions with directors, and we realised this is how we want to work in future. A good director is your eyes and ears out front, they help you get the very best out of your material and can help a performer fully understand the show. We directed another show in Edinburgh this year and we realised we actually make a very good directing team. We may step back from performing and take the directing reigns for future shows.

Mumblecrust is touring at the end of this year going into 2018. What work goes into arranging a tour?

Lots! Inviting programmers to see the show, organising their complimentary tickets, figuring out dates and the money side of things, providing marketing material, designing and sending off flyers and posters…the list goes on. We’d much prefer to be creative all the time, but that’s why they call it ‘show-business’!

Where can people watch The Tale of the Cockatrice?

We’re very excited to be returning to The Warren at Brighton Fringe in 2018, so be sure to catch us if you’re there! Other than that, we’ll be at Theatre Shop, Clevedon in North Somerset at Christmas, then at the start of 2018: returning to The Lyric Bridport, two London venues, the Everyman Theatre in Cheltenham and Fireside Festival. You can find the dates for the rest of the tour on our website www.mumblecrust.com

What is the relationship between Mumblecrust Theatre and Peafrog Puppetry?

Through Peafrog Puppetry we make commissions and run workshops. It’s the name we originally used when we started The Tale of the Cockatrice. We decided to branch out and create Mumblecrust Theatre as a dedicated production company, with the hopes to expand both in the future!

Do you have any plans beyond The Tale of the Cockatrice at the minute?

We have a lot of ideas for our next show. Anthony told me the other day that he finally feels able to start thinking about our next show, and I agreed! Given how immersed in Cockatrice we’ve been for so long this is quite a landmark for us. We’ve learned so much from Cockatrice and we can’t wait to wait to sit down and start concocting new ideas, but since this was our first and we’re just starting to tour, we aren’t going to rush into it!

What advice would you give to someone who wants to get into puppetry?Kristen McTernan

There are loads of great courses out there, and even YouTube tutorials in puppet-making and puppeteering! Lots of local theatre groups are using puppets in their productions – it’s worth finding out if anyone near you would like someone to help out.

If you could send one message back to 16-year old you, what would you say?

I’ve always loved puppets (The Muppets being my favourite thing as a kid!) but I hadn’t ever considered it to be a ‘job’. I was so torn between acting and making when I was younger. I suppose I’d tell 16-year-old me that there is a way to combine those two things…and that I’d love it!

What do you reckon you would be doing if it wasn’t this?

If I wasn’t producing my own show, I’d probably still be auditioning for musicals, puppetry and children’s theatre. If I wasn’t in the arts at all, that’s a tricky one. When I was younger I used to look at other careers, like doctors, and think “I’d like to do that!” but then I’d realise I just liked the idea of being an actor playing a doctor in a film! In all seriousness, I like working with young people and I would probably teach.

And finally, where can people find out more about you and Mumblecrust Theatre?

Our website: www.mumblecrust.com; on Twitter and Facebook: @MumblecrustUK; and if you’d like to help support our work with The Tale of the Cockatrice, plus our workshops and puppet commissions, you can even become a patron on Patreon and get loads of exclusive Behind the Scenes content! www.patreon.com/peafrogpuppetry

The Tale of the Cockatrice is touring through December and 2018. Their first showing is at Theatre Shop, Clevedon on 28th and 29th December. For tickets and more information visit the Mumblecrust Theatre website.

About the author

Tom Inniss

Tom is a journalist and feature writer with interests in politics, technology and culture. He currently works as the editor of Voice - an online magazine for young people interested in art and culture.

Tom Inniss Journalist and podcaster

Tom Inniss

Tom is a journalist and feature writer with interests in politics, technology and culture. He currently works as the editor of Voice - an online magazine for young people interested in art and culture.

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