We were delighted to sit down with puppeteer, performer and theatre maker Claire Roi Harvey to talk all things Father Christmas, Timothy the Yeti and YULE!
Hi Claire, can you tell us a bit about your background and the route to becoming a puppeteer and theatre performer / maker?
Folks come to it from many routes, acting, movement, or even animation. You can even do short courses in puppetry, and degrees covering it. I came to it as a slightly lost and shy creative teenager who liked watching aliens and monsters on tv. I wanted to puppeteer, but had no idea it was a tangible career, and none of the adults around me were familiar with the entertainment industry, so I sort of stumbled into a performance course at my local college as I was big into music, art, and drama.
I carried on performance studies into higher education, and it was through this I met a writer/musician called Edward Wren with whom I went on co-create a theatre company. For this company I started building and performing with puppets and before long it was my main job.
Don’t get me wrong, there were many many café, shop, and youth theatre jobs along the way, but I tried to stay focussed on picking up theatre puppetry work alongside that, with my own company, but also for other companies who had seen our work.
TV and film work came much later for me, I’d already been working in theatre for about 11 years learning how to use puppets, build puppets, and how you can create performance with them, so by the time the shift to film came along, I was in a good position to start learning how puppetry works on screen, just as well as it was certainly a steep learning curve at first!
These days I do a bit of performing, directing and building…each fills the gap for the others.
You were one of The Point’s first ever Associate Artists. Can you tell us about that period of time and how your connection to the venue has developed since then?
I was! In fact we were the first on the original associate artist scheme, which was initially a year of support. The Point took on the theatre company I co created, with Edward Wren, which was called The River People. When I say took on, the venue offered support with office space, rehearsal space, administrative support with funding applications, as well as hooking us up with the relevant local business services. Our big focus over the year was to build a business around a show we had created. With The Points support and the support of staff and the creative director at the time, Sarah Brigham, we learned a lot about what it means to run a theatre company as a business and we were able to tour shows around the UK and Europe, complete several successful Edinburgh fringe runs, win awards, learned how to apply for funding for projects alongside shows…a venue demonstrating that they have faith in you as artists and guiding you in your early career is such a valuable thing to have in such a volatile industry.
Now, I’m supported as an individual in a different way. I have my own business doing all things puppetry across theatre, tv and film, and have a studio nearby in a space owned by EBC. This year I’m co-producing my own show with The Point and collaborating on the story world Christmas show the venue are creating in house. In the years since the associate programmes ended, I’ve facilitated workshops for the venue, made online content, used space to develop ideas for my shadow puppetry work, been an Arts awards mentor…the list goes on. But the most useful thing by far is access to the people that work in the building. Over the years they have been some of my biggest cheerleaders, and their expertise continues to be useful to myself and to the new generations of artists connected with the building today.
Can you tell us a bit about the productions you have worked on including theatre, TV and film? What’s been a career highlight for you?
Oooooh ONE highlight is so difficult! I’ve been really lucky to work on several of my favourite film franchises - Star Wars, Jurassic World, & The Dark Crystal which always blow me away.
My theatre highlight is a strange one actually! I’ve always loved taking performance out of theatres and into communities or unusual spaces and places. I co- created/performed on board The Cutty Sark in a folk opera called ‘Rum Culls & Ragwater’ with The River People in partnership with the brilliant Greenwich theatre. The thing that made it so special was that there had been no music performed on the ship for decades, so to perform snuggled in the tea chests amongst all that rich history was really exciting.
Film and tv wise…. anything I’ve had the opportunity to perform the on set dialogue and live lip sync for is always a real treat. Seeing actors react to a real-life creature chatting to them on set is really special.
And of course, doing the body performance for ‘Maz Kanata’ on Star Wars Rise of Skywalker was pretty magic. The entire team on that puppet were exceptional, with Matt Denton performing eyes and brow, Richard Coombes on mouth and dialogue, and me giving the physical performance. It was such a thrill to be asked to be a part of a team presenting an established character in a way we had never seen before. Lupita N’yongo had already been performing the character with facial capture, alongside performer Arti Shah who was the motion capture double for the character. For this film however, Lupita would still be voicing the character, but it was asked by our director, JJ, that the character be involved in her scenes in a more organic and intimate way then before. This led Neal Scanlans Creature Effects team to develop a puppet driven by a motion capture suit, with facial puppetry added live on top - a great challenge to get stuck into with Matt and Richard. Everyone getting in sync creating a seamless real time performance, allowing the puppet to perform alongside actors on set, while we puppeteer her just off the set. Next to us, our director JJ could direct her as he would an actor, ensuring she was really well integrated into some very emotional sequences.
At the time, she was the most advanced animatronic that Neal Scanlans Creature Effects department had ever made, and I’m still very proud to have been part of the team that brought her to life on screen from design to performance and beyond.
You’re currently working on The Point’s festive storyworld experience Timothy the Yeti. How is the creative process going? What can families expect from this experience?
Audiences are in for SUCH a lovely treat with this! The story is a very sweet. You get to meet Timothy the yeti, who wants to tell you the story of his life.
This type of work is always a gorgeous introduction to theatre for the very little ones, a gentle bit of storytelling in an immersive cave space that you can stay and play in - what’s not to love.
The music for the show has been written by another former Point Associate David Lewington, set design by Tim Slater, puppet built by me and the show is directed by Charlotte Cassey. Charlotte has also written a book of the story, which is illustrated by Zoe Barker. It really is an exciting collaboration of artists.
I’m currently puppet building for the project and moving into the final stages…which means I’ll soon be doing the fun stuff like choosing fur and the perfect shades of pinks for his little toes.
What do you love most about puppeteering? Can you tell us something that people might not know about puppet design / making / performing?
Ooooh good question. Puppets are such an ancient form of telling stories, and it’s great to see them used so much today. You only need to look at Christmas adverts on tv for example, and most of them use puppetry in some way, reference or otherwise, because they tell stories so well.
I think the thing I love most about puppeteering is when you get the perfect team together on a puppet all working in sync, listening to and responding to each other to make that puppet seem alive. There’s a real magic in the moments where everything just works, and it’s those moments that we as audiences believe it’s a living breathing creature. Once you’ve hit that sweet spot, then you can then use them for storytelling.
Something folks might not know about puppets is that there are often many many people across different departments involved in the process from design on the page to seeing the puppet performed on screen.
Designers, sculptors, mould makers, animatronic builders, software programmers, fabricators, painters, hair or fur or even feather technicians….and more…and all this before it’s performed on screen.
You worked as a puppeteer and performer in Raymond Briggs’ Father Christmas – can you tell us a bit about the show and why you think The Berry Theatre audiences will love it?
The show is such a little gem! Directed by Emma Earle and created in 2012 by Pins and Needles productions & The Lyric for what they thought would be a short run has been so loved by audiences in London that it’s now been on at The Lyric for 10 years!
One thing I love is that the design of the show, by Zoe Squire, is exactly like the original book by Raymond Briggs, which is very satisfying, especially for children who like to bring the book and watch along.
I performed in the show for 8 years and have now moved on to Puppetry directing which is a really lovely progression. Over the years the team have noticed that it becomes a Christmas tradition for families to see every year, so hopefully it can do the same at these new regional venues.
In the show we follow Father Christmas as he wakes on Christmas Eve. We get a sneak peek into his pre-Christmas day routine before he finally goes to bed on Christmas day. The show is a 3 hander, and at The Berry this year we have Mike Aherne as Father Christmas, the musician for the Berry is Hazel Monaghan who will fill the world of the show with music by Lucy Rivers and some brilliant live foley sound effects (the tea pour might be my favourite!) and puppeteer Imogen Khan will bring to life the Cat, Dog and Deer puppets from the brilliant Nicoll entertainment workshop!
It’s gentle, a bit silly and magic all at once, making it suitable for the whole family from babes in arms to grandparents…I honestly think everyone I’m related to has seen it…! Oh and there’s a gorgeous moment in the middle of the show that’s not to be missed…!
This December you’ll also be presenting your show YULE at The Point – a spinetingling shadow film performed using intricate puppetry and accompanied by a live soundtrack. Can you set the scene for this show, what can audiences expect?
I’m going back to my roots a bit with this show. I’ve always been a fan of an alternative Christmas show. I like a dark aesthetic & story, and a lot of the early theatre stuff I did was in this vein. I love the Tim Burton aesthetic, the darkness in the writing in shows like Inside number 9, and the creeping dread in films such as Alien.
I’ve been experimenting with shadow puppetry for a good decade now and decided it was time to use all that inspiration to create something I wasn’t seeing…a spooky festive shadow puppetry show. And performing spooky tales at Christmas has such a rich history, we only need look back to the Victorians who loved to huddle by the fire and get spooky.
The show itself is a collaboration between local drummer and percussionist Paul Wardell and myself, he is bringing the soundtrack and I the shadow puppetry, and both are performed live. We combine these two elements to create what we are describing as a shadow film onstage telling 3 chilling stories that follow folks as they go about their traditions on Christmas Eve…but no spoilers here!
We are doing a limited run this year with the hope to remount it for more audiences next year. We have also put an age restriction of 14+ on the show as it does deal with adult themes of the paranormal.
What is your favourite thing about theatre during the festive period?
Seeing people come to shows and connect with one another. The worlds not a very happy or easy place to live in at the moment, and seeing folks take the time for a bit of festive escapism that may even become a tradition for them and their families, is pretty special thing indeed.
You can find out more about our festive shows and book tickets here: