Thursday, September 22, 2005

"Pure Pleasure"

"Broadly then, what keeps adults from joining in children's games is, generally speaking, not that they have no pleasure in them; it is simply that they have no leisure for them. It is that they cannot afford the expenditure of toil and time and consideration for so grand and grave a scheme. I have been myself attempting for some time past to complete a play in a small toy theatre, the sort of toy theatre that used to be called Penny Plain and Twopence Coloured; only that I drew and coloured the figures and scenes myself. Hence I was free from the degrading obligation of having to pay either a penny or twopence; I only had to pay a shilling a sheet for good cardboard and a shilling a box for bad water colours. The kind of miniature stage I mean is probably familiar to everyone; it is never more than a development of the stage which Skelt made and Stevenson celebrated.

"But though I have worked much harder at the toy theatre than I ever worked at any tale or article, I cannot finish it; the work seems too heavy for me. I have to break off and betake myself to lighter employment; such as the biographies of great men. The play of 'St. George and the Dragon', over which I have burnt the midnight oil (you must colour the thing by lamplight because that is how it will be seen), still lacks, most conspicuously, alas two wings of the Sultan's Palace, and also some comprehensible and workable way of getting up the curtain.

"All this gives me a feeling touching the real meaning of immortality. In this world we cannot have pure pleasure. This is partly because pure pleasure would be dangerous to us and to our neighbours. But it is partly because pure pleasure is a great deal too much trouble. If I am ever in any other and better world, I hope that I shall have enough time to play with nothing but toy theatres; and I hope that I shall have enough divine and superhuman energy to act at least one play in them without a hitch..."
From On Lying in Bed & Other Essays by G.K. Chesterton


An amazing tool become available Tuesday. I tried it today, using 'toy theatre' as the search criteria, and these were the results - a wide range of references to toy theatre including essays. Fascinating!

It's called Google Print and it's highly contraversial with many in the publishing world, including authors themselves. However, publishers are cooperating with Google, and all parties are hammering out details to make it work. It will be beneficial to everyone either financially or information-wise.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

An Open Invitation...

For anyone that may not be aware, Laurie Webb is holding what sounds like a wonderful toy theatre festival next month - see details here...

I hereby invite anyone attending the festival, to let me know how the festival goes. All persons who write me about their experiences, whether the emails are about what they do, or what they see, about what they learn, or about what they think of this or that, will be put on the blog here as report(s) from the festival. It will help others that cannot attend (like myself), or those unfamiliar with toy theatre per se, learn about things they wouldn't otherwise get to, and hopefully get excited about toy theatre!

Feel free to pass this invitation on to anyone that will be attending, either performers or attendees. My invitation is open to all.

NOTE: I also would love to post photos from the festival, whether it is snaps of workshops, performances, or behind-the-scenes or after-hours.

Friday, September 16, 2005


Shockheaded Peter is the gruesome, funny musical created by the eccentric British musical group The Tiger Lillies and experimental theatre mavens Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch.

Based on a 19th century children's book, it tells a collection of cautionary tales about "bad children" using puppetry, masks, toy theatre, and other theatrical devices.
By the way, for all of you who may want to see this production (myself included), there is a wonderful website put up by the New York production company, where you can sign up to be notified of the national tour dates, starting in 2006...

Monday, September 12, 2005

Great Small Works - What Makes Them Tick...

Great Small Works Interview

Interviewee: John Bell
Date: 09/11/2005

- Interest in Toy Theatre grew out of their background in puppetry, as well as their influences...

- "Political Theatre is O.K." : John sees Toy Theatre as a means to express political statements or ideas - "Toy theater is a fast, cheap, way of responding to mass- produced images and mass media, with flat cut-out tabletop figures on a proscenium stage. We have used the form to create The Toy Theater of Terror as Usual - a series of shows inspired by Walter Benjamin, Michael Taussig, John Heartfield, Jane Geiser and Edward Gordon Craig - which re-fashions images of mass-media news and entertainment into episodes of a toy theater epic commenting on the politics and culture of our time."

- In 2005, received Jim Henson Award for Innovation: JIM HENSON AWARD FOR INNOVATION recognizes innovation in puppetry that is technological, dramaturgical or collaborative in nature - Great Small Works is a puppet company created by a collaborative of extraordinary puppet artists from different backgrounds in New York City. They have worked steadily for years to make the art form of Toy Theatre something innovative and relevant to the world today. Toy theaters became popular in the early 19th century, as cardboard replicas of actual stages. The miniature, two-dimensional, mass-produced theaters became popular entertainment. Great Small has been successful in attracting many new devotees and inspired many puppeteers to experiment with the form. Their annual Toy Theatre Festival is a “must see” event for puppeteers and the public. Since 1993, at seven festivals, hundreds of artists from around the world (Jerusalem, Mexico City, Toronto,) around the county (California, Illinois, Vermont) and around New York, converge at a New York location for a ten-day celebration of the power of the miniature. The 7th festival held in 2005 was held in Brooklyn at St Ann’s Warehouse. Working with guest artists, they reinvent the nearly extinct tradition of Toy Theater for contemporary audiences. The venue is reconfigured to house small-scale performance spaces where dramatic spectacles unfold, often simultaneously, alongside a grand toy theater exhibition! - From

- GSW works with schools, jails, and other community groups holding threatre workshops, which includes the use of toy theatre...

- Contemporary design and production of new toy theatre are being done by: Jon Bankert; Robert Poulter; Alain LeCucq; Jane Geiser; Susan Simpson, and Blair Thomas

- In early GSW festivals, they spread the word among the puppet and theatre community there was a 'revival' in Toy Theatre; actually, there wasn't...yet - there is now, partially due to their proactive efforts. Part of the annual festival is the 'Temporary Toy Theatre Museum', an exhibit that is never meant to be permanent; it is exhibited to showcase what toy theatre was, is, and can be into the future...

Friday, September 09, 2005

Newly-Published Toy Theatre

Louise at Pollock's Toyshop in Covent Garden (UK), wrote to say that there is a new toy theatre* that has been recently published, and it is available through their website.

* - "A model of Bury St Edmunds theatre...a very rare Georgian theatre, which has managed to survive without significant alteration from its opening in 1819."

NOTE: The theatre this model is based on will be closing it's doors on September 18th for eighteen months for a long-deserved restoration to it's original glory. How exciting!

Thursday, September 08, 2005


This weekend, I'll be interviewing founders and members of Great Small Works, a wonderful group of people who love, among other things, toy theatre.

Many of you are generally aware of them because of their annual festival. However, many if not most of us don't know who the people behind the festival are, or why they do what they do.

To provide those answers, and as a special treat for those of us who cannot attend the festival, I approached the group through email this week to see if they'd be willing to share with us. I am delighted to say, they were.

Stay tuned - Sometime early next week, in this space, I'll be posting the interview. In the meantime, here is an article one of the members wrote about Toy Theatre...

Cleavin: Theatres of War

From an upcoming book* on New Zealand printermaker Barry Cleavin:

Cleavin: Theatres of War (2004).
Printed paper sculptures. Collection of the artist.

Notes: At first glance these works might recall children's pop-up books or the juvenile cut-out toy theatres of Pollocks of London originating in Victorian times and referred to by R.L. Stevenson in 'Memories and Portraits', chapter xiii. A Penny Plain and Twopence Coloured. These inexpensive paper cut-outs reproduced famous and favourite writings and could be coloured in and cut-out by children who could then act out the various stories and dramas.

In Cleavin's cut-out theatres strange dramas are played out. In these pictorial-cum-moral peep shows modern and archaic elements, in various scales, are brought into dramatic collision. Such compositions reject established rules of representation (including perspective) developed since the Renaissance and deliberately employ anachronistic imagery and scale reminiscent of medieval and primitive painters (who varied the size of their figures according to their importance). Cleavin uses such anachronisms to unsettle expectations and raise questions about the actions and relations dramatised. The concept behind them, their composition and titles, indicate that Cleavin considers continual acts of war and aggression unjustifiable and here invites audiences to look to the causes of such persistent patterns.

The 'Theatres of War' (2004), together with work by Nigel Buxton, Ralph Hotere, Marian Maguire, John Pule and John Reynolds, were part of an anti-war exhibition held at Papergraphica in Christchurch. This show, in many respects, repeated the concerns addressed by Cleavin and others in an exhibition titled, 'Artists for Peace' (1984), at The Robert McDougall Art Gallery, Christchurch.

Cleavin: Theatres of War (2004).
Printed paper sculptures. Collection of the artist.

Presented in the language of children's pop-up picture books or Benjamin Pollock's cut-out theatres, the casts of Cleavin's 'Theatres' include skeletal and ecorche figures, soldiers and arms, dinosaurs and popular cartoon figures.[6] These worlds of mixed visual events challenge not only warring powers, but also their analogues, the 'official' media and their versions of the various conflicts so often culpable of lionising war. These 'Theatres' also challenge us, an audience capable of participations of a different kind from those dramatised. Irrespective of the surreal pictorial idiom, these theatres of war images clearly relate to the Disasters of War' series by Callot and Goya, or the 'dumb shows' and stages of cruelty by Hogarth. They ask us if we assent to the events visualised.
* Meditations on a Magpie: the Work of Barry Cleavin, Printmaker, by Dr. Cassandra Fusco, a freelance writer from Christchurch, New Zealand; publisher will be the University of Canterbury's Canterbury Press

Monday, September 05, 2005

Enthusiast checks in after Hurricane

I received a voice mail today from Gigi Sandberg to let the toy theatre community know that she and her husband Glen were doing alright and are OK after Hurricane Katrina.

The Sandbergs live in Gulfport, Mississippi, which is not all that far from New Orleans itself. Gigi said things "...were a mess..." - I can only imagine, but being through several floods myself in my lifetime, I can imagine pretty good.

Our thoughts and prayers are with the Sandbergs and all those affected.

Saturday, September 03, 2005

Pollock's Toy Museum Update

From Paul Weighall today, comes this exciting update on what's going on at Pollock's Toy Museum:
Hi All,

I thought some of you may be interested in what we are doing at Pollock's toy theatres...

About 15:00 today Hugo Brown and I finished examining and cataloguing every original toy theatre printing plate stored here. There are many hundreds of these and over the past 6 months we have spent a number of Saturdays sitting in a basement for hours cleaning off decades of old packaging and trying to read 150 year old imprints through various levels and types of protective coating. Sadly many of the plates were made of zinc and a lot of these have been corroded beyond use but the rest, in fact the majority, are copper and have survived very well. Hugo is updating our database of these plates and will no doubt add this interesting list to his website anon.

The plates were all hand engraved of course and seeing the original source for the familiar, and some not so familiar, scenes from the plays has been a real treat. We now plan to start slowly cleaning and re-protecting them over the next 2 years or so. The larger plates used to print whole theatre fronts are particular exciting and the largest is a hand engraved copper for an entire 4d Redington proscenium. Hugo has also located the earliest Green theatre front plate engraved by his great, great, great, grandfather. Given time we hope to make some real prints from these and where we have good quality plates of characters, scenes wings etc,. we will no doubt try and get some new impressions from the copper. As far as we are aware this plate collection is the largest in the world.

The next and much larger task is to collate, sort and catalogue the tens of thousands of original printed sheets that wound up at Pollocks as we acquired each major publisher's catalogue and stock over the years. Hugo and I are maybe just 20% of our way through the entire collection and in a year or two we think we will have completed cataloguing all the sheets we have currently. Where we have duplicates we select the best examples as masters and we store one of each different print impression in colour and plain where we have them both. We intend to scan and archive all these and make them available for study at the museum. The Green publication files alone now take up about 1 meter of shelf space. As far as we are aware the sheet collection is the largest in the world and much of it was very generously donated by John Fawdry, who had kept it in France until this summer when it was merged with the vast collection already at the museum.

We have also collated and sorted about 125 different play texts, e.g. the written words for the plays produced in little books and that collection is now being catalogued and stored with the sheet collection for the relevant plays. These will also be scanned and made available for study.

If and when I next surface with any eyesight left blinking into the daylight from examining about a zillion paper toy theatre sheets then I will keep you all informed of our progress in preserving and charting the archaeology of toy theatre.

Paul J. Weighell
Pollock's Toy Theatres Limited

Thursday, September 01, 2005

The Turk & the Mechanical Theatre

I'm reading a book right now entitled, "The Turk", about an amazing 18th century automaton, and it's journey through history. At one point, it is owned and shown by a man named Maelzel. Towards the end of Maelzel's career (and as it turned out, the Turk's, also...), he was exhibiting the automaton in New York once again. This time, he also had other exhibits being shown in conjunction, one of them being a mechanical theatre "...purposely introduced for the gratification of the Juvenile Visitors."