Edinburgh Fringe People

The Designer: Russell Dean from Strangeface Theatre

Published on Tuesday 21 August 2018

We’re talking to people who perform or work at the Edinburgh Festival each year to get their perspectives on what performing or producing at the world’s biggest cultural event involves, and top tips on how to get the most out of the experience. This time designer – and mask and puppet maker – Russell Dean.

Russell has worked in a design role for a number of great theatre groups and also heads up his own company, Strangeface Theatre, where he is Artistic Director. A writer, director, performer and teacher, as well as a designer, he is best known for his work with masks and puppets, and is at the Edinburgh Fringe this year presenting a fascinating puppet show called ‘The Hit’ at Summerhall.

We spoke to him to find out more about his career in theatre design, and how he came to specialise in mask and puppet making.

TW: Tell us about ‘The Hit’.
RD: ‘The Hit’ is a puppet black comedy with a twist about a hit man who sees too much brain. Initially it was funded by the Wellcome Trust to engage audiences with the subject of cognitive dissonance, that deeply unpleasant feeling we experience when entertaining two conflicting truths, which leads to much of the irrational behaviour we see around us today. What we ended up with was a black puppet comedy about a killer who is losing control of his life and identity. It’s grown up puppetry.

TW: How did you go about conceiving, scripting and designing a production like this?
RD: We owe a lot to Mervyn Millar, the puppet director on ‘War Horse’ and one of the nicest guys I’ve ever met. He was interested in the project, so we did some research and development together, and he went on to help with the dramaturgy.

Neuroscience is throwing up awkward questions about our freewill and how we retrofit rational reasoning to decisions that we have made unconsciously. This can be due either to the influence of others – like in the Cambridge Analytica Facebook scandal – or our own unrecognised urges! In other words, what we think of as freewill is, in many ways, an illusion.

Of course scripting something that covers the full implications of cognitive dissonance theory, how it manifests, and how it is exploited, is impossible. So I had to pick just a few aspects as a teaser for our audiences. We looked at initiations – the one we use in the show is known in the British army! – death and advertising, the perfect realm for a hitman! We then worked with an academic from Lincoln University specialising in cognitive dissonance who made sure what we were showing was accurate.

The puppet, Mikey, is obviously central to the show and its concept. He is an amalgam of Brando, Breaking Bad’s Mike, The Bhudda and George C Scott in ‘Dr Strangelove’. His partial nakedness show’s his vulnerability. It also allows him to play many characters as his life unravels.

TW: Tell us about your career. How did you start working in the theatre and how did you come to specialise in this kind of work?
RD: I worked for several seasons at Glyndebourne Opera, pushing scenery around, before I went to college. You learn a lot handling the sets and props of great designers. After college I became a designer/maker and briefly crossed paths with the inspirational Julian Crouch when we were both teaching at Central School Of Speech And Drama. His low tech junk puppetry was an epiphany.

Not long after that I applied to the theatre company Trestle to be an outreach worker and they hired me as their mask and set designer, initially for a show called ‘Bitter Fruit’, a collaboration with the City Of Birmingham Contemporary Music Group. There on I worked with Trestle on several productions as a designer, mask and puppet maker. Perhaps my favourite show was ‘Tonight We Fly’, the story of Marc Chagall.

TW: Tell us more about Strangeface. When and why was the company set up?
RD: The company happened by accident! In 1999 my partner, who was working as a special events organiser and costumed interpreter at Hampton Court, was asked if she knew of any outdoor theatre companies. She said ‘yes… us’. Within a month we had bought a huge old Mercedes van and were touring from St Mawes to Holy Island with pretty bawdy mask and puppet shows.

We got a following, went to Edinburgh, and went on from there. Once we had Arts Council funding we came indoors and could develop shows where the primary intention was more than just diverting families from the castle ruins around them. Since the company was established, it has allowed me to pursue many interests and given me a control, which waiting for the right job to turn up may never have done.

TW: What does your role as Artistic Director involve?
RD: I’m unusual as an Artistic Director in that much of my time is spent at the workbench making puppets and masks. This allows a lot of time for dreaming and listening to music and podcasts whilst my hands are busy. Shows often start as scribbled notes and drawings on the work bench, sketches in clay or cardboard and masking tape models.

Writing often only happens when I have made clay maquettes of the characters. When they start to speak to me – yes, I know it sounds mad! – they’re ready to tell their story. In terms of the company’s direction, I have been lucky enough to explore areas in which I have a great interest, hence ‘The Hit’, a show about cognition and identity.

TW: You have also worked as a freelance designer for a number of other companies and groups. How do you go about getting this kind of work? How do you decide what projects are worth pursuing?
RD: Networking isn’t my first love, but I’m lucky that images of my work are distinctive and people tend to contact me when they think I can offer something to their project. In terms of choosing projects, it’s not normally about money. I tend to look for the passion behind the project.

TW: Is the Edinburgh Fringe a good place to present your kind of work?
RD: In general the Fringe doesn’t show much puppetry, so you do stand out. Puppetry has many styles, from the wonderful Old Trout Puppet Workshop show ‘Famous Puppet Death Scenes’ to the pioneering ‘Henry’ from Blind Summit, which is a developing show with some hilarious and haunting moments. As a producer, you never know what’s going to happen here. But in the end, if you are hoping to book a tour and get your work seen, Edinburgh is the place to come. The bonus is that you meet many inspirational people and companies along the way.

TW: Are there any particular challenges to presenting shows at the Fringe, compared to producing elsewhere?
RD: I’ve never met anybody who’s made a profit out of coming here and it can be a real test of mental resilience. If you’re lucky you will be reviewed, but even then that can be a slap in the face or a false dawn. We’ve been lucky to have an insightful five star review from British Theatre Review, but not all have been that way! Another challenge is the walking, always the walking! This year I brought a bike and I’ve managed to do so much more!

TW: How do you go about choosing an Edinburgh venue and pitching your show to that venue?
RD: Summerhall has developed a strong reputation for promoting good theatre. It also has a really good and happy team. Its infectious. That was really important to me. I came up to Edinburgh in freezing March to meet Verity Leigh – Summerhall’s festival programmer – and discuss whether the show was right for the venue. I pitched the show as clearly as possible with a video teaser and was really clear about what we wanted to get out of the Festival. It’s a good idea to show that you’ve put some thought into the practicalities of coming to Edinburgh as well as demonstrating the passion that’s behind your incredible show!

TW: What tips would you have for someone producing a theatre show at the Fringe for the first time?
RD: Do the most with the least, otherwise it could be the other way round! Always talk to the venue about any concerns rather than hoping it’ll be fine when you turn up. And make sure you have a good relationship before you arrive.

TW: You’ve undertaken lots of different roles in the theatre. What advice would you have for someone passionate about theatre but still working out what roles would be most relevant to them?
RD: Always say yes to projects and make sure you’re in a position to say yes. You never know who’ll you meet on a job that may not initially be exactly what you’re looking for. Show people you care about what you do as well as being passionate. It’s very attractive and you will get employment. Finally, be prepared to recognise your dream when it arrives, it’s not always in the form you’d think.

TW: And finally, what tips would you have for someone pursuing a career in theatre design – both in general and specifically in masks and puppetry?
RD: Generally, photograph and video everything you do, and build a website, it’s not a luxury any more, it’s a necessity. Get your face in front of people, sometimes it pays to work for nothing but know when you’re being exploited. Being friendly, encouraging to others, and respectful is at least as important as being talented – and I speak as an employer here!

Specifically, with regard to masks and puppetry, it’s a broad church. Get in touch with those whose work you admire and inspire you and really know their work. You’ll usually get at least a chat and some advice, whether about materials or some making problem you’re trying to solve. You might get some work experience or even employment. Don’t be afraid to ask if you can visit their workshop. Finally always, always be making. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. That’s the way you’ll innovate and create your own style. Long live the happy accident!

‘The Hit’ is on at Summerhall until 26 Aug. 

LINKS: strangeface.co.uk