As trained painters, both Jessica Ng and Nina Torr believe that if an image sticks in your head and haunts you for long enough, it’s your duty to make it happen. And, as John Jerard said, “You make what you want to see”. That’s precisely what the duo (and their team) have done with the ambitious project, Tallard and the Ladderbird: an original musical theatre production that will be brought to life by large, parade-style puppets this September.
While corresponding with Nina from her home in Hong Kong, Jessica wrote the story of Tallard, an ungainly and uncomfortably tall girl who struggles to find her place in the world. After coughing up an egg that is believed to bring peace once hatched, she sets off on a mission to try and do so, meeting Longdawg – a lengthy, loving dog – who becomes a welcome companion on her dangerous journey.
The costumes, set design, puppets and props are physical manifestations of Nina’s illustrations and artworks. For an exhibition held last year she painted a cyclorama broken up into several paintings, wanting to create a space for the viewer’s mind to inhabit. “I also ended up painting a few characters dressed in drapes and masks. Looking back,” she reflects, “I think this was an urge to make actual costumes. Even though I’ve mostly been working as an illustrator these past few years, I did a lot of prop building and stop-motion animation while I was studying. All of these factors finally found their way up to the surface again, and theatre seemed like the most appropriate outlet.” Nina designed and produced all of the elements with the guidance of Nadine Minnaar of Scene Visuals Productions. She remembers being terrified on the day they began. “We didn’t know where to start and spent the first few days fumbling around, unsure of what we had gotten ourselves into. But after a while we got into a rhythm and the thing just took on a life of its own. We either had to climb on board, or let it pass us by.” At times, this meant simply enjoying the slightly wobbly but ever-so-charming results of working with materials like cardboard and paper mache.
Before the writing process for Tallard had started, Jessica had felt drawn to the feeling of “saudades” – the Portuguese word used to describe a kind of heart-breaking yearning for something once it is gone forever. And yet, paradoxically, it is also full of joy for what you once had. “To me,” she says, “Nina’s work has this quality, and it is something we want to see and feel, very much, in a theatre.” The tale took some development and while Jessica put all of the basics down before arriving in SA to start directing the rehearsals, she found herself rewriting the story throughout the first few weeks. “I’d begun with lines that stated the obvious, not knowing the immense subtlety the puppeteers were capable of wringing out of the puppets,” she explains. Once she saw what they could do, the story had permission to evolve.
The cast of Tallard are all volunteers who have been trained in the art of puppetry and mask-work by international puppeteer, Marinda Botha. Jessica notes that directing puppets is very different from directing people, “Puppetry has its own artifice, and the moment you force them to move at the speed of a ‘real person’, the magic is lost. Thinking about it in terms of dance choreography seems to yield the best results.” Appropriate, as the production is backed by the characteristically ethereal music of Pieter Bezuidenhout, whose original score will be performed live by the Horizons Project Choir and guest performer Laurika Rauch.
Tallard and the Ladderbird will debut as part of the iMPAC Film Festival on 19 and 21 September at the SAX Arena, Open Window Institute Campus in Pretoria – a chance to see, first hand, this team’s spectacular vision. Buy tickets here.
Keep up with Tallard and the Ladderbird on Facebook.
Photographs: Bernard Brand and Yetu Dada