Interview: Russell Dean Talks All Things Strangeface Theatre Company & New Show ‘The Hit’

Strangeface Theatre Company’s latest work, The Hit, is set to play at the University if York this Friday (November 8th) and the Leeds Carriageworks this Saturday (9th – tickets here). The award-winning company produce a broad range of shows which seek to make accessibility and the exploration of complex ideas their core. I caught up with Artistic Director Russell Dean, whom the company cites as ‘a writer, director, designer/maker, performer, project manager and facilitator on 9 productions and hundreds of workshops for Strangeface since 2001’. With that impressive CV and ahead of the Leeds stop of the tour, I’ve been busy questioning Mr Dean about all things mask theatre, puppetry and The Hit…

Let’s start at the very beginning. What exactly first drew you to the arts and more specifically, mask theatre and puppetry?

I spent a lot of time in art rooms at school and was blessed with some very tolerant and enlightened art teachers who let me follow my own path. I always knew I wanted to work in theatre and, by a process of always saying yes, I found myself working as a designer for the legendary Trestle Theatre Company. Suddenly I had to make masks as well as designing sets and fortunately I fell in love with the process. I had always been a very slow set designer. The peak for me was finishing the model box. However, once I started to make masks and puppets, I couldn’t wait to see how my work would come to life!

You wear many hats within the company, from writer and director to designer and performer alongside running workshops and actually making the masks. Do you have a preference for the kind of work you like to have filling your days?

I enjoy the links between the different disciplines. Some days I can be working in the workshop and speak to no one, whereas the next I may be in the rehearsal room or running a Q&A before an audience or performing. I believe there is something special in crossing the bridges between fields.  There are patterns that resonate throughout all aspects of my work and I find it thrilling to discover how they inform each other. 

That seems like quite a creative gift, to be able to work within and across the disciplines. I’ve been looking over the production shots for your previous shows and I’m absolutely gutted not only to have been woefully unaware of your work but specifically to have missed the likes of A Christmas Carol (which looks fantastic by the way) – which of your Strangeface shows do you hold most dear, if any?

The Last Resort was a black comedy about moral decline in a small community. We took that show to Iran to the Mobarak International Puppetry Festival and won awards for both Audience Enjoyment and Artistic Excellence. There were a lot of elements drawn together in puppetry and mask and it seemed to gel. It was the first piece we had developed with proper rehearsal time and ACE funding for theatres indoors. I’m also very fond of Shooting the Moon. This was the unreliable story of Georges Melies, one of the pioneers of early film. As a magician he saw film as an extension of illusion. Aside from the joy of producing a full mask show, it was interesting to note that in less than a hundred years we seem to have reversed that notion so that unless something has appeared on film it doesn’t exist!

It’s a struggle to find mask theatre and puppetry in the productions touring regionally so seeing The Hit advertised has made my day! For you, what is it about the puppetry dynamic in this particular tale which is set to make The Hit well, a hit with audiences?

Puppetry is necessary to the central theme of The Hit dealing, as it does, with ideas of identity, control and free will. The metaphor is obvious! Who would feel more in control of life and death than a hit man?  Of all the forms of theatre I have yet engaged in, puppetry is the one which most frees the audiences’ imagination. The ability to flip from New York to El Paso, and the Happy Time Steam Rooms to the baby monitor section of ToysRUs is breathtaking.

I am certainly looking forward to seeing that stage magic… So while puppetry is synonymous for most with childrens’ shows, The Hit stands apart as a show with darker subject matter. Billed as ‘a very black comedy’, the show looks at a hit man and his exposure to ‘parts of the brain he never thought he’d see’ – how dark is very dark exactly and should audiences be warned of a blue hue to the material? 

The ‘dark’ has more to do with the existential aspects to the show. A central theme to The Hit is cognitive dissonance and the ways in which we think we are in control of our decision making when modern psychology and neuroscience would suggest we have less agency than we would like to think. I wouldn’t describe the show as blue, though the language is robust and there is a comically grotesque initiation scene.

If you think of Spitting Image back in the 80s or more recently War Horse, puppetry has been shown to be a form capable of expressing very mature themes. It is perhaps important to distinguish between thinking puppetry is childish and acknowledging that when done well it inspires a child like state of wonder, imagination and openness. It’s also worth noting that puppetry has often been a potent vehicle for political dissent.

The Hit  ‘draws on the latest thinking in cognitive neuroscience to question the way we see the world’ – do I detect a nod towards the topical theme of mental health or is the show set to explore ground more detached and scientific than socially resonant?

Not so much mental health as the process of perception. As the show has developed, the phenomenon of cognitive dissonance has become more topical. The rise of Trump, Brexit, fake news, rising public anger and frustration can all be attributed in part to Leon Festinger’s theory.  The need for a greater understanding of the way in which we deal with uncomfortable truths in the present climates (both political and literal) has never been more pressing. However, above all, this is a show with some good laughs, ripping yarns and outstanding puppetry. As one piece of feedback said ‘its hard to laugh and think at the same time’.

Your masks have made their way onto many stages and sets to date. Which projects and collaborations hold pride of place for you?

I have been Vamos theatre’s mask maker for over a decade now and they have explored some interesting ground, Alzheimer’s disease, post traumatic stress disorder and, in their next show, death. I also designed and made the huge Margaret Thatcher puppet for Steven Daldry’s Billy Elliot, which has been staged around the world. However I would say working with Mervyn Millar (puppet director for War Horse) and some of the War Horseteam on creating this show has been one of my proudest collaborations to date.

What does the process of conceiving, designing and creating the masks and puppets, look like? I’m interested to know if the crafting of characters ever pre-dates the writing of stories, making the character design the inspiration for the story rather than vice versa?

For my own work I often start from an idea of a character. Then I will make a maquette of the mask or puppet face out of clay. After a while the maquette will begin to speak to me as I work on it. It may shout or whisper, wheedle or giggle. Whatever it does, if it wants to tell a story it’s a promising design. There may well be a story the mask or puppet is being created for but I’ve learnt you cannot imprison these characters within a pre-existing text. They have to discover and assert themselves. It’s quite possible to take a mask or puppet and allow it to develop its own story and I find our most successful processes have allowed the discovery of character, lighting, sound and music to all take the lead at different moments.

That’s such a satisfying answer! The masks and puppets are so expressive and full of inherent character – I’m so glad to know they’re such a strong individual influence within the wider process. Now, I am for ever trying to get more people to see shows with puppetry and mask at their centre – if it’s not the likes of War Horse or The Lion King they glaze over, leaving me to enjoy Vamos and Odd Doll solo… What would you say to those who assume puppetry is not for those with driving licenses and mortgages?

Puppetry and mask are older than the wheel, older even than the plough. They fulfill something very deep in humankind. Assumption can be a very deadening habit, but then you can lead a man to War Horse, but you can’t make him drink!

Very nicely put Mr Dean. And finally, what do audiences need to know about The Hit to get them booking?

Don’t book if you are easily offended. Definitely book if you want to see some outstanding puppetry on an increasingly relevant subject. Imagine Scorsese and Breaking Bad in high-speed collision with Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last tape.

So there you have it! The Hit plays York (November 8th 2019) and Leeds Carriageworks (9th) this week – you can find tickets here.

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