Interview: Odd Doll’s Kathleen Yore

Artistic Director Kathleen Yore is all about the craft and all that goes into transporting audiences. Having formed Odd Doll in 2012 with the aim of telling visual, universally appealing stories through painstaking craft, she’s been busy ever since doing exactly that. I was a huge fan of Seaside Terror after seeing it back in 2017, so I’ve taken the opportunity to catch up with Kathleen to talk all things puppetry, her various roles in theatre making and the darker, more unexpected layers of shows from Odd Doll…

So, what originally drew you into the arts and then onwards to clowning and physical theatre specifically?

My Dad collects fairy and folk tales and has a great passion for animation so as a child I grew up reading and watching all things obscure. I always got those really weird parts in the background, you know like the servant or Peasant Woman 4 or something. I enjoyed turning the ‘small people’ (laughing) into something elaborate with lots of detail. I was destined to be alone on stage! Then when I went to university – I started out wanting to be a serious actor but again I kept getting the odd parts, or maybe it was me turning something normal into something else. I never really knew what I was doing, I was working physically and expressively; exploring ways to change the human body. Since then, as I have grown, I have fallen in love with the ensemble as well as the more simple, gentle moments.

Comically, or more sinister? Or a bit of both?

Very much comedy. At uni – I became obsessed with comedy, physical and visual theatre and directing. I didn’t realise I was doing clown then because I hadn’t done any workshops in it but later I realised ‘oh I’ve always been playing a clown and using expressions that communicate with my audience’. So that’s kind of how I got into that. Also, I always wanted to tell stories that don’t rely on language. I love the challenge of finding interesting ways to tell a story. Through my degree (at Bretton Hall) you were just left to your own devices really, so I started making my own work from the get-go. I set up a company that specialised in mime and clown and we won an award at the Edinburgh Fringe –

But that wasn’t Odd Doll?

No, my first company out of Uni, was called Chotto Ooki (Which is inspired by Yoshi Oida meaning ‘Harder, faster, stronger’ which I still believe in) We devised a show and we won an award but we were so young we didn’t know what to do with it – because at uni, you don’t get any advice on how to run a business or make it in the arts, and the people we met in the industry at the time didn’t give us much support, plus we argued all the time as we were young and hot headed, so I quit it and worked my way up in healthcare for years (laughs).

That’s such a tragedy –

Yeah. I do think it’s really bad. It might have just been my degree, but the focus was on the way we create, which I love and has shaped who I am, but there was nothing about how you actually survive in this world and make money as an artist.

It’s funny, I’ve just had almost the exact same conversation with another interviewee recently – they were talking about how there’s not enough advice/ support/ connections for up and comers with their training mostly focusing on the craft.

Yeah – exactly.

So you’re not alone there but it is sad to hear that you kind of felt you had to take a step back and have that time away. I hope the healthcare work had its own enjoyment at least?

It’s pretty much formed who I am today. I’ve worked in healthcare for years and basically through that I become a ‘Giggle Doctor’ for hospitals and I’ve been doing that for ten years now.

Ahh, now I love the sound of that!

Yeah so I’m like a clown doctor! Whilst this virus is happening I’m taking giggle requests from the kids in the hospitals so I’m constantly making videos for them – it’s all about making people laugh as a form of therapy, interaction and connection, making them use their imagination and to play. So I kind of specialise in that and that’s my other side-line; it feeds my heart because it’s working directly with people and being creatively responsive on the spot.

Well speaking of things that feed your heart – what is it about immersive, visual theatre that’s really stolen your heart and drives that passion for it?

You know when you see something and it almost makes you cry; it’s so overwhelming? For me, it’s often something visually spectacular like a giant puppet appearing around a street corner or a piece of beautiful expression, which I often find in clown or dance. There’s some pieces of theatre that just make you cry and make you feel something so intense, and that mainly comes to me through a beautiful piece of puppetry or visual theatre. I am touched most through the physical and the visual. So I think it’s that kind of immersiveness into an imaginary world, a transportation of some kind. Theatre that looks like it’s taken a long time to develop with the skill and the craft and the effort and the passion that’s gone into it.

It’s a difficult question because I love a well written piece of drama, but there’s something about visual theatre for me. It just feeds me. I go and see more dance than I do traditional dramas – there’s just something in the expression of it. I guess I think it comes down to the kind of human being you are. I guess I’m a human being who’s physically expressive and uses touch, whereas some human beings use words and poems – maybe it comes down to who we fundamentally are and what we get out of things.

That’s such a beautiful answer – you went deep!

So I was very intrigued when I came across the fact that for you, ‘the work has to be hard to create’. Tell me more about that investment in challenge and struggle…

(Big laugh) Yeah… Me as a performer, I think when I go to see theatre, I like to see something that evolves over time; an idea or a gut instinct needs that time to develop and evolve. I think because I work quite a lot in the workshop, building – making a puppet takes weeks and weeks; it’s funny because when you see a puppet you kind of can’t comprehend the amount of time that’s gone into it. I usually express to somebody that one puppet takes two weeks minimum, so if you’re on Equity minimum that’s like, I don’t know, £500 a week – so each puppet’s about a grand’s worth – a grand’s worth of time. So it’s a lot of time that goes into the building and construction of this and definitely as I evolve as a maker and creator, I’m spending more time on the detail of it. I used to be a bit more slapdash about it but I’m getting more precise. So I really enjoy seeing that – the beautiful constructions on stage and I think that’s what I mean about the time.

But also, puppet choreography is complex because every single thought process is worked out. I love the fact that an audience can watch a piece of puppetry which may not contain words, but they just (if it’s good puppetry) understand intrinsically what’s going on. In order for that to happen, there’s a lot of work required in the rehearsal room, developing the puppeteers’ narrative inside their head; every single thought needs to be expressed and we need to see it really clearly. So it’s not just move a hand there/ jump there/ look over there, it’s understanding every moment: what is that puppet thinking and feeling? And that takes incredible patience and time to develop so there’s that aspect as well. I think it’s the building and the choreography period that takes a long time. Sometimes I get a bit overwhelmed when I am sat in the audience watching my own work; the hour ends and everyone just goes on their way and I’m like ‘oh my God that’s a year of my life!’

Really good theatre lasts with people though, so there’s that!

So I spoke to Russell Dean of Strange Face a while ago and I’m interested to know if you share the same sort of view of puppetry creations… He said some really lovely things about puppets kind of taking on their own identity as they’re made – for you, do puppets influence the narrative as you’re crafting them or are they made and inserted into an existing narrative?

That is a really interesting question! Firstly, I love Russell – I’ve done a bit of work with him recently and we had such a giggle. He’s one of the expert makers in the UK. He’s so detailed and incredible, I feel really happy I’ve made a connection with him and got to play with him. He is so fun.

I can imagine!

He’s one of those really supportive people. I guess I just have to think about what I’m creating at the moment. Ive just started to create some hand puppets for an attempt to digitalise puppetry. I have no idea how I’m gonna do it but I have to try get digital! And through the process, by thinking of the design, I’m thinking about the character and how that character will express. So while I’m designing I’m thinking about the choreography and the narrative of the piece through the design. With my hand puppets I’m figuring out the way in which hands express emotion and things like that, so the way you actually see the hand in the puppet is going to be really important for this piece I’m creating.

Something amazing happens whilst you build– so for my last show I made the puppets and we kind of knew roughly how they would move, but it’s definitely when you start making faces that they start to have a kind of atmosphere about them; a gentleness or a silliness. Through the faces they really start to come alive and then when you give it to the puppeteer, as a maker, it blows your mind because you’re like ‘oh my god I didn’t even know that was possible!’ So one of the things I’ve started to do in my process is after the making process we have one week that’s just puppet play, without forced creating [of] the piece – it’s about exploring what are these puppets? How can we work together? I started practicing this after I got to play with a company called Theatre Refleksion in Aarhus, Denmark. It’s a joyous time as a maker because suddenly what you’ve created comes alive in a way that you couldn’t even anticipate and that you couldn’t even imagine because puppeteers are like magicians.

It must be very interesting to direct in the world of puppetry specifically – to direct on two levels like that.

(Laughs) Well it’s weird because we talk to the puppets – I give each puppet a name, so say there’s a little bird called Bobby, you’d be like ‘Bobby? Are you coming on Bobby? When’s Bobby coming?’

That sounds exactly right to me – they are characters after all…

Now, you say you ‘love to tell stories which enhance both the beauty and the ugliness of life’ – that’s both intriguing and a very apt reflection of the show I saw, Seaside Terror. That show is not what you would expect from a puppetry piece or a puppetry company, so I want to know what the influence and intention behind that show was… it was so unexpected!

I feel like that show is a bit like Marmite; you either really love it or you hate it. It’s on that similar path as The League of Gentleman, the style is very dark, which I love! But it’s funny; when I do that show I’m always a bit afraid like ‘oh my God are people gonna think this is a bit gruesome?’ But audiences really love it and have a great time – and they are always surprised. That [show] was definitely based on my childhood experience or growing up watching really dark things on TV – Tales from the Crypt/ The Storyteller and all that kind of portmanteau style horror. I watched a lot of horror so its definitely my genre.

It’s been difficult recently because I’ve been trying to make theatre which is accessible but (laughing) I keep drifting back to the weird stuff! That [show] was a really interesting exploration of horror. I researched all the great writers and I watched so many DVDs to get a really good sense of all the genre, and then we just started to write our own stories. So there’s one story in there called Bingo Hair Balls and I just kind of had the idea of like, shaving legs and then the leg hair turns into a monster which eats people (descends into laughter). I think for me that was a real personal show because it was just exploring all the things that I really like. But then again, all theatre creation is personal.

It was so impressive to watch you do this show in such limited space in that ice cream van set – to watch the two of you have to intertwine and work around each other in such a small space was amazing really.

Well since then I would say I’ve evolved quite a lot as an artist in terms of how puppetry works. So inside it’s not designed very well for puppetry really, there’s a lot of having to crawl over each other and the puppets are not made for one person. I think the focus was probably on the weird stories and less on the puppetry – I look at it now and there’s so many things that need to be done better!

Well you say that, but I distinctly remember that being one of the things that was so impressive to see. I mean when you say you want people to see the craft and the work and the time that goes into a puppetry piece, this was it – to see the two of you so seamlessly navigate that challenging space while realising that one false move could bring the whole lot crashing down was brilliant! It felt incredibly precise and very sharply choreographed.

Well one other thing I’ve realised about my work that seems to be a re-occurring thing is working with original music. Timing everything to perfection, so that puppet comes off and you need twenty seconds of music in order to do this and thirty seconds of music in order to do that… The timing of the work needs to be perfect and I think that’s something I’m enjoying with each piece of work I do. If it’s really tight it’s nice to see. With Seaside Terror, I can’t even imagine how we did it, it’s timed to perfection, which is quite stressful to perform because you know you’ve got twenty seconds to get a fat suit on and get back on stage or the music will keep playing without you and then you’ll be behind! I must admit I get a bit anxious after that show and I’m a bit on edge (laughs).

And in need of a glass of something I should imagine! So, your latest show is Whiskers First Winter and it’s mid-tour. So what’s going on with it in this current situation?

Well Seaside Terror is supposed to be going out for a Halloween tour again this Autumn. Whiskers has just finished at Cast in Doncaster, which was my first attempt at just being the maker and the director and the producer. I realised it made for a much better production, so I’m loving that at the moment and I want to do more. And since then I’ve gone up and directed some other bits in Newcastle. Whiskers First Winter is booked to perform at Chats Palace in London this Christmas – which is a great location as it’s non-language and not specifically about Christmas, great for different cultures. It’s more about the awe and beauty of winter. But everything is up in the air at the moment – I don’t know what’s going to happen.

But things are moving online for you now? So tell me a little more about that.

Yeah, so Beverley Puppet Festival contacted me because they want to digitalise the puppetry festival. So they asked if I would make a workshop video on how to make puppets. So I’m gonna be developing this over the next few months and I thought well if I’m gonna be doing workshop videos, I may as well build something that I love and can use. So I then got the idea to go back to my roots which is folklore, fairy tale, myth and legend, which is very dark and quite creepy and full of weird visuals and magic.

Sounds right up my street and very dreamy!

(Laughs) Yeah, so I wanna create a series of puppet shorts. So the first chapter is called ‘Banshee’ and I wanna build a really cool little set on a table for each chapter and I’ll be working with a specific type of hand puppets. I made one actually in my very first show – it was beautiful and I want to explore what you can do with fingers and hands in puppets. I haven’t done much hand puppetry in other shows so these are all gonna be hand puppets. I’ve got no idea what I’m doing with a camera and I don’t know how to edit so I’m kind of hoping to teach myself new skills in the process and just to try and keep puppetry alive as an artform. So I’m quite excited!

Well I’ll be watching and sharing and enjoying – thank you in advance!

Is there someone in the industry who has really inspired or influenced you?

I think our theatre community here in Yorkshire is so supportive. I get support from everyone really; the Red Ladder folks support me loads – Chris, the producer there, has just started to meet me for coffees and advice. Rebekah Caputo who I used to work with has now moved to Denmark and is having a family so it’s just me, so I think it’s really important to create a team of good collaborators around you. Red Ladder are really supportive and great friends, they provide me with my lock up space for set. Then Cast in Doncaster have been amazing – there’s theatres in the north that just basically give me a gig and give me space to work and Cast is one of those – amazing people there, brilliant women. Harrogate Theatre – Porl Cooper who supports me in everything I do and involves me in everything.

So Yorkshire folk are just generally good eggs?

Yeah – I feel like we all just help each other, like we all go and see each other’s work, we all work for each other – there’s a cross-over; we’ve all been in each other’s rehearsal rooms. Especially for people making their own work, I feel like it’s such a supportive network and now I live near Lawrence Batley Theatre in Huddersfield and they help me with space…and Barnsley Civic – I feel like people here will try their best to help you.

High praise!

And is there a specific show which has left an indelible mark as a theatre lover and/or maker?

Yeah, well – I’ve got a few… So I recently saw Kiss and Cry Collective at London Mime Festival. I don’t know if you’ve seen them but that blew my mind, I mean I was kind of on the verge of tears the for the whole show and just looking at the audience in disbelief. That was pure visual expression and poetry – but clearly they had millions of pounds, (laughs) it was high budget! I kind of build something for £500 but theirs must be 5 million or something – a different level! Go see them, you will feel reborn! 

And there’s a company called Acro Jou who do beautiful outdoors work, very visual and stunning and I love that. It’s kind of what I’m working on next with my new clown show; creating a beautiful piece of visual theatre that just pop up outdoors so you get that high quality of theatre that you’d normally get indoors but it’s randomly at the bottom of your street. This also goes back to our playing, travelling roots which I love. Acro Jou make lovely work like that inspires me. 

I just saw Told By An Idiot at HOME in Manchester and the physical characterisations, the clown and the physical comedy in that was just absolutely stunning, so they really inspired me recently. They inspired me because it reminded me of the detail of physical expression that can be attained – that was pure skill that looks like it’s taken a long time to develop. I’m also inspired by great clowns like Paulo Nani and Gabriella Munoz in South America because clown is very closely related to puppetry.

Last question then. Do you have a best ‘the show must go on’ tale to tell?

Yes I do – I think everyone must have one… It’s gotta be my first show with my first company. I was at the Edinburgh Fringe and at the time, in my early twenties I was very very fit (laughing) unlike now! I did all that kind of traditional training with Derevo in Russia – it was that physical training that was like FEEL THE PAIN – if you don’t have a bruise on your leg then you’re not working hard enough! So I had it in my head that you need to really push it.

So before I did the show I’d be out on the cobbles with a hoover and I’d be doing weird physical theatre with this hoover, kind of flinging it about my head and just being mental – then suddenly I fell and I cracked my neck on the cobbles. I was in full body make-up and I got rushed to A&E and got put in a brace thing… but even though I was on drugs I was like ‘NO, we’ve still gotta continue with the show!’ I got on stage unable to move my neck and I great pain. Then I won an award at Edinburgh for being the most persevering performer of the fringe!

That’s horrific! I usually get funny stories… that one is pure pain!

Maybe I should tell you the Seaside Terror one…

Look, I love these stories so I’m not gonna stop you – you can tell me as many as you like.

So, I fell down the stairs and broke my nose and it just completely smashed. I had to have an operation to put it back together and the doctor said you know, you’ve been under general anaesthetic so you can’t work now. And that night, lo and behold, I had a show of Seaside Terror at Halifax Square Chapel where I had to wear a mask on my broken nose! I was on all this general anaesthetic and morphine and stuff and I’ll never forget it because it was the weirdest show I ever did in my life because everything was spinning around me.

I’ve always assumed you can’t cancel a theatre show and that you just have to persevere. Oh and then there’s the time in Red Ladders Mother Courage when I got so much dust on my lungs due to the environment we were in I struggled to breath never mind talk…the list goes on…but I loved every minute of it and thank god they still got 5 stars despite that strange women in the wings choking.

Tell the truth, you were thinking about that perseverance award from Edinburgh, weren’t you? Had to live up to that hype ever afterwards!

(Laughing) I know – but it was a really good show and everyone loved it and I really don’t know how I managed to do it –  I think there’s something crazy about us performers, we have that feeling of ‘the show must go on’ but in Seaside Terror it was like a horror movie in itself because under the mask I just had this bloody bandage on my face and everything about it was just wrong!

But you made it through… and did anyone notice any difference?

No I think they were really impressed. But then when I took my mask off at the end and I had these swollen eyes and bruised face people were like (laughing) ‘who is she? She’s really scary!’

Christ – you must get injured all the time then in clowning?

Not so much anymore, I’m older now and like to think I am more graceful – I take things slower! I don’t believe in stress, I just believe in making things nice and easy and calm. Life’s too short.

So there you have it – some fine and very timely wisdom to close there! Head to the Odd Doll website for more insight into the company and past work – and why not follow Odd Doll on Twitter to stay in the loop?

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