There is a history of shadow theatre right across the globe, stretching back centuries, as I have talked about here before. However, recently it has reached a mass audience in a new incarnation through the work of companies like Pilobolus – although I have to say, for me, once you get over the initial ‘wow’ factor it all becomes a little samey – having said that Pilobolus do some excellent other work too (see my previous post).
What I want to share today is the truely amazing work of Davy and Kirstin McGuire. Take a look:
Modern technology has just pushed the shadow play into a brand new era.
Icebook is their most famous piece to date and you can read about it’s making by clicking the image below:
They are about to open a new show called The Paper Architect which introduces live actors to the mix. Here is an interesting article/interview written by Lyn Gardner in The Guardian this week:
Pulp fiction: bringing pop-up paper theatre to life
Magical and exquisitely crafted, Kristin and Davy McGuire’s miniature model universe is full of visual wonders
Davy McGuire grew up as an only child. He lived in his imagination, warding off loneliness by building tiny houses for tiny imaginary people. Several decades on, he is still at it – but now he makes them with his wife, Kristin. Together, the McGuires construct worlds made entirely out of paper, which are then given life with the aid of projections, optical illusions and the intervention of actors.
“We never set out to work with paper,” says Kristin. “It just grew out of curiosity. We weren’t model-makers. I didn’t even know how to cut paper. We’ve just had to acquire the skills as we’ve gone along.”
The McGuires…..are just two of a modest but intriguing wave of artists exploring the creative possibilities of paper. They include Paper Cinema, who create exquisite DIY films from cornflake-packet cutouts and an overhead projector, and the visual artist Yuken Teruya, whose take on paper carrier bags can currently be seen in an exhibition called – what else? – Paper at London’s Saatchi Gallery.
Walk into the McGuires’ studio in Bristol, where they work in the company of their dog – called Cat, but of course – and you enter a world that feels like a last outpost of a 19th-century realm of illusion and magic. Illuminated paper butterflies dance in jam jars, a row of intricately detailed Edwardian houses complete with iron railings and washing lines recall a doll’s house, and a rural scene featuring pools and weeping trees sits waiting to come alive. All of it is made, by hand, entirely from paper. An exquisite birdcage smaller than my little finger represents hours of painstaking work for the couple, who met at college in the Netherlands, where Kristin, who trained as a dancer, cast Dartington College graduate Davy in one of her pieces.
“I kept asking her: now we have developed a professional relationship, can we have a private one too?” he smiles.
Both were interested in exploring the boundaries of performance (Kristin is a former national rhythmic gymnast), but neither imagined their lives would become so intricately bound up with wood pulp. One day in 2009, Kristin shone a light behind a pop-up book, and they began speculating whether it would be possible to turn a book into a theatre show. Even the Maguires aren’t entirely sure quite how they should describe what they do, which embraces installation, dioramas, music videos, animation and performance.
“Maybe you wouldn’t describe a lot of what we do as theatre, but it’s always got strong theatrical elements,” says Kristin. Their first pop-up theatre venture, The Icebook, was certainly different – a delicate fairytale that mixed paper and animation to such cunning effect that the experience was like falling headfirst into a pop-up story from childhood. The whole thing was so fragile, it felt like a dream.
The McGuires saw The Icebook as a miniature calling card, and were surprised when it became an international hit. “We thought of it as a try-out for a bigger show,” says Davy, “but people enjoyed its intimacy.” Kristin agrees: “When you start playing with scale, it makes people look in a new way. Their focus is different. They start seeing the detail and all the small moments in the story. In a digital world, there is something appealing about something which is hand-crafted. With CGI, you can just conjure up something so quickly and easily, but when it’s made by hand you can see beauty in the tiny imperfections.”
Davy nods. “People always ask how it’s done, but we don’t want to tell them. It’s not just for commercial reasons, but because we want to keep the element of magic and surprise.”
Nonetheless, despite the success of The Icebook, last Christmas the McGuires expanded their scale to create a stage version of Diana Wynne Jones’s children’s novel Howl’s Moving Castle at Southwark Playhouse. Undaunted by the worldwide success of Hayao Miyazaki’s 2004 animated film version, the McGuires set out to create their own take on the story of a young milliner called Sophie who must try to escape the curse put on her by a witch.
“It was a good experience, but a stressful one,” recalls Kristin of the show, which combined pre-recorded narration by Stephen Fry, live actors and a pop-up castle upon which was projected hundreds of images. The castle was acclaimed as a thing of visual wonder, but juggling all the different aspects of the production was a steep learning curve, and one that the McGuires were not keen to repeat too quickly.
As a result, The Paper Architect, supported by £37,000 from the prestigious Oxford Samuel Beckett Theatre Trust award, which aims to support theatremakers working in unusual and innovative ways, combines live action with animation. Once again it employs a tiny scale, this time to tell the story of a lonely elderly man who is about to be evicted from his studio, and who is wondering how life might have turned out differently – a melancholic piece that, the McGuires hope, combines reality and imagination in powerful ways.
“Perhaps that man could have been me,” says Davy, “if the lonely child had grown into a lonely old man. I know that character.” For all sorts of reasons, we should be glad he didn’t.