Standing on the shoulders of Giants

Andy Minnis offers a unique insight as puppeteer to the Royal de Luxe giants…

As this month’s Titanic anniversary drew nearer, I was pretty excited about the prospect of French street theatre specialists Royal de Luxe bringing a new production to Liverpool. A rival company, La Machine (also based in Nantes) brought the giant spider La Princesse to the City in 2008 as part of the Capital of Culture programme. Four years on, some things have changed in the city but some things stay the same, and it seems the appetite for large-scale public events remains.

A week before the Sea Odyssey – Giant Spectacular event, I missed a call that would have landed me a place working with Royal de Luxe. I was pretty disappointed but then a few days later I was handed a second chance, as a replacement for someone who had left the team. Soon I found myself at Bramley-Moore Dock (near the colossal Tobacco Warehouse), putting on a hi-vis jacket, hard hat and facing two huge marionettes and a giant dog. This lookedset to become, at the very least, a unique experience.

One thing that became apparent after a few hours on-site was the confusing mix of French and local crews, the language barrier and the tensions of two different groups thrown together. The Royal de Luxe team, who it turns out are mostly French but also include several other nationalities, are a tight-knit group who have travelled the world together. With a disparate group of temporary local workers coming into that environment, some problems were bound to arise. However, with patience, a bit of effort trying some broken French and plenty of sign language, the barriers quickly broke down.

A newcomer, I’d been told chaotic organisation, lack of communication and long periods of inactivity were par for the course; all true, I would find, and it could easily have become frustrating. The key was to appreciate that the Giant Spectacular was – albeit on a massive scale – street theatre. Theatre takes time, it’s not always a simple task, it can’t be judged as a standard enterprise. It is, rightly so, a fluid rather than a transactional process. Throw in various mechanical and remote controlled systems and staging the event becomes very complicated. It was clear that a lot of patience was required on all sides.

I was part of the team operating Xolo, the dog that was to accompany the Little Girl Giant throughout the weekend. The 50ft Uncle Giant had a distinct team and throughout the rehearsals there was little in the way of interaction. However, the crews of the Girl Giant and Xolo working alongside each other was perfect and it felt like we had the more interesting tasks. The Uncle’s impact lies in his sheer size; by contrast, much of the charm of the Girl and Dog is in their interactions, and greater subtlety of expressions.

This was sometimes difficult to grasp in rehearsal but over the weekend it became joyfully apparent. Xolo approaching children in the crowd was fantastic, at one point carrying a girl on his back. Similarly, the Girl Giant had children swinging from her arms at various points along the route and perhaps most spectacularly of all, danced high in the air at Kings Dock on Saturday and Sunday. The separation of the Giants was interesting to experience from a workers point of view, but when all three came together, it felt very special.

When they eventually met and the Girl found her Uncle on Saturday evening, it was genuinely emotional; the impact on the crowds certainly mirrored by many on the crew. Talking with some of the team, we agreed it was strange to have an emotional response – we know they are giant marionettes made of wood and metal – but it became near impossible not to invest, or rather project emotions, onto the performance.

“It became near impossible not to invest emotions in the performance”

My position walking behind Xolo, guiding the rig when it reversed – in some places this was pretty simple but it became very challenging in tight spots – gave me the opportunity to observe the crowds and see their reactions up close. Before the performance began, the inevitable nerves meant I was unsure what to expect or how well we would be received, but from the start of the event on Friday the responses were universally positive.

The crowds in Stanley Park, right the way through to Everton Brow, exceeded my expectations and were amazing to see. I quickly heard words and congratulations which would recur throughout the three days: ‘Brilliant’, ‘Fantastic’, ‘Incredible’, ‘Well done!’ or just ‘Wow’, plus a smattering of ‘Bravo les Francais!’ I shook some hands, and was patted on the back, and although I only played a small part, I felt incredibly proud of what the team was doing together. Later, moving into town and eventually to St George’s Plateau, the crowds and reception would take my breath away. As Xolo and the team rode along Lime Street, we were greeted by a sea of people. Further into the city centre, people on the streets were joined by those peering out of windows and from balconies of flats, offices, shops and pubs; all eager to experience the spectacle as we made our way past.

That shared participation is one of the most fascinating aspects of the Giant Spectacular. One feature that those I worked with talked about and local commentators noted was the number of people taking photos and video, sharing their recordings, updating social networks. All along the route I would say some 75% of people were recording what they saw. Maybe half on phones and half on cameras but also a significant number of people using iPads and other tablets. The use of tablets is what stood out the most and just looked impractical. Though it didn’t spoil my experience, I don’t think I would have been happy to stand behind someone using one.

At what point does taking photos to remember and to share tip over into only viewing the event through a screen? Even with the best display available, it will never substitute for the reality of what is looming large in front of you. Why see the event through your giant screen when you can see the giants for real and unfiltered? Some theories on use of cameras to record experiences suggest it enhances the event but to my mind, and having been in the thick of it, over-use can reduce and dampen the enjoyment.

Undoubtedly a demanding weekend, and very tired, our pleasure was anything but diminished. Sunday’s finale proved a fitting ending and cemented memories of a truly amazing occasion. The giants strolled along The Strand, with Xolo the dog running in front, then back and around the parade. The procession was punctuated regularly with the clash of appropriately giant cymbals and the blast of a mail cannon firing confetti and hand-written letters into the air and down onto the crowd. Sadly, one of the Royal de Luxe company had died suddenly just before the production came to Liverpool and apparently some of his ashes had been mixed in with the confetti, postcards and letters blown triumphantly into the air. A fitting tribute to someone who had helped bring the performance to life.

At midday, the Giants moved to a ship waiting in Canning Dock. Amongst mist and to the sound of foghorns, they sailed away into the River, and we waved goodbye. For the estimated half a million people who visited the city over the weekend, and for those who worked on the team, it was an event to remember for many years. On Sunday night we celebrated with Champagne, then Pernod and more. It felt as though we had been welcomed into a crazy but loveable family for a week in our lives and hopefully at some point in the future, as with the Girl and her Uncle, we’ll get our own reunion. As was shouted many times on the streets, Bravo les Francais!

Andy Minnis

Posted on 29/04/2012 by thedoublenegative