Dogs. Both the bane of performances ( a yapping terrier can break an audience’s concentration pretty quickly ) but also a gift for experienced performers. I remember seeing Paul Yeoman of the Crazy Idiots ( terrible name but a terrific group ) dressed as the quintessential bowler-hatted Englishman abroad kneeling on all fours and fighting for a baked potato skin with a dog to the horror/fascination/amusement of the audience. Paul won the fight ( a tug of war using teeth ) and then had to eat the skin - half of which was covered in dog slobber.
Wurre Wurre from Antwerp used a real dog in one of their shows. Wurre Wurre are 2 men with a peculiar Belgian sense of humour. They had a dog who was very laid back in public and they exploited this character trait for all it was worth. All three wore sunglasses, a nice detail being that as the sunglasses didn’t fit the dog comfortably the 2 performers wore sunglasses that didn’t fit them comfortably either. All three pairs were somewhat askew on the noses.
The dog set off followed by the 2 performers who mimicked everything the dog did – which wasn’t an awful lot but when done in triplicate became both extremely funny and extremely odd.
Forkbeard Fantasy invented a show where 3 OAP tourists who looked like they had all flown over from Miami took their pet dogs for a walk. The dogs were originally modelled in clay which was then covered in plaster from which a latex mould was taken. One was a perpetually shivering chihuahua ( thanks to a toy motor fitted inside the creature ) and another was a veteran dog who had to be wheeled around. Pooper-scoopers and the like were on hand to deal with the excesses of the animals. There was much humorous pottering about with these dogs.
At the other end of the scale Royal de Luxe created a large dog for their spectacle “El Xolo”, the latest in their series of giant puppet shows. The 5 day performance starts with the overnight appearance of a dog the size of a horse frozen in a giant block of ice. This naturally starts to melt.. When you return the following morning the ice has all gone and in its place there’s a puppet dog sleeping on a red velvet dais. 20 white clad puppeteers enter the performing space and take positions on a small truck which is covered in ropes, pulleys and wheels that will be used to bring the large marionette to life.
A mariachi band serenades the dog who awakes, gets up, stretches its legs and moves down the street to start the next chapter of the show.
The puppet does pretty much everything you’d want a dog to do. It has perhaps the most expressive performing ears I’ve ever seen and can gallop down the road.
I have personal experience of using dogs in performance so I hope you’ll forgive me going into further detail about a particular show my company created.
In 1990 the Whalley Range All Stars ( terrible name but a terr……. that’s enough trumpet blowing. Ed. ) made a show called “North West Frontiers”. It featured 2 Polar explorers with husky-driven luggage.
The idea behind the show was to put an image on the street that was an extreme contrast to a ( ahem ) hot UK summer. The performers wore thick fur-trim coats, warm fur hats and sturdy fur trimmed shoes. Luckily the summer in 1990 didn’t prove too much of a contrast.
The dogs were puppets and hung from the carriages which were of course pushed along on wheels but looked like they were being pulled along by the dogs. Part of the humour was in the absurdity of that situation.
The carriages – a trunk and a suitcase on wheels - were made using the patient expertise of David Wheeler from IOU. The three dogs were roughly modelled in chicken wire. Two were covered in fun-fur and the other ( a Mexican hairless husky ) was covered in suede from a football manager’s coat. The noses were made from old leather gloves, the teeth were made from femo and the eyes were either doll’s eyes or a pair of human glass eyes which involved a fascinating trip to a real glass eye maker in a Manchester surgery ( they are made of acrylics these days for reasons too gruesome to repeat ).
Anatomically the puppets left a lot to be desired ( the legs were just bits of fur hanging down limply ) and they didn’t look anything like huskies but they certainly had a dog-like presence. In the performances a great deal of energy was spent in keeping them alive at all times. If they stopped for any length of time we’d need to “wake them up” again and so on and so forth.
It’s pretty easy to fool the humans but fooling dogs was the test of how successful they were as puppets. They attracted a huge amount of interest from the audience of dogs in the streets and parks that we performed in. We have a set of contact sheets ( remember contact sheets? They used to be big in your grandfather’s day ) which show pictures of dog after dog coming up to sniff the behinds of the puppets.
I’d imagine the smell was pretty disappointing but then again there was a lot of Evostik used in putting the fur on so the dogs may well have gone away as high as kites.
Edward Taylor | Whalley Range All Stars