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Hunting for bears on stage

Published July 3, 2013

To millions of children and parents across the world, swishy swashy grass and splishy splashy rivers can mean only one thing: Michael Rosen’s We’re Going On A Bear Hunt, the classic picture book about a family’s obstacle-packed adventure.

Today the West End invites audiences to join in the fun as a vibrant, interactive stage adaptation arrives at the Lyric theatre. But how exactly do you go about recreating illustrator Helen Oxenbury’s iconic watercolour-painted world full of oozy mud and whirling snowstorms on stage? We chatted to the woman who made it possible, designer Katie Sykes, who tells us here how – with a little help from washing powder, playful rehearsals and a puppeteer friend – the story has been lifted from the page to become a 3D reality.

When we began the process of designing the show for We’re Going On A Bear Hunt it was very much about us trying to find funny and unusual ways to represent the different experiences that the family go through. It’s very elemental; they go through grass and mud, a snowstorm and a stream, so we thought how can we represent that on stage in a way that’s very interactive?

What we’ve done with the piece is rather than create those worlds in an obvious, illustrative, visual way, they actually do a lot. So, for example, when they go through the stream, they get buckets of water and they have to walk through those buckets of water and that obviously has lots of daftness associated with it… and cold water! Then we thought how can we extend that into making it even more fun? So we have water pistols and the audience gets wet as well. That was probably the main drive of the piece and affected how the design was developed; every element has to be something that the actors can actually play with or do. With the grass we have this huge, big, massive, green slash curtain that comes right across that they can dance through and then there’s paper butterflies. As much as I absolutely love Helen Oxenbury’s pictures, we weren’t trying to reproduce those on stage. They’re a family that are playing and putting together worlds, mucking about as you would at home. It’s got that ‘den-building’ feeling to it really.

We do a lot of devising with the performers. It’s a team effort really. I’ll have very basic ideas about how the space might feel, but I spend a lot of time in rehearsals, so I’ll bring objects and textures in and we play a lot and see what makes us laugh and what seems to be fun. From that we go ‘Okay, so we’ll have a row of buckets and towels, let’s design them as being all blue and have nice old-fashioned watering cans’ and things like that, it’s very interactive.

Using a variety of textures on stage is important, very much so for this. And also actually using real things, like for the mud we’ve got proper brown paint that gets put all over these big boards and gets on the costumes and on the actors, so it’s very much a ‘hands on’ feel. It was really that idea of what it feels like when you pick your kids up from nursery and they’ve had a really creative day, and that’s what the actors look like at the end of the show. Everything’s covered in water and snow and all sorts of things, so it is a really epic journey for the actors!

I source quite a lot of the materials and props myself, although Stage Management will support that as well and now that it’s been going out time and again we have a nice blueprint because it goes abroad a lot. We send out a spec that goes out to America or Hong Kong and you just hope for the best and it’s always a bit ‘fingers crossed’ when it goes abroad. But it’s always a surprise because they’ll do the most beautiful, really well-made thing that you didn’t expect that is actually a lot nicer than the original.

I think the most challenging aspect of design with this show is the fact that everyone gets really dirty with paint all over them! It’s brilliant, but from a costume point of view, when everyone comes back from touring, it’s all slightly browner than it was before! It does wash out, but eventually the stains just build up. There’s a big clowning bit when they slap paint on each other – what we want is big handprints on bottoms and things like that – and of course eventually it starts to not go away as much as you’d like it to. But it’s really fun, so we have stuck with it, but it can be a bit challenging costume maintenance wise…

What I love about Helen’s pictures are the washy colours in them, and we’ve reflected that in the costumes so they’re lovely washy blues and browns. She’s the most fantastic watercolourist, so I enjoy keeping to that feel. There’s a timeless feel to the family in the book, which I think we’ve got in our family as well, so they could be now or they could be from the 1950s. I’ve done a lot of shows that have been adapted from children’s books and sometimes you do want to lift some very clear illustrative ideas from it, because they just really help with the recognition for the children, but I think with this one you get a general feel of the tones of the illustrations, without it being too clear or too obvious.

One different thing about the show than the book is the family all wear glasses. There’s two very useful things with that. We liked the idea that it links them as a family, you see those families where the parents both wear glasses and the children do too, but also their radio mics are attached to their glasses, it’s the perfect place to put them!

When we originally did the show at the Bristol Old Vic we didn’t include the baby, but Kenny [Wax, the producer] was really keen to have the baby in it. The baby is lovely, my friend Marc Parrett, who’s an amazing puppeteer, made him. There are times when the baby goes off and has a little nap because there are just times when puppeteering him would be quite tricky, but when he does appear he’s quite a key member and people do love him. He has his own little rucksack that he lives in, so he’s quite self-contained!

The bear is suddenly this other character who comes out. We’re very used to seeing our family and then we suddenly get this bear. He’s had various incarnations. The current one is lovely and again my friend Marc made him. He needs to be very active as he has to run around and chase about. A lot of the children do get quite scared knowing the bear’s coming because they sort of love it and are scared by it at the same time, so we gear it up that he’s going to be quite scary but then when he appears, he’s rather lovely and cuddly so you can hear a lot of parents sighing with relief! He’s great.

Children’s shows interest me because you can have so much fun with them. You can be surprisingly creative with them. I recently did Peter Pan, which was lovely and that was obviously aimed at a slightly older age group. I don’t think there are any books I’m really itching to do… I love John Birmingham books and I’d love to do another one of his. There’s a book called The Magic Bed, he’s a really interesting writer for young children.

I’ve often thought about getting a studio to work in. But sometimes I don’t need it so I just have a desk in my bedroom, which I then beaver away at when I need to. The way I work is so practical, I’m often out and about buying stuff and trying stuff out.

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