Theatre People feature: “Watts Up With Alvin Sputnik”, Nov 2011

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A feature article I wrote for Theatre People, interviewing WA’s Tim Watts.

It’s the opening night of the Perth Theatre Company’s latest production at the State Theatre Centre. An eager crowd pours in, primed by two years of rave reviews from this show’s runs in New York, Seoul and Edinburgh. Reviewers have used no shortage of gushing adjectives for this show, even calling it the theatrical equivalent of a blockbuster Pixar film. But if this audience is expecting a big-budget production, they aren’t going to get it. They’ve come for the story of one little man made out of a buoy and a white glove. This is the fringe theatre darling known as The Adventures of Alvin Sputnik: Deep Sea Explorer.

The Adventures of Alvin Sputnik: Deep Sea Explorer is set in a bleak future where the seas have risen and wiped out most of humanity. Someone must volunteer to journey down into the watery depths to find a new place for the survivors to live. Alvin Sputnik takes on this dangerous mission, hoping to follow the soul of his beloved wife, to be with her once more. Alvin Sputnik is told through a fusion of live performance, animation, mime, puppetry, projections, music, live drawing and even a ukelele. Alvin himself is portrayed by a mix of performance, stick-figure animation, and clever puppetry.

Two weeks before the show’s opening night, I’m sitting in a North Perth café with Alvin Sputnik’s creator, Tim Watts. He has come a long way since the first performance of Alvin Sputnik at The Blue Room in 2009. The show was quickly picked up by the Perth Theatre Company and went on to tour the United Kingdom, the United States, South Korea, India, New Zealand and, of course, Australia. Watts and Alvin picked up a swag of awards along the way. Now, in 2011, Alvin has come back to Perth a hero, starting a season at the newly minted State Theatre Centre.

After all the positive press over Alvin Sputnik, is Watts feeling the pressure to deliver? “I’m just worried that it’s going to be over-hyped,” he admits. “Towards the end of the UK season, I think people came in with really high expectations. I think no matter what happens when you go into a show and your expectations are through the roof, it can never really measure up.

“At the beginning of the show, where I’m just doing the live drawing, I try to bring things down to a basic level, so that people aren’t necessarily going to expect a big song and dance. Then I can surprise them from there.”

Despite the show’s accolades and years of touring, Watts has been careful to preserve what he calls its “nice little handmade quality.” Since Alvin Sputnik’s first incarnation at The Blue Room in 2009, Watts has added more animation and more puppetry, but says it is still essentially the same show. “You don’t want to polish it up to where it doesn’t have any heart left.”

Watts developed Alvin Sputnik in collaboration with fellow Perth theatre peep Arielle Gray. Their development process focused on audience response; they would work on the show together, then present showings to their friends and ask for feedback. Watts was prompted to try this kind of process by watching stand-up comedians.

“I got really jealous of stand-up comedians who’d have an idea for a joke, and could get up that night and try it out. They got real feedback as to whether the delivery was right, whether the joke was any good. They could work on their set through actual response from the audience, as opposed to a lot of theatre shows where you have an idea, you write out a script, and you spend six months putting it on. Then you perform it for two weeks, and no one is really honest with you as to how it goes. If anything negative is said about it, you just go and sit in a hole. You think, ‘Well, there’s nothing I can do about it now’.”

The character Alvin was created in a puppetry workshop with ‘Spare Parts Puppet Theatre’ in Fremantle, out of a buoy and a white glove. Under Watts’ expert hand, these abstract objects take on a very human life. He attributes Alvin’s anthropomorphism to the audience’s imaginative engagement. “To be able to pretend that this is a little guy … it’s as though you’re delighted at your own imagination. Then, when he does something human, it looks even more human,” he says. “When you’re really imaginatively engaged with something, you’re more likely to be emotionally engaged as well.”

Whenever he mentions Alvin, Watts absently arranges his hands into the shape of the little puppet, so for a moment it’s as if the deep sea explorer is at the table with us. It’s clear that Watts has formed a strong bond with the little round-headed man. So, how long do they plan to stay together? “Next year I’m kind of winding it down a bit. I don’t have a finite date where I’m like, ‘2015: no more Alvin’. I’m happy to keep doing Alvin, but I’m hoping to introduce more shows into my repertoire.”

But for now, it looks like Alvin will be sticking around. It’s the opening night of Alvin Sputnik’s Perth season for 2011, and I’m sitting in the State Theatre Centre’s Studio Underground, holding my breath in anticipation. Watts needn’t have worried about the hype. It’s not often you see a show that wins over the audience’s heart so quickly, or so completely. But Alvin Sputnik does it. During the performance, theatre-goers of all ages are sitting forward in their seats, faces shining, completely enamoured of Alvin. There are soft gasps of delight the first time puppet-Alvin emerges, and bursts of joyous applause throughout the 45-minute show.

Alvin’s underwater adventures arc towards a poignant finale. This is the second time I’ve seen The Adventures of Alvin Sputnik (having seen it during its inaugural season in 2009), so I reckon I’ll be able to steel myself against the emotional gutpunch and maintain a cool demeanour. Err, not so much. I straight-up weep. But I am relieved to see plenty of other patrons dabbing at their eyes as we leave the Studio. Something about this simple story of love and self-sacrifice has certainly captured people’s imagination. Perth audiences are usually dour and bestow admiration grudgingly, but Alvin Sputnik receives an ovation that seems to go on forever, and cheers such as are usually reserved for rock stars. But that’s how it is now. Alvin is a rock star. And it’s only a matter of time before Tim Watts achieves the same status.

The Adventures of Alvin Sputnik: Deep Sea Explorer is showing at the State Theatre Centre of WA (Perth) from Tuesday 22 November to Saturday 3 December.

Tim Watts performs with one of the Alvin puppets


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