Fish Friday #9: Tom McDonagh

Tom McDonagh is a theatre maker and designer, whose productions combine advanced optics and skilled puppetry. We met up with Tom to talk about his science background, shadow puppetry and new 3D techniques he is developing from his Fish Island Labs studio.

Tell me how you started.
I’ve been doing science for about ten years. Started as a physics undergrad at Bristol and then, near the end of that course, I heard a lecture by this guy who was working with insects: how they hear and the acoustics in their ears. I pestered him to let me join his lab and to do a final project with him. I ended up working in his lab, just for over a year, really enjoyed it, and got generally into biology.  So then I thought, maybe I’ll see if I want to do something more on the neuroscience side or the molecular side. I ended up studying for a PhD in New York, at Rockefeller University. I went there for about five years and was doing a lot of different kind of molecular biology: starting in neuroscience before I switched more into cell biology. But during that time I was also doing theatre and shadow puppetry, and other types of puppetry.

Had you done it before?
I’d done a bit of theatre in my final year in Bristol, but always kind of as an outsider. A lot of the people at Bristol University had done a thousand plays and that’s kind of how I got interested in it. The student theatre scene’s really strong. I was never fully participating in it; I think it kind of woke me up to the fact that this is something that people can do. I like building stuff and storytelling.

The first piece I did was about a place called Sikkim, which is just to the east of Nepal. It’s a part of India, an ancient mountainous kingdom. Me and my friend went up there and we stayed for a couple of months teaching English. I went back two years later and I did a lot of interviews and historical research and visited lots of different places and started to write a travel piece. But I ended up thinking: maybe it’d be interesting to do it on stage. It needed that visual element, because we’re right in the middle of the Himalayas here: you’ve got incredibly huge mountains and these masses of skies and inhumanly large landscapes. A travel article didn’t have the excitement. But how to capture the myths and folklore and how that relates to the landscape in a play? I’d never seen a shadow play, but it struck me one evening that a shadow play would have a lot of the aspects that I was trying to get to: the otherworldliness, the screen so that you never see what’s really making the shadows. In that first play, which was called Beyul Demojong, we had a landscape and various scenes in different places that we zoomed all about. I got all my friends in – it was basically a totally amateur thing. We didn’t have anyone around who’d done anything like this before. We’ve lost the video of it, but I think the spirit was there, just the process of doing it. We ended up doing a few different shows around Bristol and then took it up to Edinburgh and to the Shambala festival.

So what sort of scale was it?
We had about twelve people: we had five musicians, and various people doing sounds, scenery, projection, the lighting, the puppeteering. It was probably much larger than it needed to be perhaps but it was all very fun. When I ended up going to New York, I wanted to do another shadow play – maybe not the scale of the first one. In terms of the size of the screen, it was about eight foot across, quite intimate. We were playing to quite small crowds and experimenting with quite a lot of different types of ways of lighting: using real flames, digital projections, head-mounted torches in some scenes.

And how about New York? Did you do more shadow puppetry there?
The first year I was just pretty busy just getting set up and doing a lot of the science. I was really enjoying it. Even during the other things science was always my number one passion, but I think I got to the end of the first year and thought – I’d gone to New York because I knew theatre was strong there and I wanted to be able to be in an exciting city, so I started looking around for what puppetry was going on. There’s actually an exciting puppetry scene. There’s a lot of children’s stuff, but there’s also a lot of abstract or even avant-garde puppetry.

The interesting thing about the scene is that you have ‘no money’-theatre, where people are putting together small shows, a bit like I’d done, just off their own back, presenting in small downtown theatres – ten bucks a ticket. It’s artistically ‘out there’ and doing wild stuff, but those same puppeteers also have paid gigs on Broadway or at Lincoln Center or the opera. Often it was the same people inhabiting both worlds. There was a fantastic festival which is an accumulation of this process, called Puppet Lab. It happens every year, and they get eight different groups who want to do a play or a work-in-progress which incorporates puppetry in some interesting way. The great thing about the Puppet Lab is that they’re really interested in getting people from outside the traditional route. They accept people from the traditional route as well, but they want to find people who, for whatever reason, have always had an interest of moving into puppetry. When I sent in my application, and it said ‘neuroscientist’, I think they found it suitably peculiar enough.

When did you finally tilt from science to puppetry?
The Puppet Lab had gone really well, so I saw that it was something I really enjoyed. It also became apparent that the science wasn’t really right for me. It took me a while to start figuring out what I’d actually do instead, and that led me in the end to what I’m doing now, which is a combination. I’m working on a theatre show, which will be my first larger scale production: it’s called Hollow and it’s going to go to Edinburgh in August 2015. The other side is developing a kind of home shadow theatre. Originally I was going to base it on a pop-up book which was then supplied with a screen and a light. I’m collaborating on this with my sister Lindsay McDonagh, who’s an artist and comes from a design background. She said that what you want is something where all those things are combined together. We call it ‘Shadow Box’. It’s about the size of a board game, but our box will be made of wood: black exterior, you don’t really know what’s inside it, but when you open it up, two halves of the top fold to the side and from the bottom you fold a screen up. Light is built inside so you have a half-open box which is your stage and which sits perfectly at the end of a kitchen table. And everything’s in there that lets you do shadow play; create a beautiful, intricate scene straight off the bat. We’re really excited about this because we think it’s a bit of an antidote to a lot of the more digital approaches.

Analog, rather than having 15 windows open at the same time.
And also, one of the nice things about it is that it’s somewhat simple. As amazing as all the laptops and iPads are, they’re impenetrable. You can’t figure it out by just looking at it. And I think that’s innately satisfying, when you look at a clockwork, for instance.

Like people going back to listening tapes.
My friend was telling me about music therapy techniques which originally would’ve been run off tapes, and how they became popular. They updated them with CDs and MP3s, and the therapy stopped working. I’m not saying that digital is bad, just that there’s a difference. Even with something like sound, where you think you’re supposed to get a perfect representation if you just throw in enough data. Even more so with the visual side of things. A huge amount of stuff has been done with digital projectors in theatres and it can be beautiful, it can be really amazing. There’s almost limitless types of scenes and visual things in the show. Yet it doesn’t look the same as a shadow when it’s projected, which hasn’t gone through the digital route.

Do you collaborate? You mentioned your sister earlier.
She’s the main collaborator with Shadow Box. With the play, I’m starting to build up a team, still keeping it quite small, with a handful of conspirators. I think at first I needed to get the idea clear in my head, but now it’s time to start to work with other talented people. The collaborative approach is what I’ve always enjoyed. I think that’s one of the fun things about theatre – it’s not an art form in some ways, it’s many art forms. What I’ve always enjoyed, even if I’m working with someone else’s piece, is having the time at the start to play and try and come up with different ideas. The process of sculpting is the most exciting and infuriating time because you’re often losing very good ideas. They don’t happen to work, or you’re waiting for the idea that’s going to make everything come together. It’s essential to work with good people because I think only about ten percent of ideas you’ve tried actually end up on stage. The more bubbling up, the more likely the ones you’re using are the right ones.

Talk to me about the 3D shadows you’ve created. There’s a real uncanny quality to them.
It’s a technique we’ll be using for the play in Edinburgh and also in the Shadow Box. I suppose this is actually the first time there’s been a little bit of crossover with the science I was doing at Rockefeller University. There I was building a microscope, one in particular: an arm which holds a microscope that sits on the stage, and the arm is spun at high speed. It’s called a centrifuge force microscope. You can image samples at the end of the spinning arm and you get a nice still image because it’s going round and round, experiencing force. So when I built it I was always thinking a lot about optics for that, imaging, moving things. Not too far from puppetry and shadow plays. That’s why I’ve been drawn to shadow puppetry in particular. The light, physics, building stuff and creating worlds. And I wondered if you could – much like the 3D cinema – create a 3D shadow. So I started experimenting and worked out if you could get a 3D effect with the red and the blue lighting. There was a man called Lucien Bull, who’d used pretty much this exact technique in the early 1900s to take movies of flying insects. The modern 3D films don’t use the red and blue, because if you watch that too long it ends up screwing your eyes and your head. So I thought, ‘Is there a way to do it with polarised light method, which is what they do with the hollywood films?’ I went on a research mission, experimenting with a combination of optics which would work to let you do that.

I finally got everything working alright, but the irony when you dissolve 3D shadows, they stop looking like shadows. So if you have a puppet, it looks like a black puppet with all the internal details completely stripped away. You just get the outline and a very stark sense of its depth and its position in relation to the rest of the scenery. Kind of like twilight, when you have silhouetted objects against the sky. You look at the trees, and they’re still three-dimensional, but you can’t see the colours of the leaves, or any of the textures; it’s just black. That’s what it starts to look like. If you can organise it right, there’s a quality with the shadows and the contrast that the black of those shadows can be much blacker than any black you’d get from a digital projector. We’re used to those contrasts in the natural world and our eyes can deal with it.

That’s what you can recreate in the analog methods – the real sharpness, the crispness, the contrast. So things do look different and they’re unrecordable. I love movies and I love a lot of stuff on the internet but I also love a live event. If you want to see it and you want to know what it really looks like, you have to go there, have the real experience, and it can’t be distilled. With all the stuff I’ve done, I think there’s been a general theme of to wanting to produce something which is a one-off – something where you have to be there to appreciate it.

You can learn more about Tom’s work at