Oystercatchers: strolling theatre

The Estuary of the Torridge and Taw Rivers is an important habitat for wading birds and the Oystercatcher is one of the most characterful residents. Some live here all year round and others visit from northern climes during the winter in order to feast on the mudflats.

Our characters are migrant Oystercatchers, who have just arrived back from the Faroe Islands. Arriving in the town, rather tired and disorientated, they enlist help from local people to reach their seaside home and attempt to trade with shells for things that will help them through the winter. At the seaside, they get to work with setting up home and get fishing.

Performances happened in Bideford and Northam Burrows, Barnstaple and Saunton Sands on 14th and 15th September 2019. We worked with a brilliant team to create this curious pair and to share them with the public. Read below for more information about how the project came together.

The Creative Team:

  • Sarah Corbett – Performer
  • Fiona Fraser Smith – Producer
  • Paschale Straiton – Director
  • Michael Wagg – Performer
  • Ruth Webb – Designer

Oystercatchers, Dandies of the Estuary

Oystercatcher Mask Design by Ruth Webb

Oystercatchers are fascinating birds. They can live very long lives – a male which was tagged as a chick in 1970 was caught in 2010, making him over 40 years old. A unique aspect about these birds is that they adopt two different methods for eating shellfish. The Hammerer uses their beak to smash into the shell while the Stabber uses their beak to prize the shell apart. And how a pair eat will determine the behaviour of their chicks. Researchers predict that at some point these could evolve into different species.

Some of the Oystercatchers that live on the Taw/Torridge Estuary are resident all year round, spending much of their time in mud flats that team with cockles, mussels and worms – like the Skern on Northam Burrows or Isley Marsh RSPB site near Yelland. Others arrive from Northern Climes in the autumn and spend the winter here and return North for the breeding season. Some of these migrant birds come from Scotland or from further flung places like the Faroe Islands. Did you know – the Oystercatcher is the national bird of the Faroe Islands? For the Faroese, the arrival of the Oystercatcher marks the beginning of Spring, and they celebrate them at a national holiday called St. Gregory’s Day or Grækarismessa.

Early Design Ideas by Ruth Webb

If you’d like to find more about Oystercatchers and the other birds that live around the Estuary, why not visit the Northam Burrows Visitors Centre, Sandymere Road, Northam, EX39 1XS, search the website of the Royal Society for the Preservation of Birds or visit one of their reserves. This wonderful landscape is overseen by the North Devon Coasts Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty which gathers information about how best to protect it and holds events throughout the the year. We thank them for supporting our project through their Strategic Development Fund.

Our strolling theatre performance

Strolling theatre is a wonderful way to connect with people on the street. Performers walk a designated route and along the way, they interact with passers by. Some people like to stand back and observe the overall picture. Others like to find out what’s going on, ask questions. Ideally they are drawn into the world of the performance and interact in a playful way.

We think that this kind of performance is brilliant. It punctuates everyday life, offering moments of curiosity and make-believe for people who are unlikely to have been expecting it. It provides unusual stories to share at work or down the pub – ‘I funny thing happened to me yesterday…’ And at the very least it makes people question what’s what.

Final Costume Design by Ruth Webb

We spent a 8 days developing this performance piece, working on Northam Burrows and in rehearsal spaces in Appledore and Bideford. We spent time observing the birds – both on the Skern mudflats (when we could spot them) and on video and then attempted to adapt their mannerisms and behaviours to the human body. We wondered who Oystercatchers might be if they were humans – perhaps they would be people who scour the mud with metal detectors? They would certainly be people of the mud, who were outsiders in some way.

We decided that our characters would have just arrived back from their second home in the North. That way there would be some drama to play with – if they were disorientated or lost, then people could lend them a hand. Sarah Corbett and Michael Wagg are very spontaneous and engaging performers who managed to create a ridiculous and yet strangely enchanting pair.

We hope that by performing with these characters in Bideford, Barnstaple and on the beach at Northam Burrows and Saunton Sands, we’ll encourage people to think about the wonderful birds that live in our local area of outstanding natural beauty. By presenting the characters as half human, we intend that people can draw parallels between their lives and ours. If we can relate to the birds more completely, perhaps we will look after them better. After all, while Oystercatchers are not yet on the Red Endangered list, they are on the Amber list – with numbers in sharp decline.

The Masks

Ruth Webb made these beautiful masks. Her aim was to make the heads look appealing, but not cartoony and realistic, but with character. We think that she achieved the perfect balance. The masks are bright and charming but can also be overpowering at close quarters, perhaps reminding us to respect nature.

The masks were made by building up layers of plastazote foam sheets and papier-mâché onto the base of a climbing helmet. It was a time consuming business, with several layers of paper and paint. Here’s are some photos of the work in progress.