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A playful four-metre sea giant puppet is set to roam the beach at Watergate Bay this June, in search of a little girl called Violet.

We caught up with Johnny Autin – creative director of Birmingham-based Autin Dance Theatre, who made their Cornish debut at Arts on the Beach 2023 performing Out of the Deep Blue – to find out more about the cheeky ocean spirit Eko, touring sustainably, and performing at Arts on the Beach in its second year.

“Dance, circus, puppetry – Autin Dance Theatre is basically a movement-based performance organisation that delivers spectacular and inspiring projects. We do large-scale outdoor and community professional performances. Equally important is our work with local residents in schools and community centres.

Giant sea puppet

In Out of the Deep Blue, Eko the sea giant is the spirit of water emerging and arriving on the land. He seeks out a little girl called Violet who he knows will listen to his story. Wherever he lands, he interacts with audiences and the buildings he finds there. He might clamber up a tree, or climb a building’s scaffolding, or jump off a fountain. He’s very cheeky, very agile – a dancer in my opinion. When he finds Violet, they’re scared of one another at first, then they help each other. Eko tells Violet stories about the oceans, plastic pollution, and the biodiversity crisis. Through the power of friendship and compassion – and a bit of magic – Eko is brought back to life. 

Arts On The Beach Eko On Sea Lane

People go ‘Woowww!’ when they first see Eko; they’re quite inspired by his giant scale. Some children are a bit scared at first, but as soon as they understand he’s a character and he’s a bit cheeky like them, they come forward and give a high-five, get a fist-bump or a hug. And some very bold ones will go back and scare him with a ‘Boo!’ and Eko will react. With puppetry we can get away with anything really. So we’ve had him going into shops – Boots, Greggs, inside a shopping centre. It’s quite visually striking, and if he can make people think a little bit differently about either diverse characters or how we treat the planet, it’s a win. 

Sea giant puppet

Out of the Deep Blue has toured lots of places, but what’s special about coming to Watergate Bay is that Eko, as the spirit of the sea, belongs by the sea.

You’ll see six people in the performance, but it took a village to make Out of the Deep  Blue. Eko is operated by five world-class puppeteers, a little like War Horse with rods to manipulate the creature as though he’s one element. With Violet that makes six. We had composers create beautiful music scores to soundscape the show; we worked with a dramaturg and puppet consultants; and I choreographed and directed. Each production involves a lot of people coming together.

Every time it feels new and magical. Because it’s a live performance, each show is slightly different as Eko reacts to his surroundings or something the audience does, whether he’s roaming the streets or roaming the beach. You can watch it several times and think ‘that wasn’t the same show as last time!’

Out of the Deep Blue has toured lots of places, but what’s special about coming to Watergate Bay is that Eko, as the spirit of the sea, belongs by the sea. It’s always nice performing in London because the big festivals attract a lot of people. He appeared at Shakespeare’s birthday a couple of times in Stratford. We’re going to Norway at the end of August, and he was at the St Patrick's Festival Parade in Dublin this year – half a million people in the street saw him take part. But being on the beach for Eko will be very, very special. 

Dani Bower - The Man for Arts on the Beach

Photo credit: Dani Bower

The climate emergency is our number one issue, and the story of Out of the Deep Blue relates to that urgency. Eko has that urgency. The message of the show is to listen to the natural world in order to find a way out of the climate crisis. We try to avoid the complacent thinking that other bigger organisations are making a much worse impact. If we can all make a little bit of a difference, it adds up.

We worked with sustainability researchers at Aston University, and learned that it’s not necessarily about what Eko’s made from, but how long he will last. Making Eko out of recyclable plastic was not going to work as a durable or sustainable solution. But every time we take Eko on the road, we reuse the same materials as much as possible throughout the performance run. Whenever we build a new show, we try to think about how much we can tour it and how its story can have an impact on audiences and communities watching the show.

Eko the sea giant

We’re pretty big on access to make the experience more enjoyable, and have a synchronised audio description of the show that prepares blind or visually impaired audiences to learn about what’s going to happen. We also have easy-read guides for families with neurodiverse children to find out more about what’s happening in the show. We usually do touch tours as well for visually impaired groups who would like to find out what the puppet is made of, how it moves, how it feels, and what colour it is.

I’m a child of the ocean and love being by the sea, so it’s going to be really nice to be at Arts on the Beach over two days. We can really push what we do artistically, and meet new audiences. I’m looking forward to seeing all the other acts, and to Eko playing with the sand and the Cornish audience. I think we need more beauty and more awe and more joy; hopefully our performance will do that. We especially encourage little ones to come along with their families!”

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