Pif-Paf Theatre

Pif-Paf are a Sheffield based theatre company specialising in the unusual and wonderful. Outdoor events, giant hamster wheels, sculpture and more – get the low down here.

flyingpic SML

Could you tell us how Pif-Paf started and how it’s developed since?

We started out 10 years ago making work for carnivals and community festivals in Salford, lots of large puppets and working in some pretty wild community clubs teaching wood work and making shows, this evolved to working with whole families and being part of a massive street theatre program in Manchester. From there we have developed into a theatre and sculpture company, based in Sheffield. The two directors Pete Gunson and Eleanor Hooper trained in engineering and circus and theatre respectively so this sets the flavour of our work alongside lots of collaboration and training.

Now we make and tour small scale shows around the UK to all sorts of festivals, working with performers, directors, musicians, makers and a freelance administrator to keep the wheels on the wagon.

Is outdoor theatre something you have always looked to do?

I think it was written in our stars, Pete grew up in an army family, which is surprisingly similar and Eleanor was brought up around carnivals and making work and shows, so yes! It’s a great world, there is no rule book, you have an idea and then you and the team you build work your arse off to make it happen. It’s very real, the audience can walk off at any time, or hopefully grow and grow throughout a show and cheer wildly at the end. It’s very democratic, no doors, no fancy buildings, no dress codes, and endless possibilities.

The-Homecoming-100813 1944

What have you been up to during the summer?

Touring and touring and making some very special effects for SlungLow’s White Whale in Leeds. We’ve been the length and breadth of the country, 60 days of performances. We have a crew of 8 performers who drop into the different shows and always keep it fun. It’s been a year of going to more party festivals than normal, so a bit more exhausting.
The effects for The White Whale were to make a 2 tonne stage rise out of a dock during a show and then to bring a storm and a sea full of whales to life, the show is getting rave reviews and it’s the first time we’ve done work like that, so hopefully more of that to come.

What shows do you have on at the moment and coming up in autumn?

We’re just back from Festival No.6 in Port Merion, Bez delivered a party political broadcast from our Flycycle zooming towards the sea for a documentary on his campaigning, he’s fighting for a lot of good things! The end of summer sees Something To Hold, our aerial and movement show, at Derby and Ramsbottom and Flycycle and Submercycle up in Darlington. From here on in it’s plotting and planning for next year, maybe a holiday if we’re lucky.


Where’s been your favourite place to put on a show and where do you get the best responses?

A family festival called Just So has booked us 5 years in a row, to a beautiful park and woodland and support us to let our imaginations fly, one of our crew said it was like walking into a giant hug this year. So yes, they win. People absolutely love our work there; they get really upset if we go without the Flycycle.

Could you describe the sort of processes that go on when you’re putting a production together?

It really varies. For Action Painting and Flycycle they were a question from the old Director of Sheffield Childrens’ festival, one was “Could you shoot a paint bomb over Parkhill Flats?”, the other was “Can you make a cycle machine to take people to the Olympics, but keep them here?” We said yes to both, and then bounced drawings back and forth. At some point the feeling of the adventure that we will take people on becomes clear and once we work and play with an audience it falls into place.

For our more acrobatic shows there is a lot of research, time spent on the equipment working out what is possible and what stories that may lead to. In this work especially it’s about building the right team, brave but not reckless, with a shared artistic palette. You want breadth of vision, but also to be pulling in the same direction. Here there is less space for improvisation, it’s pretty lethal work.

Shows take 6 to 18 months to develop. We really like to do test shows as well, to see if what we are doing communicates. And alongside all of this is finding organisations to support the process, sorting out the money and how we’re going to get the show in front of an audience.


Could you tell us about any new projects you’ve got lined up?

We’ve got a collaboration with Tell Tale Hearts from Huddersfield to make a Christmas Show for 2015, a version of Snow White which will be full of surprises, which is our main focus right now and we’re also plotting a high skills acrobatic show on our Distance Ladder, it’s a giant hamster wheel you can throw people scarily high on. That needs a lot of work, but we can see the shape of it.

How challenging is it to run an independent arts organisation?

It’s hard work, but we’re not complaining. And yes, times are tough, a few years ago there were more juicy projects popping up that were funded well enough to spend proper time on, that’s not the case anymore, you have to be a lot savvier. Keeping the wheels on the wagon is okay but starting new things is tough. We’re pretty keen to pay everyone a decent wage, enough to allow them to grow, so it puts a strain on it all. Worrying or moaning doesn’t do any good, you’ve just to get on with it, and good work sells itself.

What can Sheffield City Council do to support the independent sector?

We get business rates relief, which really helps. We’ve banged on a lot of doors over the years and The Children’s Festival has been great but now there aren’t the resources it seems for our particular style of work, we work everywhere but here, so we are a bit out of the loop.

It seems there are a lot of great initiatives going on, led by the sector though, not by the council. When events are supported by the council there has to be real money on the table, it should be the time for the council to support independents, not the other way around.

There is a fear in councils of being seen to support culture, Sheffield is a really cultured city, engineers on our street bemoan the lack of council investment in arts and events, it’s not me making it up, people want it and deserve it. It’s about creating and bringing back the posts in the council for the really skilled people to be supported to keep this all fresh and alive, contracting it out leaves it too open for personal interests. A dose of committed leadership and everyone in Sheffield is a winner.

Interview by Michael Griffiths.
Image 1 © Porl Medlock.
Image 2 © Magineer Productions.
Image 3 © Lakeside Arts.
Iamge 4 © Pif-Paf.


Leave a Reply