By the time Samuel J Wilde was graduating from his MA in Set and Costume Design at Bristol Old Vic, he was already expecting his first child. Whilst Sam strove to win an Olivier, his daughter grew, and his finances shrunk. When a favourite uncle left to work on a boat, and Sam wanted to gift his daughter something to console her, he found himself deeply embarrassed. “I was so ashamed,” he recalls. “I wanted to be a good Dad— to encourage my child to be creative, to care for the planet —and I wanted to be able to give her things.” The answer to all of these was to make. So, Sam set about making a play boat from the discarded cardboard he found in his neighbourhood. “It was simply the best thing I’ve ever done.”
Image: Model for a cardboard Wendy house. Samuel J Wilde. Photo: Andre Patternden
After two Christmas shows at Shakespeare’s Globe theatre; a mechanised New Year window display for Fortnum and Mason; his hit cardboard show, I Want My Hat Back, receiving over 500,000 views and being cited one of the ‘best shows of lockdown’ in The Stage, The Guardian, and The New York Times; and Sam listed as one of 2021’s 100 most influential people in theatre, his mastery of all things cardboard has earned him the moniker, the Card Bard.
Image: Samuel J Wilde wears some of his cardboard creations. Photo: Andre Patternden
His work is made entirely from recycled cardboard, at minimal cost. The entire outlay for I Want My Hat Back amounted to the £15 postage it cost Sam to mail the set to a colleague. Sam sees cardboard as textile, and took his inspiration from his wife, a seamstress. “Every design starts with a pattern,” he says. Like fabric, Sam says, cardboard has a warp and a weft. He finds it similar to working with stretch fabric. 90 percent of the work, he says, is ensuring the grain of the cardboard runs in the right direction to allow for strength, fold, and so on. An amateur knitter, Sam likens the enjoyment of knitting to taking the flat line of cardboard and turning it into something complex and multi-dimensional.
Image: Cardboard cameras. Samuel J Wilde. Photo: Andre Patternden
The properties of various kinds of cardboard lend themselves to different operations. Thick cardboard can be almost as solid as wood, while thinner varieties are more flexible and can be as pliable as paper. Sam squeezes thin wall cardboard to form the thread he uses to stitch his cardboard creations and costumes— using a cardboard needle strengthened by dipping the tip in superglue.
Image: The Recyclotron. Samuel J Wilde. Photo: Andre Patternden
Earlier this year, after watching his wife sew a pair of trousers, Sam began retailing his patterns online. His ambition is to create a library of patterns for other parents and makers to access. And he’s passionate about encouraging creativity in children. His latest show, Boxville, is an immersive making experience— the young people arriving in the space are immediately met by a cardboard dragon, and have to raid a pile of boxes to make a defensive shield. The making continues from there; the children take home all they have created, and can access the patterns for the other characters— including the dragon —at home, via his website. He is currently planning a similar making experience, based on A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Image: Cardboard play stove. Samuel J Wilde. Photo: Andre Patternden
He’s also drafting a book: “It’s a crafting, parenting adventure that I’m thinking of calling ‘Adventures of a Cardboard Dad’. I’m allowing cardboard to take over my life,” he laughs.
And there’s no shame in that.
Image: Sam's daughter plays with a cardboard guitar. Samuel J Wilde. Photo: Andre Patternden