Yo yo yo, my friend Grant Holden is a puppet lover and he makes gorgeous and witty stop frame animations. He asked me to make a couple of wee costumes for a Jonnie Common music video entitled Wear & Tear and his graduation film, Cleaning in Progress. You can check out his videos, photos of work and more at this very web address: https://www.blipblob.co.uk/home
In May my pals Hamish, Rose and I embarked on an epic quest to embody drag queens. We did so though the art of sock puppetry - it was the only way. Together, we created the trailblazing troupe that is Chaussettes Chanteuses (Singing Socks) and we lip-synced for our lives at the Edinburgh International Children's Festival Opening Weekend. With our noble steed, A Pushchair Named Desire, we whizzed around the National Museum of Scotland performing such classics as Dancing Queen, Vogue and I Will Survive.
So, we were popular with the kids but, could we make it in the world of ADULT CABARET?
Yes, yes we could. During the Fringe, we all rolled along to Pollyanna Queer Cabaret at Paradise Palms and went down as sweetly as a free cocktail. A simply superb evening which truly proved that everybody loves puppets.
Recently I put myself up for a performance at the Edinburgh Student Arts Festival and a couple of scratch nights with this silly idea called Transpire. It involved me shuffling about on my knees with compromised vision, trying to manipulate a puppet with no limbs and simultaneously, possibly, convey a deep message about mental health.
A wordless performance about finding the courage to explore new places and try new things - featuring a curious puppet and a mysterious cloaked figure who do not always see eye to eye.
Bob is only just discovering the wonders of our world – the colours, textures, sounds and shapes. He thinks they are truly marvellous. But his companion has forgotten how magnificent the world can be and is afraid to look beyond her cloak. Can Bob convince her to emerge?
I'm not sure I pulled it off but it has certainly been a valuable experience. Bits of feedback are dribbling in now and it is utterly fascinating to read the myriad of ways people responded and interpreted the piece. I'm not sure there is much longevity in the Transpire concept but it has helped me get over a first hurdle of sorts as I try and pretend I can perform a bit.
Last week not only did I celebrate the anniversary of my birth, it was lovely thank you, but I participated in two incredibly enlightening workshops; each one in a realm that deeply fascinates me.
The first was Seed of a City - Object Theatre Masterclass with Olivier Ducas who is an absolute object animation wizard, white magic not black. Through many short activities, we learnt the basics of how to find stories in objects and the different ways they can be used for communication. Not only did we explore the puppetry potential of many humdrum, everyday things but we became very aware of how we acted as the presenters: where you are looking, what level you are at and how to use your own expression for a 'close-up'. Then there was the added layer of text and the struggle to find just enough words to carry the story, not an easy feat I can tell you. All this learning culminated in each one of us giving a small presentation of a City - a short story about life in a city, real or fictional, using objects from our collective pile of miscellany. It was a joy to see how different each of our cities were, yet, how each one reflected the little tokens of wisdom from Olivier. To witness the birth of all these cities felt very special, despite the diversity, they were each rich and captivating.
I emerged from the masterclass full of inspiration and hungry to further explore the potential of objects as storytelling devices.
Then came the second workshop - on my actual birthday you know, did I mention it was my birthday? This was a whirlwind guide to everything the human voice can possibly do with vocal expert Yvon Bonenfant. It was part of the week long initiative PUSH Gender Lab in conjunction with Imaginate, a brilliant Scottish organisation who support and develop the performing arts for children. Yvon shared with us some of his encyclopedic knowledge of the human instrument and even managed to pack in a bit of gender theory too. His main aim was to introduce the group to the idea of the ‘queer’ voice, which he deems as anything ‘extra-normal’. Through his work he seeks to enable children to explore their full vocal range and experiment with many different identities.
In the afternoon the group participated in some practical activities, which allowed us to discover our own vocal capabilities. All in all it was a very liberating experience and we covered a great range in a short space of time. One minute we were vocalising the feeling of touching a crazy synthetic wig, the next we were trying to pass on an intimate note by gently humming and holding hands, then we were screaming our heads off. It was very cathartic and at times, incredibly moving.
I learnt a great deal about the effects of posture, body language, facial expression and mood on the voice and unfurled from the workshop feeling truly illuminated.
It was also my birthday, I was supposed to feel special.
I just made up that 'Shadowsphere' thing. I think it's pretty pretentious and melodramatic - and that's why I'm adopting it into my everyday vocabulary.
Anyway, my thoughts have turned shadowy lately as I participated in a stimulating workshop held by Norbert Götz in conjunction with Puppet Animation Scotland. Over two days we were introduced to the foundations of shadow theatre and explored the nuances of different light sources, screens, settings and puppets. The time frame only allowed Norbert to convey the basics of shadow theatre but the sheer volume of information was overwhelming and incredibly eye-opening. Prior to this weekend, I did not realise the importance of using the correct light source and the vast possibilities of playing with 3D objects in shadow theatre.
This workshop couldn't have come at a better time as I have already told my pals Amer//Hawksworth//Munro that I would perform some shadowy visuals at their Confluence EP launch next week. I came away from Götz's class buzzing with ideas that I now need to try and put into practice... Let the experimentation begin!
As an exceedingly attractive and charismatic person, I find it easy to manipulate people with my insatiable magnetism.
Puppets, however, are immune to my charms thus, I must use physical, polarised magnets to stimulate their bodies.
So I did a wee experiment to exercise this hypothesis.
I was lucky enough to do a five week Emerging Artist Bursary with Starcatchers and I wrote a post for their blog about my fulfilling experience. Here is a link if you fancy a gander: https://expectingsomething2015.wordpress.com/2016/10/27/dressing-up-and-playing-with-puppets/
27th August 2016 at the EICC
This dance piece by Belgian company Kabinet K was performed by children and intended for a young audience. However, it did not seem like a terribly child-friendly atmosphere as the lights went up to reveal a barren landscape: black, mostly empty, a few stones, a tin barrel, a brown mattress and a frayed fabric backdrop. The audience is plunged into this strange dystopia where children are left to fend for themselves in a threateningly bleak world.
A troupe of children scarper around the stage: one boy in a group of girls who look aged between 6 and 11 years-old. Curiously there is also a man playing an electric guitar who sits in the corner of the stage, seemingly unconnected to the children, but his presence is acknowledged a few times which is confusing. The children move in a captivating way: their movements are wild, sometimes brutal, sometimes tender. They dance, leap, bound and tussle but also need to be held every now and again. We see a structure unfold, tasks being divided out and performed in this bizarre but functional kid society.
Then, a man appears. A fully grown man. He seems quite hostile and a little afraid of the children. The children and the man try to sound each other out and this is represented through lots of physical contact involving a great deal of lifting and dropping. The way in which the man throws around the little girls could seem worrying to some - at times I felt a little uncomfortable. Even stranger, an older woman appears. She is less hostile but seems very cold and does not interact with the children very much. Even with the adults now here, the children still have to fend for themselves. There is a very vivid scene in which a girl smashes open tins of frankfurters with a rock: it is shocking and mesmeric to watch.
There were many things in this performance that I do not think would by thought of or risked by British theatre makers. The contact between the man and the young girls was non-threatening but I could see how some may see it as problematic. There was also a segment where one of the girls strips down to her pants and dances under a shower: this is an action of innocence and joy and absolutely non-sexual but not something I could imagine seeing in a UK production.
Overall, I really respected the energy and edginess of the piece - it was indeed 'raw'. The choreography felt free and wild whilst also showing vulnerability, which is a difficult balance to strike. A key element was the fact that the children were not typical dance school kids; they seemed very natural and unpretentious. I had some difficulty understanding the point of the adults and why they had appeared, but perhaps I wasn't supposed to understand. The performance almost hypnotic but I found it hard to connect emotionally. I felt a barrier which prevented me from empathising with the characters, I wasn't sure what there was to empathise with, so I left with my brain feeling impressed but my heart feeling cold.
18th August 2016 at Summerhall
This production by Belgian art house BRONKS drew my attention as it deals with a topic not usually explored in children's theatre: a terrorist attack. It is based on a true story from 2004 when 1200 children, parents and teachers were taken hostage in their own school in a small town in the Caucasus. Sound like a bundle of laughs? Well actually, quite a few.
The manner in which BRONKS have dealt with this difficult tale is perfect: a chirpy and energetic performance filled with many moments of lightheartedness and comedy to carry the heavy topic. The show was performed by two people, a man and a woman, playing a boy and a girl who were at the school when the terrorists attacked. They report events in a very matter-of-fact fashion, explaining logistical details, whilst also showing their youth and playfulness through song and dance. The point of view is mainly from these two children but also encompasses the families and even attempts to give insight to the inner workings of the terrorists' minds.
I liked the design of the show: it was quite simple and had an effective graphic style. At the start the two children chalk out the floor plan of the school, later, strings are struck up across the stage to create a confusing labyrinth which really heightens the feeling of chaos. Balloons are also used well to convey different objects and meanings from celebratory items to bombs to a lost life.
Overall, I found the performance very moving but not overly sentimental in a soppy way. The balance between joy and sorrow, fun and danger, good and evil was well judged. The audience strongly empathised with the children's struggle to understand why these terrorists had chosen them and became immersed in the confusion. Once again, although this is a production for 12+ there was not a single person under 18 in the audience so I would be very interested to see how young audiences react to this show.
Last week I was fortunate enough to be in Norway at SAND International Festival of Performing Arts for a Young Audience. I was participating in a workshop with scenographer Lawrence Malstaf, contemporary dancer Liv Hanne Haugen and electronica musician Per Martinsen as part of the ASSITEJ Next Generation Placement Programme. The workshop ’centred around the exploration of an “inflatable” – a bubble filled with air – and the relationship between the life like bubble, space and movement and physical interaction between object, audience and performer.’*
After 1.5 days of exploring ideas around this huge inflatable pillow in a dockside warehouse we put on a small performance for some of the festival delegates. The feedback was encouraging and it was very refreshing to work with new people with different backgrounds and from different countries. Malstaf’s style of working was something I was very unused to but I found the experience extremely freeing, enjoyable and eye opening.
I also got to see a few shows and talks at the festival: these were pretty varied. The highlight for me was definitely Rimi Protokoll's production Evros Walk Water. This is the story of fifteen refugee boys who have made a musical performance based on John Cage's 'Water Walk' but, sadly, they are unable to go on tour so we the audience must perform it ourselves. Through headphones we get the boys' voices speaking directly into our ears telling us their traumatic and humorous stories. Next, there is a bell and we must prepare to perform: the boys give us instructions through the headphones and each person plays a part in creating the sonic, cacophonic symphony. Then we are told to move on to a new pair of headphones and we get a new story in our ears and play a different musical part. It was an impressive feat of logistics - all these hapless delegates being moved seamlessly from station to station - and a very moving show. Some of the refugees' histories are very traumatic and heartbreaking but the piece steers clear of becoming soppy by playing the pop music the boys enjoy in the background as they speak. Creating sound with chains, buckets, water, paddles, bottles and a dulcimer conjured a feeling of chaotic joy which brought together the participants and made us feel connected to the refugee boys we were honouring.
14th August 2016 at Summerhall
This show by Brokentalkers and Junk Ensemble originally attracted me as it deals with themes of grief, loss and death whilst also being intended for younger audiences. Unfortunately I was the youngest audience member at this performance so I couldn't really grasp how it would land with children and teenagers. With me, it settled uncomfortably.
The piece took the form of several, somewhat disjointed vignettes. The first of these was blackly humorous: a man in a white sheet dressed as a ghost told the story of how he died. It doesn't sound all that funny but his Irish charm and ridiculous costume added a great deal of lightness to the tale. From there onwards we got more short insights from different characters which took the forms of storytelling, dance and physical theatre. All these people were going through some kind of emotional distress but something about the presentation left me cold and without empathy.
The lack of connectivity between scenes and a great deal of deadpan talking straight out to the audience (even when they were supposed to be talking to each other) meant that I found it hard to follow and feel interested. There were some stunning visual snippets like a blindfolded boy swinging at a pinata and a choir of sheet ghosts singing happy birthday: these were powerful and pleasantly weird. My favourite section was probably the pantomime horse whose front and back halves disagree about where they're going. This little clowning skit was very funny but took a sharp, dark turn when it was revealed that the front and back were a husband and wife whose relationship was disintegrating after the loss of their son.
Bits like this gave me hope but overall I felt lost throughout this performance. There definitely could have been more development of the narrative so the audience could fully connect and sympathise with the characters on stage. I wanted to be involved but I felt excluded. It was definitely a bit pretentious and lacking raw emotion, however, I was somehow mesmerised.
7th August 2016 at Zoo Pleasance
This bright and buzzing show for babies was created by Lithuanian company Dansema Dance Theatre. There was a sense of excited anticipation as the audience, young and old, entered the space: seating on three sides looked onto the stage floor where many big, soft, 3D shapes lay. Are they sculptures? Or toys perhaps? Then, the tinkling music began and slowly the shapes began to come to life.
The performance was carried out by three talented dancers in zip up playsuits: one red, one green and one orange. These colours corresponded with the big, 3D shapes which were rolled, stacked, bounced and worn by the dancers. The way in which these shapes came together in different combinations and formations was ingenious: like a living puzzle. Each movement the dancers made was filled with joy and their playful interaction with the audience was constant throughout.
Coming from a design background, it was interesting to think how the costume and props are the crux of this show. The entire concept relies on colour, shape and movement coming together to stimulate young imaginations and it seemed to me that the babies were suitably fascinated.
My only thought for improvement would be that the show would benefit from live music to allow for more freedom and add a little bit of human touch. I understand that this is not always possible but it felt to me like it would suit the flavour of the performance.
In summary, the simple colour palette and shapes combined with exuberant movement created a mesmerising visual experience, somewhat like a kinetic pop art painting. For thirty minutes I was transported to babyhood, allowing myself to just sit back and enjoy the dancing colours.
4th August 2016 at the Assembly Roxy
Beards! x 3 is an enjoyable show by the New Zealand company, Trick of the Light Theatre. The story focuses on Beatrix: a young girl who wants a beard. Luckily, her two dads are the best barbers in town so gaining some facial hair should be a cinch? Sadly not. They tell her they can only take away hair not put it in place so, as a girl, she will just have to do without a beard. Beatrix is deeply saddened by this news as she has noticed a common trend amongst successful and influential people throughout history - they all have beards!
This leads to an energetic romp through time with Wilgafortes: the flamboyant patron saint of bearded ladies. With the saint's help Beatrix visits some successful, influential and bearded men from the past to see if they can help her gain magnificent facial hair. These men, as it turns out, aren't quite as clever as Beatrix thought: they all need her help but do not offer any beard advice in return. In the end, Beatrix comes to realise that she doesn't need a beard (or to be a man) to be successful and influential but, simultaneously, if she wants to wear a fake beard then she will! (And she really rocked facial hair in my opinion)
The performance was fast paced and visually stimulating. The barber shop set was cheerful and clean with simple transformative elements which effectively changed the scene. My favourite element was probably the magic mirror: a window frame with a silver foil curtain behind which the actors did a great deal of silly dancing. Costume-wise, the barbers were pretty traditional with shirts, smart trousers and waistcoats; Beatrix wore a checked shirt, white mini skirt, red socks, red hairband and white trainers which made her seem youthful and girly but not overly so. The two male actors playing the dads were also Wilgafortes and the bearded blokes from throughout time: their characters were created through simple but effective costume changes.
The whole show was quite chaotic, but in a pleasing way. Holding it together were the chirpy and energetic songs which were sung well and with much gusto. It was surprisingly educational too as the audience were given several miniature history lessons during the beard quest. Sometimes the dialogue perhaps came a little too fast to fully absorb - even I, as a so-called adult, sometimes found myself getting swept away. There was, nevertheless, something for everyone: from a man rolling around in worms to sly jokes about political candidates with silly hair... The children and the grown-ups seemed to be chuckling in all the right places.
Ultimately, I felt really good after this performance. The strong message about girl power and the fact she had two dads won me over: this was the type of show I hoped to see in 2016.
Plus, the songs were really catchy.
This August I was fortunate enough to see many shows in the Edinburgh Fringe and Edinburgh International Festival. Some were for adults but many were for young audiences: an area of special interest to me as I embark on my graduate quest to make a career out of children's theatre. Luckily, Imaginate - a brilliant Scottish organisation who support and develop the performing arts for children - aided me through their Go and See Fund. By applying, Imaginate funded me to see five inspiring and varied performances for young audiences. Here, in the coming blog posts, I shall do a wee write up of my thoughts on each of these shows.