Print-making at Open Studios Cornwall

I recently left the hubbub and noise and chaos of London for a slice of peace down by the sea in Cornwall. Though I’ll still travel all over for acting and puppetry work, this is the place I will be calling home for the foreseeable future.

Ink print of a large leaf on paperAs luck would have it, during my first few weeks in Cornwall I had the opportunity to take a peek in some local artists’ studios and take part in a print-making workshop as part of Open Studios Cornwall. Driving down perilously narrow, windy country lanes after all that city driving ripped my nerves to shreds, but it was worth it for the glimpse of different artists’ creative lives. Chatting to each artist about their work was a real privilege, discovering personal stories reflected in how each person responds to the world around them through their creations.

Several of the artists taking part in this year’s Open Studios Cornwall also offered workshops (for a fee), covering everything from bookbinding to creative writing, stained glass to ceramics, Chinese calligraphy to botanical illustration. I wanted to take part in at least ten, but with a limited budget from the cost of moving house I had to pick just one, so I went for Mono Printing Using Natural Objects with artist Pam Furby.

Ink print of several smaller leaves on paper

The workshop provided a wonderful two hours to immerse ourselves in being creative and forget about the rest of the world. We started by wandering round Pam’s beautiful garden choosing natural objects we wanted to work with, then headed up to her little studio to have a go at printing with our finds. I mostly gathered leaves of various shapes and sizes, as I wanted to explore how their intricate veiny patterns would come out in the ink. The prints were just as beautiful and interesting as I had hoped, and a small feather also made for a lovely print.

The table in the artist's studio covered in piles of leaves, inks, papers and plastic boards.

I began by rolling out a small amount of ink on to a plastic board with a little roller, then pressed the leaf down into the ink, veiny side down (so that the side with the most interesting pattern or texture was face-down). I then peeled the leaf off and placed it on to the piece of paper I wanted to print on to, placed another piece on top, creating a leaf sandwich, then pressed down firmly so that the leaf left an inky print. Pam also had an ink press that we could use to give a more even pressure than our hands could.

A brown and black ink print of a small leaf on paper.Having never worked with ink in this way before it was very much trial and error for most of us, just having a go and having fun. As we became more confident using the ink and developed a sense of what patterns and effects we liked, some of us experimented with different colours, mixtures of colours, and different arrangements of our objects on the page. I found that often the second print using the ink-covered leaf would make a clearer picture than the first, which contained too much ink – less was more! When initially pressing the object into the ink we used a piece of newspaper so our fingers didn’t become covered in ink, and the ‘negatives’ this produced on the newspaper were often interesting pictures in their own right.

I love the prints I created during the workshop and one or two might even make it up on the wall! The next step is to experiment with different amounts of ink and pressure until I can capture as much of the delicate veins of the leaf as possible. Then I can move on to the next object, whatever that may be!

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Puppetry and Oscar Wilde at the Blue Elephant

My most recent puppetry adventure saw me working with Vertebra Theatre again, with whom I travelled to Edinburgh Fringe last year to perform in ‘Dark Matter’. My puppet this time: Oscar Wilde.

Oscar Wilde head puppet

Oscar Wilde. Well, his head.

I joined the cast of ‘At the Heart of Things’, a dance piece inspired by Oscar Wilde’s De Profundis and featuring puppetry, live music and text, in the final week of production. Having worked before with the director, Mayra Stergiou, we felt confident that I would be able to fit in to the show at this stage, and I think we pulled it off!

We performed at the lovely Blue Elephant Theatre in Camberwell, whose brilliant staff were so supportive, I can’t sing their praises enough. During the three days of rehearsals I became acquainted with the puppet, explored its movement vocabulary, and stepped in to the shoes of the previous puppeteer (Mayra, now focusing on directing) while bringing something of my own to the role.

Each new puppet brings its own opportunities as well as challenges. With the Oscar puppet, the puppet itself is a head with a handle on the back concealed under a fabric sleeve or hood, and a big heavy coat with one arm tucked into a pocket and the other free for my hand to go through. Animating the puppet involved using my own body for his body, including my left hand, and using my right hand to control the head. I wore a black balaclava over my own head and tried to tuck it back and down so the main focus would be on Oscar’s head – no mean feat when you’ve got a giraffe neck like me!

The director and two dancers sit on the stage in a black studio theatre, while the director gives notes

The director giving notes

The greatest challenge when performing with this kind of puppet seems to be to marry the movement of the right hand (and puppet’s head) with that of the rest of the puppeteer’s body. Keeping my own head still and redirecting all of those movement impulses to my right hand so the puppet’s head moved instead definitely kept me busy! When performing as a puppeteer, I’m used to my own body operating purely in a functional capacity to facilitate the movement of a separate puppet’s body, so this was a whole new ball game for me. During the run I discovered the potential for my free hand (the left one) to communicate how Oscar is feeling to the audience. It provided a sort of subtext to the main story of his movement.

With only four shows animating Oscar I feel my work with him is still very much a work in progress, but then perhaps every piece we create is, whether a role, a play, a story, a painting, whatever. Where would we be if we ever felt we had actually finished? In that instant would we actually kill the thing instead of letting it live and breathe? Either way, I’m looking forward to hopefully spending more time working with Oscar in the future… watch this space!

Broken Puppet 2: exploring puppetry and disability

I went along to my second puppetry conference recently, Broken Puppet 2: A Symposium on Puppetry and Disability Performance. Held at Bath Spa University over a weekend, the event gathered together performers, health practitioners, academics and theatre-makers to explore the ways puppetry and disability intersect.

A puppet tablau with red and white cloth surrounding a puppet covering its face with its hands, from a puppetry with trauma victims workshop

Puppetry with trauma victims workshop

This was the second in the ongoing ‘Broken Puppet’ series of symposia, the first being held at Cork Puppetry Festival in Ireland last year. While the Cork event focused mainly on puppetry, disability and therapy, the Bath Spa event focused on puppetry and disability in performance.

It was a wonderful two days of discussion, exploration, inspiration and ideas. With keynote talks by community performance artist and disability culture activist Professor Petra Kuppers and puppetry artist and writer Corina Duyn, we were treated to two very engaging and generous speakers and artists. Panel events presented various artists’ work in the areas of applied puppetry and health, disability and puppetry in performance, and puppetry and other(ed) identities. It was fascinating finding out about the different ways of working for each artist or practitioner, and their work filled my head with ideas that by the end of the weekend were jostling for space.

There was a choice of panel events and ‘labs’ on each day, the latter so named as the idea was to provide a safe space to experiment and put forward provocations to discuss and explore, without requiring a specific outcome. On Saturday my friend and fellow puppeteer Katie Williams and I made puppets in a disabled puppet-building lab led by Green Ginger’s Chris Pirie, and performers Nikki Charlesworth and Emma Fisher (Artistic Director of Beyond the Bark).

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I taped some action man legs on to a small limbless artist’s mannequin. The idea was to create a puppet with these beautiful strong-looking legs that were actually useless to the puppet (I taped them on to the shoulders, so in effect in the ‘wrong’ place). I’ve seen people close to me struggle with terrible arthritis in the hip joint that has left their legs extremely weak and unable to bear weight, and I wanted to explore this through the puppet. I discovered how it moved with this bodily make-up (very slowly, by swinging the legs and using the momentum to rock itself forward little by little). When we shared our puppet with the rest of the group I was aware that my demonstration of its movement was painstakingly slow, but I didn’t want to rush it – this struggle to move and progress physically through space is a very real situation for so many people.

Along with the various labs on offer there was also a workshop exploring the use of puppetry as a dramatherapy medium with trauma victims, with Daniel Stolfi of The Awesome Puppet Company. This was very practical and I relished playing and following ideas to see where they led with a group of creative strangers. Split into three groups, the workshop participants created short explorations to share with everyone. Witnessing the intense focus and a kind of reverence with which everyone treated the work and subject matter was a very special experience.

At the end of the weekend we sat in a circle and shared a little bit about ourselves and any projects we’re working on, so it was fresh in everyone’s minds. It is always very humbling to be amongst so many creative minds and ideas and passion, and I can already see some potential collaborations arising from this gathering.

The symposium was hosted by Bath Spa University’s Arts and Social Change Research Group in conjunction with the UNIMA Research Commission and Puppet Place.

Puppetry in Perth with Flabbergast Theatre

Photo by KLowe Photography

Australia was never on my list of must-see places (recovering arachnophobe here!). Flabbergast Theatre were definitely on my list of must-work-with companies. Recently I found myself performing with Flabbergast at Fringe World in Australia, so I had the chance to experience both.

Fringe World Festival, in Perth, is the third largest Fringe in the world, and struck me as a world apart (literally) from the infamous Edinburgh Fringe. It’s definitely quieter, which may explain why it seems friendlier. Without the equal parts intimidating and exhilarating swarm of people that you find at Edinburgh, you get the chance to get to know people better, including your venue staff. We also received a free artist’s pass that got us into any show, provided there were seats left once the paying punters had gone in, so over two weeks of seeing shows I didn’t pay for a single ticket. The money saved on tickets, however, was offset by the ridiculously expensive beer – around 8 quid for a pint! And we’re not talking Corona here.

Photo by KLowe Photography

We performed Boris and Sergey, a cabaret-style adult puppetry show about two brothers from somewhere in Eastern Europe (the accents tend to wander), at a lovely little venue called The Shambles. The show contains scripted scenes but allows for a healthy dose of improvisation around that, meaning no two shows are ever completely the same. An element of audience participation adds to the fun and keeps us on our toes.

Photo by KLowe PhotographyI animated Boris’ feet (he’s the one with the furry belly) and had a wicked time, from perfecting a tap dance routine, to figuring out the moonwalk with two tiny leather feet, to mastering a fight sequence. The choreographic element appealed to the dancer in me, and I was in my element with the physical demands of the show.

I first saw Flabbergast perform with Boris and Sergey at Edinburgh Fringe last year and I loved the show so much, so every night in Perth I was simmering with excitement as I waited backstage for the music to begin. I’d seen the show as an audience member, and now I was actually in it! Yeaaahhhhhh!!

Photo by KLowe PhotographyThroughout the run my puppetry improvisation skills increased massively. I’d already worked with Douglas Rutter, the puppeteer on Boris’ head, on a previous job, so working with him again felt perfectly natural, even with a very different kind of puppet. The rest of the troupe are all fantastic artists in their own right, and I learnt a great deal working with them. I also made some lovely new friends on the other side of the world, and got to see a lot of theatre that I wouldn’t normally have chosen to see – burlesque, stand-up, cabaret – thus broadening my experience of the possibilities of performance art.

So my adventure down under was twofold: a chance to experience a new country so many miles away from my own, and the opportunity to be part of a truly brilliant show while developing further as a puppeteer. Yet another opportunity to travel and see the world while doing what I love! Amidst the endless loan repayments, the uncertainty and rejection, it’s the precious experiences like this that remind me I made the right decision to forge this path in my life.

Images credit: Karen Lowe

EN-gage Theatre Arts drama facilitator training

New company EN-gage Theatre Arts recently ran a one-day training workshop at The Edge Theatre and Arts Centre in Manchester for its band of drama facilitators, including yours truly!

EN-gage Theate Arts

The company, run by performer and facilitator Hebe Reilly, delivers drama projects in English for non-native English-speaking students. These projects are tailor-made to the school or students’ requirements, and give the young people taking part a fun and educational experience where they can practise and develop their spoken English with a native speaker, make new friends, and gain creative and life skills through drama.

I first met Hebe working on an English summer camp in Russia, and we were instantly united in our passion for sharing the joys of theatre with young people and our love of travel.

Workshop 2

The goal of the training session was to share activities and facilitation tips, but also to establish a common language and mission statement for EN-gage Theatre Arts. The company already has two drama projects in Russia under its belt, and it brings together a group of theatre professionals with a wealth of experience in teaching drama, both in the UK and abroad, but Hebe felt it was important to try to establish a set of common principles that all EN-gage practitioners share. While retaining the individual skill sets of each company member, what is it about the EN-gage experience that all clients will get when they book a project with us?

As soon as we’d done the warm-up and kicked off the session with some drama games I was filled with joy at getting to just play. I’d almost forgotten what this felt like!

Workshop 1Throughout the day we took part in group activities that involved devising and planning theatre projects in English for different age groups. This was interspersed with leading the group in various games and activities we had each prepared for the session, sharing ideas and experiences.

Training sessions like this are so important, not just for sharing knowledge (and of course having fun!), but for building a strong company where all members feel part of a whole and support one another. Acting is obviously a very social activity in itself, but leading drama workshops can be a more solitary activity, in that you’re not surrounded by your peers every day if you’re a freelancer, so it’s great to feel part of a collective.

I left the training very much having a sense of us being a team, and hope that having this support network of fellow facilitators will greatly enhance the projects I do through EN-gage Theatre Arts and my professional development as a whole.

British UNIMA AGM and puppetry talks at RCSSD

I headed over to the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama recently for the AGM of British UNIMA and two talks about puppetry training and performance.

British UNIMA is the UK branch of the Union Internationale de la Marionette (UNIMA), a non-governmental puppetry organisation affiliated to UNESCO.

The event, Between Actors and Objects: Contemporary Puppetry Performance and Training, included a talk by Professor Mario Piragibe and a presentation by a member of the Czech Republic’s famous Drak Theatre. The evening was led by the wonderful Cariad Astles, British UNIMA Chair and course leader for the Puppetry: Design and Performance pathway of the BA (Hons) Theatre Practice Programme at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama.

Puppetry provides bodies to ideas and gives objects presence.

Mario, from the Universidade Federal de Uberlandia in Brazil, spoke of the definition of a ‘puppet’, contemporary puppetry training, and his interest in the gaze – how could the eyes of the puppeteer manipulate the puppet, without using hand skills? A fascinating question! Mario asked some intriguing questions regarding the possibilities of puppetry training, such as is it possible to train for puppetry without exercising hand skills, and how can actors and puppeteers benefit from shared training?

A beautiful phrase I remember from the talk, but can’t remember if it was from Mario directly or if he was quoting another practitioner, was: ‘Puppetry provides bodies to ideas and gives objects presence.’ Such a wonderful way to articulate what we do.

The Drak Theatre talk looked at previous Drak productions, with images and clips of productions ranging from the 1970s all the way up to recent work. Particularly interesting was how the company explores the relationship between the puppet and puppeteer or actor on stage. In one show in particular, the actors switched fluidly between direct acting and acting through the puppet, and in their contemporary shows the actors all sing, act and puppeteer. The strong sense of collectivity really stands out in the way they make work.

It was a fantastic evening, being amongst fellow puppeteers, both experienced and those just starting out on their journey. Thank you to Cariad and the team at Central for organising and bringing us all together!

Clod Ensemble movement workshop with osteopath Leon Baugh

As an actor and puppeteer with many years of dance classes behind me, I am greatly interested in how and why my body moves the way it does. This is particularly true when it comes to injuries that impede my movement, and how to both deal with them and prevent future injuries.

Recently, I was fortunate enough to take part in a free workshop on the body and how to keep it moving and performing the way we need it to. The workshop was run by osteopath and former dancer Leon Baugh, and aimed at dancers and other performers for whom movement plays a key part of their work.

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Leon Baugh working with a client

Leon is a qualified osteopath, Anatomy in Motion practitioner, acupuncturist and sports injury massage therapist working in London. Before training as an osteopath he enjoy a career as a professional contemporary dancer, dancing with companies such as the Hofesh Schechter Company, before becoming an Olivier Award winning theatre choreographer.

On a snowy Sunday in early December I made my way into London (the trains were miraculously running), dressed in my usual movement get-up of leggings and baggy top, armed with a water bottle and notebook. I didn’t know exactly what to expect, but the following seven hours would turn out to be some of the most useful of my career.

Persistent back pain

About nine years ago I injured my back. I’m not entirely sure how it happened, but over a period of several days a pain started to appear in my lower back and grew worse and worse, until one day I couldn’t move without horrendous painful spasms coursing up my spine. I’ve seen physiotherapists, osteopaths and chiropractors. I’ve tried pilates and swimming. Although each of these things gave me some immediate relief, it never lasted (though I can credit the swimming with improving my mobility and getting me walking again). After two weeks the intense pain had settled down to a persistent dull ache, and I was able to move about more or less as I had done before, with one exception – fear. The pain and immobility had been so terrifying, that ever since then I never made any sort of bending movement without an element of fear that it would happen again.

In more recent years I have injured the cartilage in my left knee playing badminton, and also feel niggles in my right. Perhaps lower back and knee problems are not the best recipe for a life as a puppeteer, but I think it can have some advantages, in that it makes me more aware of how I need to look after and protect my body when I’m working.

I’ve often wondered if the knee issues could be directly related to the original back injury, and through Leon’s workshop I discovered that this could very much be the case. I learnt how, when we suffer an injury, our body adjusts its centre to cope with this. However, long after the injury itself has healed, the body can continue to perceive this off-kilter centre as its true centre. This leaves us with a greatly reduced amount of mobility. Could my body have readjusted its centre when I hurt my back, and when it didn’t revert back to its true centre once my back had healed, could this off-kilter centre have put extra strain on my left knee, making it more susceptible to injury?

Listening to the body

Leon took us through several exercises to tune into our bodies and become aware of any trouble spots. Alongside my work in the theatre I work in communications at a university, which involves sitting at a computer for most of the day. Recently I’ve been very aware of how I’ve almost tuned out my body as I jostle the crowds in the tube, cram onto the train, or sit for hours staring at my computer screen. Leon’s workshop reminded me to listen when my body speaks, and to actively ask it how it’s feeling by taking the time to tune in.

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Leon Baugh

Most of the other participants at the workshop were professional dancers, but the majority of what we covered could be directly applied to working as a puppeteer or other kind of movement practitioner. The warm-ups Leon took us through will be particularly useful, following the basic principle of preparing your body for the work ahead by doing a lower-intensity version of that same activity (for example, if you’re going to be jumping lots in a rehearsal then it makes sense to prepare your knees by doing bends and low-impact jumps). One revelation was to not always bend knees over toes when warming up (shock horror!). You cannot guarantee that in a rehearsal or performance you will land perfectly every time, so you need to prepare your knees for those times when you don’t.

There is so much useful information I took away from the day that I can’t possibly include it all here or I’ll end up writing a book! Suffice to say, that one workshop alone has changed the way I think about my body and its pain, and I can’t thank Leon and the organisers, Clod Ensemble, enough.

This workshop was organised as part of Reboot, Clod Ensemble’s free artist development programme for emerging and established practitioners. The programme provides a space for performers and performance makers, teachers and academics to explore ideas and develop their practice.

 

Images: courtesy of Leon Baugh