NaNoWriMo 2017 – we’re halfway there folks!

So we are now just over halfway through NaNoWriMo 2017. Have I reached my target word count to be on track for 50,000 words by the end of the month? Not even near. But that’s ok.

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50,000 words? No problem. Aaaaarrrrgghhhhhh!

This is the second time I’ve attempted the glorious madness that is National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo for short). The first time around was in 2015, and I think I reached a grand total of 10,000 words. But just because I didn’t ‘win’ and reach the 50,000 target, doesn’t mean those 10,000 words weren’t a huge achievement in themselves. Up to that point, I don’t think I had ever managed that many words on one writing project.

This year, November, the month of NaNoWriMo, just so happens to also be the month of the NCTJ national exams. I’m currently studying the NCTJ Diploma in Journalism via distance learning, and last week I took the media law and magazine regulation exams. All the studying and revision has meant I haven’t been able to commit my full attention to getting those words down on paper (or computer screen) for NaNoWriMo. Nevertheless, I have still managed to write several chapters, fitting in writing time during my lunch break, for an hour when I get home, or a few hours here and there at the weekend.

If you’re a fellow adventurer on this intrepid journey and feeling in a need of a little pep talk, author and podcaster Mur Lafferty has written some oh so true words about why not hitting the 50,000 words target is not the be-all and end-all. Read Mur Lafferty’s article ‘Help! I’m 10,000 words behind!’ on the NaNoWriMo Blog.

Julie Murphy, the #1 New York Times bestselling author of Dumplin’, says “No-one writes a good novel in a month” in her pep talk for NaNoWriMo writers. Read Julie Murphy’s pep talk on the NaNoWriMo site. She says: “whether your thirty-day novel is The Book or just an exercise that you shelve in the dustiest corner of your computer, I promise you there is something to be gained from this experience”, and I heartily agree. Whether I hit 50,000 word or not by the end of this month, I will have written more words and dedicated more time to one of my novels-in-the-making than I ever have before. And that is most definitely a worthwhile achievement. Now let’s get back to writing. Onwards and upwards!

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Skipton Puppet Festival 2017

Growing up not far from Skipton in Yorkshire, it was great to return there this weekend for Skipton Puppet Festival. This is my first year at the festival, and I can’t believe I hadn’t heard of it until this year. Getting to spend some time with my sister Amie while soaking up the atmosphere and being immersed in my passion made for a pretty special day. I even bumped into several puppetry friends, old and new.

The weather gave us the usual northern welcome – grey skies and drizzle – but it did nothing to dampen the spirits of the crowds in the Festival Hubsite. This area was the beating heart of the festival, and a wonderful nucleus of activity, live music, free performances and food, plus several giant puppets wandering around.

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Marionettes made by Lenka at praguemarionette.com

We just went along for the day on Sunday, so there were several intriguing shows on Friday and Saturday that I missed, but it’s been a busy month of festivals, conferences and workshops so I had to watch the pennies. In the morning we saw Rusty Nails and Other Heroes by TAMTAM Objektentheater, which was marvellous. I suppose you would call it a mixture of puppetry and object manipulation, and it combined live and recorded music, the action moving from a table, to cleverly crafted scenes created to the side of this and projected onto a screen via a live camera, back to the central playing space. From objects you might find in a scrap heap they created little worlds and delightful characters, exploring the creative potential of all these discarded materials.

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Amie playing with one of Lenka’s marionettes

In the Hubsite we came across The Errant Stage, the brilliant little mobile performance venue in a van, brainchild of Kate Powell and Jonna Nummela to provide a sustainable and free performance space for fellow artists. I first met Kate and heard about the van at the festival breakfast with Sarah Wright at Bristol Festival of Puppetry last month, so I was chuffed to be able to see it in action. My sister and I climbed the stairs and parked our bottoms on an array of cushions to watch the ever so talented Emma of Nudge Puppets perform Finger Fatale, a hand striptease. Intriguing indeed, and a stroke of creative genius. What a treat. After that we headed to the scratch tent to check out some new work and leave feedback, then wandered into the main marquee, where we came across Lenka Cain Pavlíčková’s beautiful wooden marionettes. We got to see Lenka at work, carving away, and even had a play with a lovely little marionette. I have a soft spot for marionettes – known as possibly the most difficult form of puppetry to master, marionettes have always filled me with wonder.

In the evening we saw the final show of the festival, Death Puppet Klezma Jam by Mirth and Misery, in Skipton town hall. It was absolutely brilliant. When the dancing zombie came on I laughed til I cried. The live music was phenomenal – accordion, double bass, percussion and either violin or viola playing foot-stomping Eastern European music with gusto and immense skill. The puppets themselves were wonderfully curious-looking creatures, each with a distinctive personality that delighted the audience. With the vibe these guys created the festival ended on an energetic high.

I can’t believe that, despite growing up in this area, this is the first Skipton Puppet Festival I’ve been to. My sister and I had such a brilliant time. Combining the magic and skill of puppetry with a healthy dose of good old northern spirit, it really was a weekend to remember. Long may the festival continue!

The Great War Horse conference – exploring, celebrating and discussing puppetry

The word ‘conference’ used to immediately conjure up a vision of drab discussions about drab things punctuated with mediocre cups of coffee and dry sandwiches. I certainly would never have put the words ‘puppetry’ and ‘conference’ together, yet there I was at the weekend, heading to the lovely city of Canterbury for just that – a puppetry conference.

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Workshop participants with Henry Maynard, Boris and Sergey, and Mikey from Strangeface

The event was hosted by Canterbury Christ Church University in collaboration with The Marlowe Theatre and the University of Kent, and took place over the Friday and Saturday (I chose to attend both days). Friday’s main event was an all-day puppetry masterclass with Henry Maynard, Artistic Director of Flabbergast Theatre. I saw Flabbergast’s puppets Boris and Sergey in action recently at the Edinburgh Fringe, and a puppeteer mate of mine regularly works with them, so I was pretty darn excited about doing a workshop with Henry. I had a brilliant time, exploring, playing, laughing a fair bit. In the group there were performers, academics and theatre-makers at various different stages of their training journey, yet we all worked together wonderfully. In the afternoon we also got to have a play with Boris and Sergey themselves, and one of Strangeface theatre company‘s puppets, Mikey – excited much?! Henry directed us in working on several different types of movement with the puppets, breaking the movement down into stages and reworking it until we’d got it. I’ve not experienced that level of detail when working with a puppet and a director before so I was absolutely loving it.

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Friday evening and Saturday were made up of various talks and discussions about what Handspring and the National Theatre’s production of War Horse did for puppetry as an art form, and how the industry has moved on in the ten years since the show first came to the stage (yep, it really has been ten years!). Most of the speakers were also in the workshop on Friday, so it was lovely getting to work creatively with them as well as hearing about their research.

On Friday, Russell Dean of Strangeface theatre company talked about puppetry and perception, and how puppeteers highjack a part of the brain to give the cognitive illusion of life, lighting up the nervous system. This was followed by Knuckle and Joint’s Rebecca O’Brien discussing puppetry for children and adults in the age of War Horse.

Saturday was a particularly special day because I got to meet two of my puppetry heroes, Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones of Handspring Puppet Company, the geniuses behind the War Horse puppets. They delivered the keynote speech, Geographies of Collaboration: The Legacy of War Horse. There were so many interesting thoughts to take from their speech, but the particularly pertinent ones for me were that yoga is good for puppeteers; that puppets have a fourth dimension, their own metaphysical presence; and the concept of Group Mind, where the three Joey or Topthorn puppeteers work together as one to create the ‘being’ of the horse. It really was something special to meet these guys in the flesh.

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Panel discussion: What next for UK puppetry?

We also got to find out more about the puppetry in the show from Craig Leo and Matt Forbes, two puppeteers working on the current tour, and we saw another project of Handspring’s in a screening of the film Olifantland. The rest of the day was taken up with talks from Laura Vorwerg of Royal Holloway exploring interdisciplinary performance practice and collaborative skill augmentation in War Horse, Dr Valerie Kaneko-Lucas of Regent’s University London discussing War Horse as community metaphor, and Dr Jeremy Bidgood of Canterbury Christ Church University (who organised the event) looking at Erika Fischer-Lichte’s concept of ‘interweaving’ and exploring who does the interweaving in the work of Handspring. The conference ended with a panel discussion about the future of UK puppetry, with Rachel McNally of Bristol’s Puppet Place, Dr Bidgood and puppeteers Ronnie LeDrew, Penny Francis and Joseph Wallace.

So was this conference drab? Most certainly not, and it has prompted me to reevaluate my perception of the word. An event where practitioners and academics with a common passion come together to share knowledge, explore their creativity and discuss the future of an industry they care deeply about is surely as far away from drab as possible. I had a wonderful two days, met some fantastic people, and left with a bucketload more ideas and motivation. My deepest thanks to everyone involved.

Bristol Festival of Puppetry 2017

Today is the last day of one of my favourite events of this year, Bristol Festival of Puppetry. The Festival runs once every two years, organised by Puppet Place, a puppetry and animation hub in Bristol.

I could only make it to the first few days of the Festival, so I fit in as much as I could and soaked up the fantastic atmosphere. It all kicked off on Friday evening, 1 September, with Barnaby Dixon’s ‘Micro-Puppetry’. The little creatures this guy creates are delightful. They fit onto the fingers, both hands being used to operate one puppet. Along with demonstrations and one puppet treating us to a dance or two, it was very interesting listening to Barnaby explain how he made the puppets and where he gets his ideas. We also got to see some of his short animation films, which were pretty dry in their humour and therefore right up my street! It was a brilliant way to start the Festival. Sadly I missed the free Smoking Puppet Cabaret later in the evening as I was meeting a friend in town, but I heard it was great fun.

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Puppet carnival parade

My Saturday began with a Festival Breakfast in the Tobacco Factory Theatre with puppeteer Sarah Wright. Sarah, daughter of Little Angel Theatre’s founders John and Lindie Wright, runs the Curious School of Puppetry, and after corresponding via email and phone it was fantastic to finally meet her in person. She spoke to a group of us about puppetry training, asking what we specifically want from training, and also discussing other options if you don’t get a chance to train, such as learning on the job and making your own work. I was so inspired sitting there amongst all these fellow puppeteers and puppet-makers, theatre-makers and actors, as we chatted about the puppetry industry and how we can shape it for the better. The free coffee and big fluffy croissant and jam went down a treat with this!

At lunchtime I watched a free ‘New Visions’ film in the pop-up cinema, showcasing new talent in the animation world, then headed outside to catch the puppet carnival parade. A colourful crowd of puppets bobbing up and down paraded past me, accompanied by a New Orleans-esque jazz band.

Saturday evening saw me heading back to the Tobacco Factory Theatre (my new favourite place) to watch Stephen Mottram’s ‘The Parachute’ and ‘Watch the Ball’. In the first piece Stephen used white ping pong-sized balls on black wands to create characters that we can recognise and empathise with. With everything else in darkness, using just the balls and what he calls the ‘movement code’ of human movement that we can all recognise, he managed to tell a story and take us through the journey of a character’s life. It was remarkable. The second, shorter piece defies description really, insofar as to say that you really have to see it to get the essence of it. I thoroughly enjoyed watching both pieces, and would highly recommend seeing Stephen’s work – he’s performing at Skipton Puppet Festival at the end of the month.

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Puppets parading past the Tobacco Factory Theatre

My final slice of the puppetry festival was Stephen Mottram’s masterclass, ‘The Logic of Movement’, on Sunday afternoon. For that I’m going to write a separate blog post, as there’s too much to just tag on to the end of this one and it’s already getting pretty long! Suffice to say, it was probably one of the most useful workshops I have ever attended as a puppeteer.

There were so many other events in the Festival that I wanted to attend, had I not been busy: the masterclass with Les Sages Fous, Little Angel facilitator Judith Hope’s suitcase theatre workshop, the Prototype night showcasing new ideas and giving feedback, and two shows by companies based in Quebec, Canada – ‘Tricyckle’ by Les Sages Fous and ‘La Causeuse’ by Equivoc. Plus of course Hijinx’s ‘Meet Fred’, a fantastic show I saw earlier in the year in London. In the three days I was there I met some lovely people, saw inspiring work, learnt a lot and bathed in the warm fuzzy glow that is generated when a large group of creative-minded folk get together. Thank you to Puppet Place and all the artists and volunteers who made this year’s festival possible – I loved it!

My first Edinburgh Fringe

Every year, come August, I’ve had the greatest fear that I was missing out. That’s because every August the whole of theatre land has gone crazy with Fringe fever, while I, stuck in London or Portsmouth or wherever I was at that time, have wished I could be up in Edinburgh where all the fun was.

Well this year, my wish came true. After performances at Brighton Fringe and Little Angel Theatre, (and with a trip to Russia in between), I headed up to Edinburgh with the rest of the cast and crew to perform Vertebra Theatre’s ‘Dark Matter’ during the final week of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. And let me tell you, the experience did not disappoint.

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Our show managed to sell out every night. The first few nights of the week had nearly sold out before we even got to Edinburgh! Don’t ask me how we did it – we’re still not entirely sure – but I think the combination of puppetry and the subject matter of dementia went a long way. The health community did a great job in helping spread the word, as did our producer Eirini, who, when not tweeting like a mad woman, was running around Edinburgh plastering every surface she could find with our posters and flyers.

We had lovely audiences and some great four-star reviews, complimenting the puppetry and storytelling. Sadly the sight lines at the venue weren’t great for our show, as our puppet Alfie is only about three feet tall, and much of the action takes place with him sat on a low chair or standing on the ground. We did what we could to improve this, moving some of the action further upstage. You live and learn!

Dark Matter flyer

As for seeing other shows, I downloaded the Fringe app before I went and proudly announced to the team that I was the keeper of all Fringe knowledge. We got hold of a few copies of the printed guide when we arrived but, to be honest, with so many shows it was a bit overwhelming turning page after page, so I planned what to see and booked most of the shows through the app. It had a schedule function where you could add shows to your planner without buying the tickets, then decide which ones you wanted to book.

I watched nine shows during the week, a healthy number I reckon, considering I wanted to get a good dose of theatre but not empty my bank account. If I had to pick three highlights, they would be Theatre Ad Infinitum’s ‘Translunar Paradise’, ‘Losing It’ by 2theatre and Flabbergast Theatre’s ‘Boris and Sergey’s One Man Extravaganza’. Ok, one more – ‘A Heart at Sea’ by Half a String definitely deserves a mention, as it employed such beautiful and imaginative storytelling. Three of these shows were ones I’d already heard about and desperately wanted to see, but one – Losing It – was a new suggestion. Combining clowning with elements of dance, mime, puppetry and live music, this show turned out to be a very special theatrical experience indeed. It challenged me and made me question my feelings and response to what was happening in front of me.

So I survived my first Edinburgh Fringe, my sanity intact (at least until the overnight coach journey back). If we’d been performing there for the whole month I may have felt a little different by the end. I appreciate that the experience can vary greatly, depending on the quality of your digs, if it’s your own show you’re taking up or if you’ve joined a show like I did, and of course the weather (we were lucky and only had one day of proper rain). I definitely want to ‘do’ the Fringe again, and I’d like to visit the city at another point in the year to get a better feel for the place itself.

Less than a week since we got back I’m now in Bristol, checking out the delights of Bristol Festival of Puppetry. No rest for the wicked! But that’s for the next blog post…

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Half a String’s fantastic set for A Heart at Sea

Teaching my first puppetry workshop… in Russia!

At the English summer camp in Russia with CLASS Study and Training Centre this year we wanted to teach the students some specific theatre skills that they could use in their final devised pieces. Along with a bunch of fun drama games for team-building, firing up imaginations and encouraging creativity, I led my first puppetry workshops with the students.

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The first part of the workshop involved making simple bunraku-style puppets using a method I learnt at a Little Angel Theatre inset workshop – you make simple string ‘skeletons’ (sort of stick men), then the students wrap newspaper around these and fix it in place using masking tape. In the second part of the workshop I went through a puppetry warm-up, then showed the students how to animate their newly-made puppets. We covered the main principles of puppetry, including breath, weight and focus, and I encouraged them to explore different rhythms with their puppet’s movement. In groups of mostly four – three people on the puppet and one directing, though making sure to rotate roles – they then created short sketches to perform.

I wasn’t sure how the students would respond to working with puppets, but both groups really engaged with it, and with the younger group particularly I saw students who were normally a bit disruptive suddenly become engrossed in the activity. It was fantastic to see their enthusiasm and how much they were enjoying themselves.

The short sketches they devised ranged in subject matter from a day in the life of camp to a doll coming to life when its owner’s parents had left the room, to a marriage proposal between two puppets! Kids of all ages can be so creative if just given the space to do so.

These simple puppets were a great idea to make with the students – it felt good to put into practice something I’d learnt in the workshops at Little Angel Theatre. I’m now thinking about how I could improve on the session, and how I can progress on to making slightly more complex puppets the next time I deliver a workshop. With more time, I had wanted to try some object manipulation, with the students each bringing an object of their choice to the session to animate. Maybe that’s one for next time!

 

Russia summer camp: teaching English through drama

This summer saw me head off to Russia again to work at a summer camp on the Black Sea for a month, running drama workshops in English.

I worked directly with CLASS Study and Training Centre this time, an English language school based in Rostov-on-Don, and there were three of us going over from England – myself, Hebe Reilly and Emily Sly, all of us East 15 graduates!

It was a fantastic experience – completely knackering but so rewarding. For the first half of camp I worked with the middle group of students, mostly aged 11, 12 and 13, then in the second half I worked with an older group of 13–16-year-olds. Both groups were wonderful – the first took a few days to settle in, so were a bit of a handful at the start, but once we were used to each other they turned out to be a very caring, creative and attentive group of kids. Being that bit older, and most of them having been to camp before, my second group of students were ready to get on with the work in our sessions right from day one. Check out the Facebook page we created for this year’s camp to see photos and videos of what we got up to in the sessions. My thanks to the wonderful Drama Menu book for some new games and activity ideas that I put to good use this year.

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My second group with their camp certificates

The camp sits on the coast of the Black Sea, not far from Nebug, nestled between imposing hills carpeted with trees and a beautiful watery horizon stretching off into the distance. Looking out to sea from the fourth floor balcony in the main accommodation building, the view is breathtaking – such a huge expanse of space, the blue sea below, the blue sky above.

Like last year, the students devised their own pieces to perform to the rest of the CLASS group at camp. The theme of this year’s camp was jobs, and each day a different job or area of work was explored through the ‘quests’ the teachers prepared for the students. I used this theme with my first group and asked them to choose a job to create a piece of theatre about, looking at a day in the life of someone doing that job. As is so often the case when working with children, the results were not quite what I expected – we certainly had some unusual job titles come up, and not so much a day as six months in the life, but it was the students’ work, not mine, and that was the important thing.

With the second group I decided to try a different approach, and rather than just leaving them to their own devices I came up with the idea of creating a sort of news programme with two presenters and a variety of shows contained within it. I asked two students if they would like to be the presenters, then mostly gave the rest of them the option of creating a news report, a film trailer or a commercial. The key element here was that we were focusing on good news – this started with a group discussion early on in the process about the phrase ‘no news is good news’, looking at how so much of the news we consume focuses on negative events. We wanted to highlight the positive things happening in the world and the more positive side of human nature, from the serious to the slapstick. In the end we had a mixed tone to the overall piece, with a news report on a utopian version of camp (where the kids had ‘loud hour’ instead of quiet hour, they could get up at whatever time they wanted, and they got to eat bacon and eggs for breakfast), a quiz show, a puppet weather report, a chat show with a message about valuing how a person is on the inside, and a film première.

I felt so proud of both groups and the amazing pieces they created. They say that a great teacher inspires their students, but every time I work with a new group of children, whether 7 or 17, I find that they are the ones inspiring me. Their ideas, their energy and enthusiasm, the questions they ask, the way they approach a problem and find a solution, all of this makes me see the world differently, through their eyes, and I realise I have just as much to (re)learn from them as they have to learn from me. This is why I do camp. The beach is a draw, as is the wonderful team of teachers I get to work with out there, who make camp such a special experience for everyone, but the main reason I do it is the kids. They make it one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.