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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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

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

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.

Performing puppetry at Brighton Fringe

Alfie the puppet made his first trip to Brighton the other week for Brighton Fringe Festival. It was also my first time performing at the Fringe there. With a generous and supportive audience, beautiful weather and a lovely review, it was a great first show for us.

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We were performing Dark Matter, a puppetry piece about dementia, at the Rialto Theatre. This great little venue is just up the hill from the main road that runs along by the sea, so in a great central location. After the tech we headed out for lunch and sat in the sun eating delicious halloumi wraps from a greek mobile food stall. I love Brighton. It manages to maintain both a chilled-out seaside vibe and a lively, buzzing atmosphere at the same time. I wish I’d been able to spend a few days there, watching shows and splashing in the sea.

The show started at 4pm and was followed by a brief Q&A. In case you haven’t read my previous blog post, the show follows Alfie, a former astrophysicist now living in a care home and suffering from dementia. I animate Alfie’s feet, with Aurora Adams on the back and right hand, and Douglas Rutter on the head and left hand. The cast also includes Sofia Calmicova as care assistant Anna and several other characters from Alfie’s past.

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Strat Mastoris reviewed the show for Fringe Review, labelling it a ‘Highly Recommended Show’. He said:

‘The writing, by Eirini Dermitzaki and Mayra Stergiou, was poignant and sad, and Stergiou’s subtle direction took us right into Alfie’s inner world.’

You can read the full review here.

It was a fantastic experience for my first Brighton Fringe, and I look forward to hopefully taking part in future Fringe festivals there. But first, there’s our next show…. tomorrow, 7pm at Little Angel Theatre in London! Tickets are available here. There may be some tickets available on the door but please bring cash!