Devising puppetry with Brunskill and Grimes

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As a puppeteer I am always looking for ways to develop my skills further. Going to workshops with various companies gives me the opportunity to solidify my technique while experiencing different ways of creating work. I recently had the pleasure of taking part in a Devising for Puppets workshop run by awesome puppetry duo Brunskill and Grimes, and came away reinvigorated and itching to work with the guys again.

Andy Brunskill and Jimmy Grimes create wonderful and often unusual stories with beautiful, original puppet characters. The opportunity to learn from these guys was worth the drive up to London from Cornwall, and they turned out to be damn good teachers as well.

The workshop took place in a building aptly named The Workshop, a temporary community and events space in Lambeth. Home to the London Fire Brigade pop-up museum along with several creative companies and artists, it’s just a short walk from Vauxhall station.

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During the one-day workshop we prepared our bodies for the work, looked at some puppetry technique and devised short scenes in groups. The warm-up and technique work was a great chance for me to check in with my own practice, reminding myself to keep my knees soft and start and end the movement with the puppet, not me. I became more aware of how my own body moves when I’m working with puppets, walking through the whole foot rather than my tendency to tread just on the balls of my feet when trying to move quickly and lightly. I feel I’d become a bit sloppy in my physical discipline, and it was good to work on not distracting from the puppet’s movement with my own.

All of my puppetry work so far has been with human form puppets, so when I saw that we’d get to play with four-legged creatures in the workshop I was excited to try out the different kinds of movement. As with two-legged puppets, each position (the ‘head’, ‘heart’ and ‘hind’, to use War Horse terms) presented us with its own movement vocabulary and challenges, and I loved working on the technicality of the movement of the different body parts.

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We split the 12 of us into two groups of six and devised short scenes, which Andy and Jimmy directed a little and they made suggestions for us to develop the puppet character’s sub-plot. When we were working on the movement of the puppets in threes (three people per puppet), the guys were watching carefully and chipping in with observations and advice. I really felt they were trying to help us improve our technique with the puppets, and I could tell that they were enjoying teaching us, which you don’t always feel in a workshop!

It was a brilliant day of play, creativity and fun. I had a great time meeting and getting to work with all the other actors, puppeteers, writers, directors and creatives. Although I love living in Cornwall, I do miss my clan! If you’re interested in exploring puppetry or want to develop your skills further I highly recommend doing a workshop with Brunskill and Grimes. In fact, I’ve just booked on to their two-day making workshop next February, and I can’t wait!

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Thanks to Brunskill and Grimes for the pics

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Devised puppetry project in Russia

Puppetry is powerful. It has the capacity to make people believe in life where there is none, to see a soul in a collection of strings and wooden sticks. And it doesn’t only affect the audience. It can have a profound effect on the puppeteer.

With this in mind, for my third time teaching at the English summer camp in Russia, this time through ENgage Theatre Arts, I focused on puppetry for the whole project. At last year’s camp I ran a puppetry workshop with the students where we made newspaper and string puppets then devised short scenes. With both age groups I worked with these workshops went down really well, so this year the final performances themselves involved puppets.

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My wonderful colleagues at CLASS Study and Training Centre, with whom I work in Russia, had organised a theme for this year’s camp based on virtual reality and communities. We created a world within the camp – Campus – whose ruler, VerLock, delivered regular recorded messages to the students containing instructions, comments and clues to riddles. We realised that puppetry could work really well within this theme, so I asked my students to feature VerLock as a character in their final pieces, then looked forward to seeing their interpretations of this mysterious figure.

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Teachers with their puppet versions created by the first group

This theme explored community-building through the separation of the students into different communities or nations. Carrying this on into my drama sessions, I tasked the students with asking lots of ‘What if?’ questions about their nations and Campus as a whole. All fictional stories are basically the writer asking ‘What if this happened? Or this? Or that?’ then providing a possible answer to this question through their story. Working in their separate nation communities the students explored various different scenarios until they had boiled it down to their favourite, which they then built their final performances on.

IMG_1070They were all enthusiastic about the puppetry, even if a little daunted when I first told them they were going to create and perform puppet shows to their peers. Natural leaders emerged within the groups, and I worked with them to ensure that everyone in each community had a role, while trying to make sure the leaders weren’t relied on too heavily by everyone else. It became clear which parts of the process each student enjoyed and excelled at or found challenging. One boy struggled to engage with the devising process, but as soon as we started making the puppets he got stuck right in and his excitement and enthusiasm was wonderful! I could see him working through problems and coming up with different solutions as he tried this way of attaching the neck or that way of creating a shoulder joint.

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The final performances were an absolute delight – a little rough round the edges, as to be expected, but utterly charming. What stood out for me was the teamwork involved in the process and the final piece, and the level of creativity the students showed. All four groups I worked with created their puppets in a slightly different way, and all four stories were different, though interestingly there were some moral themes that ran through all of the ideas.

I love what I do. Travelling to interesting places, experiencing different cultures, sharing my passion for theatre and puppetry, and working with students who are discovering their own creative potential is immensely rewarding. Like every performer or creative, what I don’t enjoy is constantly worrying about money, the job insecurity and the rejections. At the end of each creative project there’s the necessity to get a day job back in an office for a bit, returning to a life I thought I’d left far behind when I set off to drama school (oh how naïve!). But when I’m feeling glum and I start wondering whether this career change really was a good idea, and isn’t it about time I said: “Well that was a lot of fun and I’ve had a great time, but now I really should get back to something sensible”, I remember what one student said to me at the end of a puppet-making session on camp: “I love doing this. I wish we got to do things like this at school”. Heart strings suitably torn, I realised I have to keep going, to keep creating and making and sharing. The joy I witnessed as I saw that boy delighting in the chance to be creative – that alone is enough to keep me going.

Russia: drama summer camp

This post is so ridiculously overdue. Like many of my posts! In the three weeks since I got back from my first ever trip to Russia I have sat down a total of six times to try to write this post, and each time I’ve come up with nothing. Not because there was nothing in my head, but there was too much. How to put into words one of the most memorable experiences of my life? Impossible. But I had to write something, so here goes…

This was my second trip with Oxford World Theatre (the first being Sicily), and this time I went with a fellow team member, the amazing Olive Supple-Still. It was a huge comfort and support having her there – not only could we bounce ideas off each other, but it made the experience even more special having someone to share it with.

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We worked with teachers and kids from CLASS, an English language school in Rostov-on-Don, catching the sleeper train with them from Rostov down to the summer camp near Nebug, on the Black Sea. On that train I experienced just how hot Russian trains can get in summer, and I got well acquainted with the first of many mosquitoes. It turns out I am allergic to Russian mosquitoes, as we discovered when one bite caused my whole ankle to swell up.

Over the first few days of camp we adjusted to the pace of life there – we had 24 days ahead of us with no days off and only really two hours of free time a day. The rest was mostly spent with the kids. This took a few days to get used to, but once we were in the swing of things it was fantastic.

We ran drama workshops with two groups of children – one for the first week and a half and then a second group for the latter. These groups were divided into three smaller groups based on age. Check out the Oxford World Theatre Facebook page for pictures and clips from the sessions. With the first lot, I worked with the oldest group (13-16), Olive the middle (10-13ish), and we worked together with the younger ones (7-8). With the second lot of kids Olive and I swapped age groups. I’d never worked with children in the middle age group before so this was a great chance to gain some experience.

At the end of each group’s stay they performed short pieces of theatre they’d devised with us to their peers. It was fascinating seeing the different ideas they all came up with, and how two groups of the same age could have such different approaches and be interested in completely different subject matter. In the first older group the sketches varied from a horror story to the 1960s, with a brilliant piece about Harry Potter and how social media has taken over our lives, with such delights as Voldemort deleting Harry Potter’s Facebook account, Harry and Draco taking a selfie mid-duel, and the boys inventing a whole new social media network. In the end, however, the message shone through that we all need to spend a bit more time talking to our friends in person rather than constantly through a screen, when Harry and his friends decided to throw their mobile phones on the floor and be done with that social media business. (I would like to add that no mobile phones were hurt in the making of this play, thankfully! The guys had the brilliant idea of taking the less breakable backs off their phones and throwing these instead.) Olive’s older group explored some pertinent issues in their pieces, including bullying and prejudice. By creating a safe environment of trust and respect, Olive managed to explore some very difficult issues with her students and create some deeply affecting and important work.

In my sessions I tried out some new games and was thrilled when the kids responded so well and really got involved. You can see pics and a few clips of their work in the sessions and their performances on the Oxford World Theatre Facebook page.

Aside from the sea of young, smiling faces, the sunshine, the beautiful surroundings and the pure awesomeness of being in a new country (I went to RUSSIA!!! Woop!), what made this project really special was the warmth and generosity of my colleagues. I was so lucky to meet some of the funniest, kindest and most inspiring women I have ever encountered. The teachers I worked with from CLASS are super-human, I swear! (Though of course, being the daughter of a teacher, I know as a fact that all teachers are.) And with Olive, I couldn’t have asked for a more open-hearted and talented partner in crime. Sound like I’m gushing? Well I am, and rightly so.

Animal studies in Chronicargo

Next week is show week – Synchron Productions’ Chronicargo, part of the New Moon Festival at the White Bear Theatre in Kennington, London. Working with this new company has been great fun – we’ve devised the piece as a group but with a director guiding us through the process, providing the initial and overall vision and scripting our work as we go along. Working in this way has proven to be pretty successful in terms of both creative satisfaction and productivity, and is certainly a method I hope to utilise for future projects.

Taking notes in a Chronicargo rehearsal

Taking notes in a Chronicargo rehearsal

Without giving too much away, my favourite scene has called for a spot of animal studies during the rehearsal and devising process. Having spent a few Laban sessions being a komodo dragon during my training at East 15, I was delighted to do more animal work.

The two animals I am working with – the flamingo and the wolf – obviously call for a very different physicality. We’re following the idea that these creatures have evolved to a more human form, kind of like Cat in the Red Dwarf series, so we started playing with embodying the animals in their full animal form, then gradually moved along the scale to human. We wanted to keep certain physical and behavioural characteristics from the animal and exhibit them in a human body.

For example, my flamingo, Fiona (I love a bit of alliteration), has kept the tendency to stand on one leg and ruffles her feathers every now and then when either perturbed or showing off. Thus I spend much of that scene wobbling on one leg (I haven’t done ballet class in a while so am a bit out of practice!), my knuckles on the small of my back and my arms bent out behind me for wings. Thinking about the vocal qualities Fiona the flamingo might have, I decided on having a musicality to her speech, with the tendency to go up and down in waves.

For the wolf, Accalia (from Romulus and Remus fame), I planted her weight more firmly and evenly across both feet, and gave her a touch of a snarl every now and then. The voice is deeper and rooted firmly in the belly, with a more limited vocal range. I still need to do a bit more work on the upper body I think, possibly experimenting with hunching the shoulders forward a little or using the hands and arms more.

Our final rehearsal is on Sunday, then we open on Monday! If you’re in or around London and fancy an evening of new work, take a look at the New Moon Festival event page on Facebook. We are performing at the White Bear Theatre in Kennington, and each of the three pieces in the festival will be performed every night from 9-14th November, so it’s worth getting a triple bill ticket of £18 to see all three!

Making theatre – devising a show

I’ve just had my first experience of devising a piece of theatre from scratch for my MAP (MA Project). Well, not from complete zilch. In the beginning there was an idea, but then there is always an idea – it’s what you do with it that counts.

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My MAP family

What we did with our idea was take it from a chaotic collection of philosophical musings, through the focus of a question emerging from all this, to end up with a family on a caravan holiday who encounter The Void. Yes, it was quite a leap, but there were many stepping stones on the way – not all in the same direction, but I feel our meandering exploration took us on a very human journey that directly informed the final piece. And what more fitting vehicle to share our explorations than that beacon of western society, the family holiday.

Playing the mum of the family (this is the second time I’ve played a mum in a few months – is this it now I’m in the 25-35 category on Spotlight?!) unexpectedly brought up a lot of old memories of being a little girl. It also went to a place within myself that has awoken this year – a deep place of nurturing and nature and what it is to be a woman and own that womanliness. I certainly hadn’t expected such an experience to come from the devising process, but it just goes to show how involved and invested in the work we as both actors and theatre-makers become.

The devising process was a new adventure for me. Our group of six actors from the MA Acting at East 15 Acting School formed a company and did the whole marketing shebang. We booked rooms and loosely planned rehearsals. We scribbled spider diagrams on the whiteboard, bruised our knees choreographing movement pieces, and pondered our reality. Our question: to what extent do we create our own reality?

We drank coffee and discussed religion, we rolled around on the grass exploring mother-daughter relationships through contact improvisation, we went to the woods in character as a family. Improvising was a tool we used a lot to explore our characteristics and discover the family dynamics. One night we had a family sleepover at one of our houses, which was an extended improvisation ending at 10pm and starting up again for breakfast the next morning. It was an important part of our process and produced some important character discoveries, along with a fantastic recipe for bolognese! It was also absolutely knackering – although we’d rested as our characters, in reality we had all been working until 10pm and had very little time to rest as us.

One key lesson I learnt from the devising process was how to work in a group where there is no clear leader and everyone has an equal say. I also put into practise the whole ‘applying the white paint’ process we’ve been developing over the past few months of our training – knowing when to scrap this bit or that bit and knowing which bits to keep.

It’s been an enriching and exciting journey and, with the possibility of our piece having a life beyond the MAPs, one that hopefully isn’t over just yet…