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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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!

A comedy read-through

The show was cast and the agonising task of putting together the rehearsal schedule was done, so that could mean only one thing: the dreaded read-through.

I say dreaded because, for most actors, the read-through is a necessary evil. For others it is an unnecessary tradition. For our director of the Comedy of Errors, Vin, it’s somewhere in between. A tradition that no show would feel properly started without, a chance to formally kick off the rehearsal process, and an important opportunity for the whole cast to get together. For some of us, this will be the only time we see certain members of the cast until the first full run-through, particularly if we don’t have any scenes together.

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Many actors dread the read-through because that’s just what it is: reading. Sight-reading is a far cry from actually acting, and requires many different skills altogether. I have seen actors who can deliver the most commanding performance on stage being reduced to a gibbering wreck in a read-through, tripping over their words until they end up lying in a heap of jumbled letters.

Although everyone did admirably well last night, we did have a few giggles here and there. Accidentally substituting prostrate with prostate got a good laugh.

The read-through also has another very important function. It gives everyone an overall flavour of the play, which can be difficult to get from individual rehearsals. Even if we don’t meet your character until the third act, it is important that they have a backstory, and what happens and is said in the previous two acts can inform this backstory.

It is also important that each actor’s interpretation of their character fits in to the journey of the play, rather than being a standalone element, so having the chance to hear the whole play read through in this way gives each actor that sense of how their character fits in.

I’m playing the Courtesan, who doesn’t make an appearance until the second half of the play, but is mentioned by other characters earlier on. Despite her limited stage time, she is a strong character and hopefully, in our version at least, a memorable one, so getting a feel for the world of the play in which she exists will help me bring to the stage a fuller and more rounded performance rather than something flat which exists solely in that moment on stage.

Rehearsals start this week, where we’ll be working on a big ensemble scene. With plentiful laughs in this wonderful Shakespearean farce, it promises to be a lot of fun.

The Comedy of Errors, performed by the Southsea Shakespeare Actors, runs from 13 to 16 November 2013 at the Station Theatre, Hayling Island.

One day, two plays – The Duchess of Malfi and Step 9 (of 12)

With my boyfriend away in Edinburgh the other weekend I decided to spend a day on my lonesome in London, watching a play and losing myself in the myriad of bookshops, and considering the price of the train ticket to get there I thought I may as well see two plays to make it worth my while. The second of these, The Duchess of Malfi (Webster) directed by Jamie Lloyd, was impressive, but not the highlight of the day. I’m a big fan of Jamie Lloyd and his work with Polar Bears (which I directed for an in-house production last summer), The Pride and The Faith Machine, and was equally impressed with his staging of this – a moody and atmospheric set, which the impressive size of the Old Vic stage lent itself perfectly to, the choreographed candle-bearers in hooded cloaks, and the overall underlying menace he managed to instil into the whole production really brought to life the underlying themes of the play. Acting was strong, especially Eve Best as the Duchess, but there were moments where it dragged a little, and when several key characters had died so quickly and violently, waiting for Bosola to finally pop his clogs you wanted to yell, “just get on with it!”.

The Duchess’ death scene was chillingly brilliant, the anticipation building as we waited with a macabre fascination for the moment when they pulled on the ropes to strangle her. The way Best’s body jerked and writhed about gave me a genuine chill. Harry Lloyd as the violent and volatile brother Ferdinand was pure perfection, showing a man torn between emotions and societal pressures – I hear he’s in Game of Thrones so will be checking that out! I did enjoy the play, but the second act couldn’t match the pace of the first, and no matter how hard I tried I just couldn’t sympathise with the character of Bosola and his actions. I know many consider Webster’s language to be even more complex to interpret than Shakespeare, so perhaps I just wasn’t in a receptive mood.

The first of the two plays I saw, however, affected me deeply. It turned out that the two plays were not only very different pieces set in different times and with different circumstances, but also staged very differently, one on a grand scale in the Old Vic, the other in a small cosy studio space in the Trafalgar Studios 2, which added a nice bit of variety to my day!

Step 9 (of 12), a play by Rob Hayes, tells the story of Keith, a recovering alcoholic, as he tries to apologise to those he has hurt the most with his destructive behaviour, and featured Blake Harrison of The Inbetweeners fame. Having loved him on screen as the lanky simpleton Neil, I was keen to see what else he could do as an actor, and I can happily say I wasn’t disappointed! Although the first ten or so minutes moved rather slowly with the jokes a little forced and I felt he was shouting out the lines for the room to hear rather than directing them at his fellow actors, the pace soon picked up with smart dialogue and troubled yet realistic characters that were brought to life brilliantly by all concerned. Harrison showed an ability to snap from light-hearted nice guy to menacing in an instant; equally from menacing young man to vulnerable little boy. The moments where he was begging his foster mother to forgive him and calling her ‘mum’ for what we deduce is probably the first time ever were heartbreaking, and the tears in his eyes brought tears to my own, as I had to stop myself from running on stage to give this suffering little boy a big hug and tell him everything would be alright. The beauty of the piece being performed in such an intimate space is that you really did feel a part of the action, and that you were witnessing a private conversation between a troubled family rather than watching a play on a stage, detached from the characters and their lives.

Barry McCarthy as the protagonist Keith’s foster father gave a beautiful performance, struggling to hide the inner turmoil beneath a veneer of amiability. The contrast between this ‘mask’ he wore at the start of the play, showing a guy who just wants to get along with and support Keith’s endeavours, and the true hurt and struggle that lived within was played with expert empathy and showed an actor who truly understands the complexity of the human condition. Wendy Nottingham as the foster mother was at times a little vocally ‘flat’ but played a woman scarred by her experiences beautifully, and at the point where the character Mark was threatening them the fear in her eyes was haunting. Ben Dilloway as Mark, the son of a man who Keith had put in hospital with permanent brain damage, gave a short but powerful performance. A mess of pain and wanting vengeance for what was done to his father, Dilloway played him perfectly, wrenching even the hardiest heart in the audience out of its chest.

The play is brilliant. The humour was there at every turn and the audience was often chuckling at this or that. Awkward conversations and moments were interspersed with dry humour and left us not sure whether it was appropriate to laugh or not, causing us to question our own reactions to the characters and their actions. The staging was thoughtful and made good use of the space. Keith’s front door being situated off stage made us use our ears rather than just being fed everything visually, and helped create a sense of tension as you heard the slam and awaited the arrival of a character. An impressive West End debut for Harrison, a powerful yet poignant performance by McCarthy, and a success for the director Tom Attenborough and his creative team. Oh, and hats off to Rob Hayes for a bloody good play.