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!

 

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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 at Little Angel Theatre

Last week a dream of mine came true. I got to perform, as a puppeteer, at Little Angel Theatre. With a wonderful audience including fellow puppeteers and friends as well as other theatre-lovers, it couldn’t have been a more perfect evening.

After taking the show to Brighton Fringe two weeks before, this was our second performance of Vertebra Theatre’s ‘Dark Matter’, with Douglas Rutter on the head and left hand, Aurora Adams on torso and right hand, and me on the feet (and on the head for two scenes where Alfie is a young boy again). Since the previous show we had gone back to the rehearsal room to iron out a few bits of the movement and choreography, and we approached this performance with renewed vigour and excitement. Knowing we had our friends, family and peers out in the audience added to the pre-show tingles.

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Our venue, Little Angel Theatre, is a very special place to the puppetry community. Transformed from a derelict temperance hall into a theatre by John Wright and a troupe of puppeteers, Little Angel Theatre opened in 1961, and since then it has produced countless puppetry shows and served as a source of inspiration and training for puppeteers from all over the world. In 2014 the company opened Little Angel Studios, just up the road from the main theatre, which is where they run their courses and workshops, and where I did the Puppetry Foundation Course last year.

Arriving at the theatre, we headed backstage to suss out the space. Beautiful wooden marionettes hung down above our heads – it was such a delight to see these very special puppets, as well as the marionette bridges constructed for long-string marionette shows. With it being a hot day the back door was open, and we could poke our heads out and peek into the workshop next door. I felt like a kid who’d snuck into Santa’s workshop!

The show, which started at 7pm, went really well, despite me nearly stacking it as I clambered onto the stage in a deep squat behind Alfie (the puppet, whose feet I was animating at that point). Thankfully no-one seemed to notice (apart from my fellow puppeteers), or at least, they had the good grace not to laugh. I could certainly feel those hamstrings the next day! After the show everyone mingled and chatted outside before a group of us headed to a nearby pub for a well-earned beer and some grub. As we were striking the set I saw Ronnie Le Drew, a lovely man with years of experience as a puppeteer who taught us for a few of the foundation course sessions, and went up to give him a big hug – how special to have him there supporting us. There were also other puppetry companies in the audience, including Smoking Apples, and it made me realise how supportive a community this is.

That night, as I drifted off to sleep, an aubergine and halloumi burger in my belly and a smile on my face, I knew that I would remember the experience of performing at Little Angel for a long time to come.

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.

Long weekend in Prague

Beauty. Chaos. Intrigue. Delicacy. Strength. Prague embodies all of these things, and more. As part of my 30th birthday present from my boyfriend, I got the chance to visit this magical city, and it has left a lasting impression on my mind, my body and my senses.

Staying in an apartment about five minutes away from the castle, we had a beautiful view of Petrin Hill and a monastery from our balcony. Each day we wandered down the hill into the main part of the city, crossing the infamous Charles Bridge. The guide books all tell you to avoid the bridge during the middle of the day, and with good reason – the crowds make it nigh impossible to get from one end to the other at anything above a slow plod.

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Charles Bridge

There’s far too much to write about to fit in one blog post, which is partly why this post is so overdue – I’ve started and stopped about five times over the past few weeks, struggling to decide what to mention and what to leave out. The architecture was one of the main delights, but I’ll leave it to the many photos I’ve posted to give you a flavour of that. Needless to say, it’s beautiful. The food was perhaps our least favourite aspect, with one exception, as the traditional dishes were quite heavy on our stomachs. (The wine, however, went down much better!) The exception was the trdelník, a pastry made from rolled dough grilled on a long metal stick, with sugar and walnut mix sprinkled all over. We saw them being made in little shop fronts all over the city, and my god they were delicious.

On the Saturday night we saw a play in Czech at the Estates Theatre, where Mozart conducted the world premiere of his opera Don Giovanni. I was thrilled to be experiencing theatre in a different language, but I think my boyfriend was a little less so – ah the joys of dating an actor! He sat through it though and did enjoy most of it, though the finer details were rather lost on us, due to the language barrier. The play was Mikveh by Hadar Galron, so we saw an Israeli play performed in Czech!

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Sadly we didn’t get to see a performance at the National Marionette Theatre as all the weekend shows were booked up. BUT I did buy my first marionette (see right). Handmade in Prague, she wasn’t cheap, but it was some of my birthday money well spent!

I had a wonderful few days in this city, and highly recommend it to anyone who loves beautiful architecture, a buzzing atmosphere and a good dose of ‘culture’. I can’t wait to go back and explore some more!

 

Into the Dark: playing Desdemona

My most recent project saw me treading the boards on the London fringe once again, this time in an adaptation of Othello at the Drayton Arms,  called Into the Dark. Directed by Polly Heinkel, training on the directing course at East 15, the show focused on the story of Shakespeare’s play through Iago’s eyes, or rather through his memory of the events.

As soon as I got back from Sicily I was straight into rehearsals, which had already begun for the other cast members a week or two before. I’d learnt most of my lines while I was away so could get stuck in straight away. I played Desdemona, a young woman I’ve always struggled to understand, but through a mixture of the original Shakespeare text and new writing by Polly, I came to share her story with the audience.

I think the aspect of Desdemona I struggled with the most at first was her supposed goodness – how she is perceived as the ultimate symbol of virtue and a good soul. A friend helpfully pointed out that her decision to go against her father’s wishes and marry Othello was in fact anything but ‘good’ in Brabantio’s mind, and shows a great inner strength and courage. The more I dug into the original text and applied my discoveries to the new writing (which was a monologue), the richer a picture I uncovered of a complex and at times contradictory individual.

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Yours truly as Desdemona

She is strong and brave enough to disobey her father in a time when the father was lord and master, yet her conversation with Emilia shows a naivety when it comes to her perception of the behaviour of women. However, despite this apparent naivety, she is playful and matches her wit against Iago when he teases her and Emilia.

We set the production in 1950s Mississippi, at a time when black people were regularly persecuted for the colour of their skin, and lynching was a very real threat. This allowed us to play with the setting of the play without diminishing the relevance. As our research showed, my first sentence there is sadly a rather naïve way of putting it, as black people are still being persecuted because of the colour of their skin, and we discovered several distressing cases of modern lynchings. Perhaps by setting the play in a more recent time period, our director hoped to show the audience how the themes it deals with were not just confined to several hundred years ago.

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Othello looks down on the man he once considered a friend

On a purely fickle note, one advantage of setting it in the 1950s was that Kelly (who played Emilia) and I got to wear beautiful 1950s-style dresses with petticoats underneath. I felt rather girly for once! As we set the action in Mississippi, American accents were required of the cast (apart from Othello, to make him seem even more of an outsider). While fellow cast member Toby gave Iago a southern drawl, Polly asked me to focus on what is termed ‘General American’, suggesting Desdemona is not originally from Mississippi. Although I haven’t spent much time on this accent before I enjoyed working with it and seemed to do rather well! It’s definitely one I would like to work on further.

Othello is possibly my favourite of Shakespeare’s plays – the language is beautiful, witty, dark, clever, the characters a joy to behold with their many layers, the story devastating as we see the characters’ worlds torn apart by hatred, jealousy and ambition. To work on an adaptation of this mighty play with such a talented director, assistant director and cast of fellow East 15ers was a pleasure. Plus I got to work in the lovely Drayton Arms, which does the most delicious chocolate brownies!

Take a look at some pics of the show below, courtesy of our assistant director and photographer extraordinaire, Alex Romberg. They’re in reverse order from near the end of the play to the start – I somehow managed to upload them in the wrong order then didn’t have the patience to reorder them one-by-one. Enjoy!