Paper Mates

A while ago I wrote about the work of Davy and Kristin McGuire in a post called Paper Cuts. Their latest work The Paper Architect is a play combining paper-craft, animation, projection mapping and performance. It tells the story of an old model-maker who uses his paper creations as vessels for his imagination. It is just beautiful and so clever – take a look at the trailer:

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One reviewer called it a piece that speaks to our imagination and challenges our notions what theatre can be. Indeed it does. But in and of itself, it is a simply (and I don’t mean that in a pejorative sense) a modern, technological shadow theatre which has of course been with us for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.

The McGuire’s work, not surprisingly, has a growing reputation internationally, as this rather amusing video shows

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Making Space

THE FANTASTICS - SET DESIGN -LANCE CARDINAL 1I’m going to make a series of short posts today, and I shall start with another in the podcast series from the National.  I have just finished listening to this and really enjoyed what the panel of designers had to say about the changing role and function of design on stage over 50 years. The panel consists of cinematographer and video projection designer Jon Driscoll (ENRON), and designers William Dudley (The Mysteries), Jon Bausor (Silence), and Rae Smith (War Horse). If you like your stage design, you will like this discussion.

I particularly enjoyed their discussion about the rapid advances in technology that have changed the craft as well as how ‘new’ genres have challenged them.

It’s All Greek

One of things that constantly fascinates when I am exploring the digital world for Theatre Room is the sheer variety of sources out there, and moreover, how they are being added to at an incredible rate.

The resource I’m sharing today is wonderful. A study of greek theatre in performance, hosted by Google on their Cultural Institute. It’s chock full of interviews, video, images and so on and is a delight to navigate your way through.

Untitled_FotormmmClick on the image above to take you to there. Hopefully there will be much more to come like this little gem.

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On A Wing And A Prayer

Little-Angel-RSC-Tempest-c-Ellie-KurrtzSince I began Theatre Room, I have been following the work of a puppet company called Little Angel Theatre (LAT). It was established in 1961 and one of only three building-based puppet theatres in the UK and is often referred to as the home of British puppetry. Their history is fascinating, with one of the original founders, puppet designer and maker Lyndie Wright, still working with the company 50 years on. In 2011 they collaborated with the Royal Shakespeare Company on a production of the Tempest to much critical acclaim. Their latest production is verytweet much an adult orientated production of Macbeth which has had the twitter-sphere in raptures.

Macbeth-show-pageYou can watch a lovely interview here with Lyndie Wright talking about how she designed the puppets:

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And then Artistic Director Peter Glanville talking about directing the production:

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Marionette puppet theatre is common across much of Europe, particularly in the more eastern states, so it is great to see this tradition thriving and developing in the UK. LAT runs its own blog which is really interesting and you can read it here.

Yesterday, there was an entry about costuming Macbeth, written by the costume designer for the show, Keith Frederick, which I found particularly interesting.

For quite some time now, puppet theatre has focused on direct contact puppetry, where the puppeteer is in full view of the audience and their performance completely exposed.  With this in mind, and from a personal point of view, the shows that work for me the most are those where the puppeteers are not just in blacks but in costume. Costumes that are well considered for the piece that have the ability, not only to add to a story and set a tone, but also have the to blend in and disappear, having a chameleon effect. Shows like War Horse…….. are excellent exponents of this effect.

So, when I was asked to design and make the costumes for the puppeteers in LAT”s newest adult production of Shakespeare’s Scottish play (yes, I am stupidly superstitious) I accepted the mantle of making their mantles!

Brief/challenge:

To look similar but distinguishable from each other.

Contemporary and simple silhouette.

Fitted yet non-restrictive

Words  = Bird & Witch

Colour = Black

Macbeth, Lady Macbeth and puppeteers

Macbeth, Lady Macbeth and puppeteers

For this production of the Scottish play the puppeteers are characters in their own right, the three witches, and the perfect starting point for the design process in making their costumes. Lyndie Wright, who has designed and made the puppets, referenced some shapes for me to work with and in a very short space of time talking together we had decided on a silhouette. With the brief and silhouette in mind I went away and sketched up several options that would fit in with the set and the puppets, using design elements from each.

Although working with a contemporary silhouette I have used style lines and treatments with an Elizabethan feel that harken back to the period.  Using hem, sleeve, collar and seam detail variations I have tried to make each costume look different yet gel as a collective. As the puppeteers are all dressed in same silhouette and colour I hope the differences are distinguishable enough to stand out yet still subtle enough to disappear. Once the designs and fabrics were chosen and approved the next step was to translate them into patterns.

The Witches with puppeteer

The Witches with puppeteer

I have drafted three blocks (basic patterns) one for each puppeteer, each a different size, and made jersey and calico toiles (mock ups) in the chosen designs. The next stage in the process is to get the fit right and apply the style lines. This is the most crucial part of the process, the most time-consuming, and can mean several toiles (mock ups) to get it right. Once this is done the patterns can be cut in the fabrics chosen and made up. After a final fitting linings, hems and final details can be finished to complete the garment. From start to finish making the garments should take me about two weeks… however!

Last night was press night and I very much look forward to reading the reviews.

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Scene Changes

artworks-000059233832-ig6cjh-t200x200So my first share, from the mountains of material coming out of the National Theatre, is a series of podcasts called Scene Changes. These are for those theatre geeks and techies out there (including myself) and look at some of the developments and changes in theatre, both off and on stage, over the past 50 years.

The first one is about the building itself – the theatre – and how the architecture of theatre spaces has evolved and changed, embracing technology as it has been developed.  It is not something that we think about too often – sadly, new theatre buildings are rare – but this gives a great insight into the process:

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The second looks at the role of the sound designer, how technology has advanced the industry, and how it adapts to other onstage developments:

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There will be lots more of these to come and I will post them as they become available.

A National Debt

The idea of a national theatre, one that celebrates its country’s cultural and performance heritage is a known around the world. A quick look at this list confirms that fact. The Comédie-Française in Paris, which was founded in 1680, is thought to be the world’s first national theatre, but it is clear that a theatre supported by the state is considered by most countries to be an integral part of its cultural fabric.

This month, the National Theatre in the UK celebrates its 50th year and there are a whole host of events connected with the anniversary. om757468_429long I will be sharing many of them here as they will have a relevance and a resonance for any theatre student, no matter where you find yourself reading this. The National, as it is known, plays a huge role in defining the production of quality theatre in the UK, and although not alone in this by any means, it’s very prominent London base, on the river Thames, means it is known around the world. For me personally The National is at the very heart of my involvement with theatre. I remember my first visit at the age of 16 and being in awe of the brutalist building and what it represented. I may not have lived in the UK for many years, but whenever I visit London, I go. I can’t recall ever seeing a poor production and without a doubt some of the best theatre I have ever seen has been at The National. For 30 of its 50 years I have been a patron and I always will be.

MotherWhat fascinates me, however, is that the land that gave the world William Shakespeare didn’t have its own national theatre until 1963 and even then, it didn’t have a permanent home until 1976. You can read a short history here, from the BBC, The bumpy road to the National Theatre.

Alternatively you can listen to a radio programme from BBC Radio 4, The Road to the National Theatre, (this is the first of two parts) that explores the same journey. In it the journalist James Naughtie sets out to discover why founding it took so long and what was learned along the way. Click to play, below. Fascinating!

In the last decade, The National has forged an international reputation with shows such as The History Boys and even more successfully, War Horse, both of which have toured internationally.

You might think that a national theatre restricts itself to producing plays from its own country or written in the native language. However, a glance at the following list tells a different story, and one that places The National in a league of its own

Playwright’s plays have had the most productions at the National Theatre in the last 50 years

1. William Shakespeare,70 productions
2. Bertolt Brecht, 19 productions
3. Bernard Shaw, 16 productions
4. Anton Chekhov, 16 productions
5. David Hare, 15 new plays
6. Tom Stoppard, 13 productions
7. Harold Pinter, 12 productions
8. Arthur Miller, 10 productions
9. Eugene O’Neill 10 productions
10. Alan Bennett 7 new plays

For a theatre student, the next month or so promises lots of great resources that can be shared, and I will start that with my next post. However, to round this one off, two things that I found interesting were, firstly, the US does not have a state funded national theatre. Secondly, War Horse is about to open in Berlin, in translation – the first time for a play originating from The National. This is particularly noteworthy because it is the first time the first World War  has been discussed on a German stage. This article from The Telegraph, written by Dominic Cavendish, discusses the implications of this staging – War Horse in Berlin: behind the scenes – both for The National and German audiences.

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No Stone Unturned

kj1Keith Johnstone is widely regarded as the father of modern improvisation and has been practicing and teaching his techniques for over 50 years. I doubt there is a theatre department in the world that doesn’t own a copy of his first book, Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre. It was published in 1987 and has been reprinted, updated and translated many times, and is still in print. It is divided into four sections, ‘Status’, ‘Spontaneity’, ‘Narrative Skills’, and ‘Masks and Trance’ and is a fascinating exploration of the nature of spontaneous creativity. I would regard it as a must read for any theatre student.

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The reason for me writing about him today is that Johnstone has just given an interview to Geoff Coleman which is being serialised by Actors & Performers. There are three parts, two of which have been published so far: Part 1 and Part 2 and worth a read by anyone interested in his work. It should be pointed out that he is 80 years old and still hard at work, having given the interview during a lunch break at one of his workshops, which he continues to give around the world.

coverHis later book, Impro for Storytellers, is more specialized: a handbook for putting IMPRO (the first book) into practice, including detailed improvisation structures for performance and for rehearsal, and chapters on how to teach these games. It explores the way improvisation can be used as a way of generating narrative and using it to explore human relationships. Again well worth a read for a theatre student.

Who Does What & Where

Before I begin today, I would like to say that I have added 5 new sources to the Key Resources page of Reading Room – very diverse, both in terms of content and origin, and chock full of really useful information on virtually all aspects of performance.

Now to the meat of the post.  The Royal Shakespeare Company in the UK are in the process of staging Richard II and are keeping a video production diary. I am sharing them as a great insight into the professional production process. Obviously the context is the staging of a particular play, but the processes are universal in any large theatre.

In the first video, the director Gregory Doran explains how he’s approaching the play, ideas for the design and introduces his cast.

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In this the second, Emma Hamilton who plays the Queen, describes the first day of rehearsals, including the welcome games they play to help break the ice and build rapport between the actors. She explains how the show’s Director Gregory Doran is beginning to help them explore their characters and also explains some of the historical truth behind Richard’s Queen.

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In the third of the series, Historian Helen Castor visits Westminster Hall, one of the last surviving parts of the Palace of Westminster, with the cast and creatives of Richard II. She explains how Richard II transformed Westminster Hall, and talks about we can understand Richard the man, and Shakespeare’s vision of him.

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In number four, the RSC head of Voice, Lyn Darnley, shows how she helps the actors in Richard II develop their posture, breathing and articulation, as well as bringing together the physical voice with the language and text of the play.

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The fifth in the series we meet Professor Jim Shapiro who sits in on week five of rehearsals for Richard II. He talks about treason, censorship and seditious material in ‘a radioactive play’, which was both shocking and highly topical for audiences when it was written, and six years later sparked an uprising.

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In video 6, the latest one released, Alistair McArthur, Head of Costume, shows the process of making costumes for Richard II. He leads a tour of the costume department, through painting and dyeing, on to footwear and armoury and finally into the hats and jewellery team.

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There are 6 more of these videos to come. If you are interested in looking in more detail at the production you can by clicking the image below.

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Living Nightmare

Horror of horrors, a few days ago the biggest gathering of ‘living statues’ (those people who paint themselves silver and standstill for hours in public places) took place in the UK. This was a PR stunt to celebrate the opening of a new public square in London. In modern cities, this should be celebrated. It’s a rare thing when we create open space in a thriving metropolis. Earlier this year, riots broke out in Turkey when the authorities threatened to redevelop Gezi Park in Istanbul. Gezi Park was one of the last open spaces in the Beyoğlu district of the city and people fought to stop a shopping mall being built on it.

Statues

My point I hear you ask? Well, Saatchi, the PR company behind the opening of the new Kings Cross Square (Kings Cross Station of Harry Potter fame) decided that this would be a good way of celebrating the ‘public art’ aspect of the new space. Really, really? Is that all they could think of? In a city that prides itself on the quality of its culture and artistic credentials, this is all they could do? You might have gathered I am no fan of these silver people who seem to inhabit cities across the globe. In fact I have voiced this here before in my post Hands Up and if I had been confronted by all these ‘statues’ on my daily commute to work I would have surely been arrested for physical abuse. They are a distraction, nothing more. There is no skill involved here!

However, I did raise a smile when I read this in The Atlantic, by Fergus O’Sullivan. A very French way of dealing with a problem. I applaud it!

Nighttime Revelers in Paris Get Shushed By a Bunch of Silent Clowns

Perhaps we’ve been getting this nighttime noise thing all wrong. Cities don’t need more police on the streets or tougher licensing laws to keep nightlife manageable. What they really need is a bunch of silent clowns to hush people with their fingers as they creep by on stilts. This is the approach being tried by Paris’ Pierrots de la Nuits, at least.

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Patrolling the city since March last year, this group of mute, sad-faced, black and white-clad mediators stalk the city’s busy bar strips on weekend nights, gently encouraging people to drink, smoke and chat at a lower volume. Usually never uttering a word (though followed by leaflet-distributing “mediatisers”), the Pierrots work under a slogan not easy to translate snappily: “Create atmosphere without turning up the volume.” Their leader explained their intentions to Le Bonbon Nuit magazine thus:

We want to offer a moment of poetry, of dreaming…many emotions happen, at times even people come to cry in our arms. The only condition is that our artists are silent: mimes, actors, breathers of poetry, circus artists or stilt-walkers

Behind the artistic gloss, of course, the Pierrots have a serious task. The group’s 40-odd performers have actually been funded by Paris’s City Hall following a city-wide forum on Paris by night in 2010. With the smoking ban pushing more people out of doors and residents associations in its gentrified core getting more vocal about noise control, Paris (like many European cities) has been dealing with both louder streets than ever and the closure of bars and clubs under pressure.

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Given their official associations, some have seen the Pierrots as quasi-official enforcers, killjoys and even “false pacifists” according to one interviewee in Le Monde. The group claim, however, that their interventions are not about stopping people going out at all, but preventing yet more bars being shut down by the city due to noise complaints.

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Looking at this video [below] of the Pierrots on patrol, they come across as charming and gentle. They also seem to be effective, as performers claim that people who interact with them do indeed tend to lower their voices a few decibels. Of course, this airy, artsy approach to crowd control might strike some people as just too damn French for its own good (though it was actually inspired by similar efforts in Barcelona), but their relative success nonetheless speaks well of French restraint. Sadly, I fear that any performers trying something similar in a British city would end up getting glassed sooner or later. And while many people claim to find mimes annoying, watching a man trying to an escape from an imaginary box in spooky make-up is a hell of a lot less tiresome than seeing him in regular clothes screaming about how wasted he is.

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For those of you reading this in Hong Kong, I was wondering how this would go down in Lan Kwai Fong on a Saturday evening?

His Time Is Now

It is National Day here in Hong Kong, a public holiday across China, so a day for a serious bit of blogging.

tennessee WilliamsRecently I thought I’d been suffering from an odd case of déjà vu, having been consistently reading reviews for the same playwright – in North America, in Europe, in Australasia – and then I realised I was witnessing a trend. 30 years since his death and 103 years since his birth, the plays of Tennessee Williams are riding high in the english speaking world. Perhaps the most american of all great american playwrights, it is no surprise that his popularity goes through cycles in his own country. However, this is being replicated elsewhere and it set me off doing a bit of digging.

This is the time of year that most theatres release their forth-coming seasons and I noticed that the Williams’ classics were amongst them, but perhaps more so than you might expect. I then read this article in the Boston Globe, Tennessee Williams’s time is now. Written by Don Aucion, he asks the question:

So why is Williams more with us than ever? Partly it’s because his work responds to our hunger for expert storytelling and craftsmanship, two qualities that never go out of style. Kaplan says “the greatness of the plays shines through’’ because “they’re lit by something inside them: their understanding of human beings, and very importantly by his mastery of language.’’

His unabashedly poetic sensibility and emotional directness — Williams’s heart was always visible, right there on his sleeve — also may appeal to contemporary audiences weary of the ironic distance and detachment that characterizes our eye-rolling, finger-quoting age.

Moreover, when it comes to Williams, there’s a vitality in performance that can’t be denied. He had a rare gift for constructing epic familial showdowns to go along with his nearly unrivaled knack for creating vivid, larger-than-life characters.

Marlon Brando as Stanley Kowalski in the 1951 film version of 'Streetcar'

Marlon Brando as Stanley Kowalski in the 1951 film version of ‘Streetcar’

The stormy likes of Stanley Kowalski, Amanda Wingfield, and Maggie the Cat are irresistible actor bait; each new generation of performers wants to tackle the big Williams roles, including movie stars like Johansson, and producers are often happy to oblige them. Directors, too, are intrigued by the interpretive possibilities.

But the other side of the unceasing Williams wave has to do with the torrent of productions of his least-known plays. The critical response to these dramas has been mixed, but audiences and theater artists alike seem determined to get the fullest possible picture of the oeuvre compiled by this exceptionally prolific playwright.

Cherry Jones, left, as a onetime Southern belle, and Zachary Quinto as her son, Tom, whose memory drives the play

Cherry Jones, left, as a onetime Southern belle, and Zachary Quinto as her son, Tom, whose memory drives the play

So to pick up on the above, obviously Williams’ plays are great vehicles for actors to test their talents. On Broadway in the last week The Glass Menagerie staring Zachary Quinto and Cherry Jones received rave reviews and then took almost half a million dollars in ticket sales in one day. In London, Gillian Anderson has just agreed to star in A Streetcar Named Desire, following Kim Cattrall who has just finished in a run of Sweet Bird of Youth (which I wrote about in my post, Singing Sweetly). 

But it is Aucoin’s last point that I have found most interesting and connected most with what I have been reading. Williams was a hugely prolific writer and you only have to have a look at his incredibly long bibliography to see that, yet he has tended to be known for his ‘Big 5’ –  A Street Car Named Desire, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, The Glass Menagerie, The Rose Tattoo and Sweet Bird of Youth. However, it would seem that it is his lesser known plays that are pushing the revival.  In London, 27 Wagons Full of CottonTalk To Me Like The Rain And Let Me Listen, and Kingdom of Earth are currently in performance. In the US at the Provincetown Tennessee Williams Theater Festival, which has just finished, you have had the likes of The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore and The Chorus Girl Plays amongst others. In New Zealand, Williams’ play Camino Real is being performed in November.

The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore, starring  Olympia Dukakis

The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore, starring Olympia Dukakis

David Kaplan, the curator and co-founder of the Provincetown Festival, estimates there are at least 300 professional productions worldwide each year of Williams plays and that of course doesn’t include the 1000’s of none-professional productions.

William’s himself was a complex and some say tortured individual and there has been much written about his personal life. During my research I have come across a few things I thought I would share.

Firstly, an episode from a BBC Radio series called Great Lives which asks the question was Williams’ life was a wasted one? Click here for the recording.

Secondly, and again from the BBC, a recording of a programme from 1978 called Desert Island Discs in which Williams talks about his own life:

Thirdly, a superb piece written by Paul Taylor for The Independent in 2011, to mark the centenary of Williams’ birth. Tennessee Williams: A tormented playwright who unzipped his heart is well worth a read.

WILLIAMS_2490263bMy fourth offering, written earlier this year for The Telegraph by Theodore Dalrymple, has the great title Put away the pills and listen to Tennessee Williams; America’s great playwright refused to accept that happiness was normal. A somewhat controversial look at his great and complex characters.

Fifthly, a look at The Glass Menagerie through time, by Marc Snetiker for Broadway.com

And finally, The original New York Times review for The Glass Menagerie, written by Lewis Nicholls in 1945.