Simple. Clever. It speaks for itself. Just watch!
Simple. Clever. It speaks for itself. Just watch!
My second share today is a series of videos made for the UK’s National Theatre by Gyre & Gimble, a celebrated puppet company founded in 2014 by Finn Caldwell and Toby Olié, who were associate puppetry directors on the global theatrical hit, War Horse.
In the first video, Olié and Caldwell demonstrate a step-by-step guide for making a brown paper man puppet, which would be an excellent alternative for anyone want to work with Bunraku puppets.
The second video is a master class in bringing oversized puppets to life.
The third and final video focuses on storytelling through puppetry.
If you haven’t seen them, there is a whole series of excellent puppetry videos from The National here, including more from Olié and Caldwell about their show The Elephantom, created for temporary stage at The National.
A play at the National Theatre in London recently made headlines, but for an unusual reason. In the first 6 days of previews, 5 people fainted and 40 people left the auditorium apparently shocked at scenes of graphic violence and torture.
The play in question was Sara Kane’s 1998 Cleansed, directed by celebrated and controversial British director, Katie Mitchell. According to a report in The Guardian,
the revival of the production features characters being electrocuted, force-fed and tortured – including the removal of one character’s tongue 20 minutes into the play – which has proved too much for dozens of audience members during the first six performances. Five others were so overwhelmed they fainted and required medical attention. During one preview, the lights in the auditorium went up and ushers came into the audience to help a man who had collapsed.
Mitchell admitted the production had taken its toll on the cast, who all had “very strange nightmares where very extreme events take place”. She [said]: “We have to laugh a lot in order to balance the despair and the darkness of the material.” But she argued people’s shock at the violent production was also related to the fact it was written by a young woman. “There isn’t a big tradition of putting the violence of atrocity on stage in Britain,” she said. “We’re afraid of that dark female voice that insists we examine pornography and violence. We just don’t feel comfortable being asked to do those things, particularly by a woman.”
Amongst other things, this of course raises many questions about verisimilitude on stage, but when violence is clearly ‘done this well’, you have to commend the theatre practitioners behind it – both on and off stage. I say this not because I particularly enjoy watching human suffering being performed in front of me, but because I spend a lot time talking to younger students about why such acts only work when they are truly believable. Kane’s plays are never easy on the audience and nor are they meant to be and in Mitchell’s hands this production was bound to be particularly brutal. The play itself is based on a university campus turned interrogation centre, in which a series of misfits are subjected to vicious tests to prove their love, with scenes including hands being cut off, incest, electric shocks, murder and suicide amongst other horrors.
According to an excellent profile of her, British theatre’s queen in exile, written by Charlotte Higgins for The Guardian, Katie Mitchell provokes strong reactions:
Some think of her as a vandal, ripping apart classic texts and distorting them to her own dubious purpose. Others consider her to be the most important British director of theatre and opera at work today – indeed, among the greatest in the world. Her critics characterise her as high-minded and humourless, a kind of hatchet-faced governess intent on feeding her audiences with the improving and bleak. Others, though, talk about her gentleness, empathy and swiftness to burst into a joyous and slightly dirty laugh. One theatre professional told me that some agents only reluctantly put forward actors for Mitchell’s productions because of her fearsome reputation; and yet there are actors who have worked with her for 30 years.
Mitchell has been described as a director who polarises audiences like no other and in the way the critics have received Cleansed, she has clearly managed to do the same with this current production. One said that the play left him feeling drained rather than shocked into new awareness while another said you’ll either walk out or give it a standing ovation.
In an interview for the BBC strand Front Row, Mitchell said those who focus on the violence are missing the point:
All of the torture that is going on is led by a doctor whose making tests about love, its durability. The gay couple in it, the durability of their love is being tested, and they are being tortured to see whether their love will survive, and their love does. So love wins in this play, not violence.
The National Theatre in the UK has come up with another little gem of a series, Careers at The National, which they have just begun posting on YouTube. It looks like they are exploring the less obvious roles that make up the team behind the scenes. Theatre doesn’t begin and end with the rise and fall of the curtain but I often think people fail to realise the multiplicity of roles that really do exist backstage. So far they have published three, with no doubt many more to come, and I have shared the Scenic Artist one here:
The American Theatre Wing also have two occasional series, How it Works and The Work which cover a myriad of other behind the scenes roles. They are somewhat more in depth than the ones from the National and I have shared two of them here – the first is about the job of Prop Master and the second, Projection Design.
Have a look through the rest of their videos, they are wide-ranging and some are really fascinating.
I have a few things to share today. Firstly, a couple of super things to watch for pure enjoyment and inspiration. I came across the first one on The Creators Project. Written by Jordan Backhus, the article looks at a digital solo performance, Hakanaï, created by Adrien M / Claire B which combines live video projection mapping, CGI, and sensors which respond to the movements of the performer. Backhus’ article also contains an interesting interview with the creators about the meeting of art and technology. Take a look at their incredible work below:
The second is from Lemieux Pilon 4D Art, a Montreal based mulit-disciplinary company that also works heavily with technology and projection. One of their latest works is Icarus, which, not surprisingly, is a contemporary take on the ancient myth and explores the complex relationships between fathers and sons.
Lemieux Pilon have a Vimeo channel with many more videos of their extraordinary work.
Like anything else, the academic and theoretical study of theatre-making is always bound by a shared lexicon. However definitions sometimes lead us astray. Take Bertolt Brecht’s concept of Verfremdungseffekt for instance. When John Willett published his seminal english language Brecht on Theatre in 1964, he translated Verfremdungseffekt as the alienation effect, which for many years led to a mis-interpretation of what Brecht actually meant. Subsequently it has been re-translated as defamiliarization effect, estrangement effect, distantiation or distancing effect, the latter having become generally accepted as nearer Brecht’s original intent. Another would be the definition of the role of the Dramaturge, which differs almost from theatre to theatre, let alone country to country. In this case, it has recently been removed as an area of study from the International Baccalaureate’s Theatre Arts course simply because there is no one internationally accepted standard definition.
Currently one area of performance that is struggling to find a standard definition is Immersive Theatre, which continues to grow in popularity around the world. In an article for Everything Theatre published a few weeks ago, Marni Appleton asks the question What even is immersive theatre?
Traditional theatre is making room for a different type of performance. More and more often, audiences are invited to throw themselves headfirst into a show rather than simply sit back and watch. But what does this mean? With everything from laptops to restaurants being described as ‘immersive’…… what we should expect from this type of theatre.
Punchdrunk are widely considered to be the pioneers of immersive theatre, having been at it since 2000. There is no such thing as a typical Punchdrunk show; projects range from interactive audio-tours to secret collaborations with musicians, so it is not always easy to identify the common ‘immersive thread’. Their most recent, large-scale UK show, The Drowned Man, was like being inside a dream. The venue started life as an abandoned postal sorting office, but you wouldn’t have been able to tell. The award-winning design transformed the space and no detail was overlooked: drawers were filled; real trees were brought in for the forests; authentic smells and textures were sourced, all of which heightened the senses and gave audience members very surreal experiences. The space could be treated as one giant art installation – it was possible to get a sense of the narrative without crossing paths with a single performer – or you could chase one of the many characters across four floors. The choice was yours. There is so much in a Punchdrunk show that you can never discover everything in a single visit; just one of the reasons Punchdrunk enjoys repeat visitors and dedicated fans, who love the fact there is always something new to be found.
Performances in The Drowned Man were mostly physical, set to an impressive (and loud) cinematic score, so opportunities to converse with the characters were thin on the ground. If you were very lucky, you might be selected for a sought-after ‘one on one’ experience, where a character would draw you into a room and interact with you alone. But aside from this, audience interaction with performers was fairly minimal. There were no opportunities to influence their journeys or the direction of the story; the next scene always continued as scripted.
Does this affect whether or not the show is immersive? David Frias-Robles, co-founder of the theatre company Myriad & Co thinks so. For him, audiences have to be able to change or influence the narrative of the show, for it to be considered immersive. ‘Of course there has to be a basic structure,’ he says. ‘But there also has to be some form of choice for the audience.’
David has worked extensively in immersive theatre. As well as establishing Myriad & Co, he has worked as actor and director on a range of projects including The Backstage Tour, shows with Secret Cinema and epoch’s The Factory, soon to be seen at VAULT Festival. One of David’s recent projects, Canvas City saw Canvas Bar in Old Street transformed into a 1930s speakeasy. Audience members came to the bar dressed in clothes from the era and were encouraged to adopt their own persona. As the night unfolded, the lines between performer and audience became blurred. There were three crucial, pre-planned moments, but in between those, audience members were able to aid and influence each character’s journey.
The only drinks available on the night were a selection of whisky-based cocktails served in tiny jars. This added to the authentic feel of the night, which was surprisingly effective, considering very little of the bar had been changed. For David, it is these details that are crucial. His idea of an immersive show is one where the audience is in costume, where a narrative has been built up before the performance itself, and where every single detail that might betray the experience as a performance has been eliminated. While this is almost impossible to achieve, the best immersive theatre, he says, comes very close.
Coney is one of the companies producing ‘audience-led’ theatre. Coney’s A Small Town Anywhere and Early Days used the audience as the cast in shows that were part-game, part-improvisation and partly structured. There are a number of experiences that operate in a similar way, such as Heist by differencEngine and the recent New Atlantis by LAStheatre. But if everyone is playing and no one is watching, do these events still count as theatre? And if they are, this begs the question of live action role-play, murder mysteries and other similar games. Do these come under the umbrella of immersive theatre too?
With audience-led, fully participatory work at one end of the immersive spectrum, there are also supposedly immersive shows that sit right down at the other end of the spectrum. The word ‘immersive’ is often used in relation to shows that simply have non-traditional aspects or some immersive elements. The Roof at the National Theatre was a non-traditional performance staged in a car park, which made clever use of audio by giving each audience member a fancy pair of headphones. However, there was no interaction with the characters and there wasn’t even anywhere to go; viewers simply stood and watched the show instead of sitting down. Whilst this may have been different and exciting for immersive novices, it would have been a disappointment to anyone wanting to get properly stuck in. Many would argue that this was not representative of the genre.
While immersive theatre is difficult to define precisely, it is certainly enjoying a boom at the moment. Is it just a phase? Perhaps. But this writer hopes not. Immersive shows are pushing and breaking down the boundaries of theatre and attracting new audiences – many who aren’t regular theatregoers. As audiences, we should expect the unexpected from this type of show, but what does that mean in practical terms? Great theatre is often risky, and immersive shows are no exception. But throw yourself into the experience, and it might just be a revelation.
In a short, but instructive piece on its website, arts venue The Space in East London, attempted to answer the same question as Appleton:
Many people go to the theatre to lose themselves in the production, to forget their everyday worries and troubles and be transported into another world. However, no kind of theatre transports an audience quite like immersive theatre. In immersive theatre, the audience are not merely passive bystanders. They are part of the story, however small their role may be, and they are in the middle of the action.
In an immersive theatre production, the audience in some way plays a role, whether that is the role of witness or the role of an actual character. They may be allowed to roam and explore the performance space as the performance happens around them, allowing them to decide what they see and what they skip. They might be herded from room to room so they see the key scenes. They might even be invited to become a more active part of the performance. The lines between performer and audience and between performance and life are blurred. The audience is placed within the environment of the story and therefore play witness front and centre to the events without the distancing factor of a proscenium.
However, this lack of separation can cause anxiety. If an audience member is not expecting to become part of the performance or is uncomfortable with that idea, it can be very off-putting so there must be some form of consent between the performer and the audience. Whether that’s the conscious decision to take a performer’s outstretched hand or knowing that one has the safety net of being able to back away from the performance, there must still exist some form of separation and boundaries between performance and audience for the benefit of everyone involved.
The origins of immersive theatre go all the way back to the beginnings of modern theatre in the 19th century. Call-and-response, when a leader puts out a call and an audience calls back a pre-ordained response, has long been a concept in music, adding a participatory element. In the centuries that followed, things like murder mystery theatres and haunted houses also put their intended audience into an environment and allowed them choice in how they viewed the story. Even traditional proscenium theatre started to adapt some immersive or interactive elements. In 1985, the Tony Award-winning Best Musical, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, required that the audience vote on who killed the titular character, spurring one of seven possible endings.
Well-known UK-based theatre company Punchdrunk are known as pioneers of the form of immersive theatre. While they have been producing immersive and promenade theatre since 2000 in the UK, they and immersive theatre as a genre meteorically shot to worldwide fame after Sleep No More, their 1930’s film noir adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, was unanimously well-received in New York.
Since the success of Sleep No More, countless immersive productions have popped up on both sides of the Atlantic. In New York, these include Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812, a techno-rock musical adaptation of a chunk of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, and Then She Fell, an adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland set in a mental hospital. London’s immersive theatre scene has recently featured an all-night production of Macbeth in a block of flats; Leviathan, a production of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick in which the audience stands in for the crew of the ship chasing after the famed whale; and The Drowned Man, a combination of Georg Buchner’s Woyzeck and Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust set in a 1960’s movie studio and produced by Punchdrunk.
No doubt the debate will continue long and loud as the form evolves.
One of the most innovative and ground-breaking companies I have had the pleasure of seeing in the last few years is 1927. A UK based company, with a global touring reputation, their work is a combination of animation, live performance, theatre and music. They performed in the Hong Kong Arts Festival two years ago, on a tour supported by the British Council, playing to sold out houses with their piece, Animals And Children Took To The Streets. The fusing of live performance and animation is highly original and they do it to great effect. Their new show, Golum, is currently playing in London and again has been enthusiastically received by audiences and critics alike. Following this run, having had it’s premier in Austria at the Salzburg Festival, they are of to Taipei and then Paris.
The reason I mention them today is that I have just listened to an interview with one of the company’s founders, Suzanne Andrade, on Theatre Voice and would recommend it to any theatre maker, but especially to those working in collaborative creation.
You really don’t need to have seen Golum to understand the interview as the focus is really about the truly collaborative process that the company uses to create new work. In fact I would go as far as using the word inspirational to describe what they do.
There are also a couple of super articles about their work here and here, both well worth a read.
This year I am teaching two new courses, both of which lay a greater emphasis on student understanding of the theatre production processes than I have previously had to teach. The roles of performer, director and collaborator have always been at the heart of my classroom, with design at the periphery. However, for me personally as a theatre-maker, I have always enjoyed the creative process of theatre design and the challenge of bringing a sense of place, time, theme and atmosphere to life for an audience. I wanted to find a way of teaching the art of the designer – lighting, costume and set – that explained the fundamentals without drowning my students in unnecessary theory. Take a look at any published text on stage lighting and you will know what I mean. So I set off on a journey that was fascinating and hugely informative and today’s post is to share some of what I have found.
The internet is an infinite resource it seems in this area, so my first share is about simple, informative basics that come from a series of lectures from Melanie Blood, Professor of Theatre at GENESCO, New York State. The lectures I have read, on theatre lighting, costume and set design are a real 101 primer. Each one is divided under 4 headings – Goals, Tools, Process and Historical Context – of each design area. Simple and to the point, with just the right amount of technical language and readily accessible examples.
The second is a series of interviews with theatre designers published by Exeunt. Spread across 18 months, Exeunt talks to Nick Payne, Chloe Lamford, Es Devlin, Amanda Stoodley and Jon Bausor about their work and inspirations. All five pieces are worth a read and cover a wide range of design styles and spaces.
Finally, following a new publication, World Scenography, 1990-2005 by Peter McKinnon and Eric Fielding, The Guardian offers two galleries of images of stunning designs here and here. The World Scenography series (the first covered the period 1975 to 1990) is an official project of OISTAT, the International Organization of Scenographers, Theatre Architects and Technicians, and is an attempt to document the most significant and influential theatrical set, costume, and lighting designs from around the world. My copy is in the post.
My first share today was published this week in The Guardian. Written by Oliver Wainwright, it explores theatre design in the Soviet Union in the early 20th Century, which is currently the focus of an exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.
A critical period in the development of stage design, Wainwright’s article, Russia’s stage revolution: when theatre was a hotbed for impossibly space-age design talks about how artists created radical sets and costumes for a futuristic new era of theatre that are said to have inspired Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.
A square-headed figure stands in a jagged harlequin costume, like a toddler’s drawing of a Christmas tree, beside a red-clothed character with black spines emerging from his limbs. There is a portly green-skinned man bursting out of a tight red vest, while another figure’s body swells from a triangular skirt in a big blue bulge.
Set against a mysterious monochrome backdrop of triangles and squares, these were the costume designs of then little-known Kazimir Malevich for the world’s first “futurist opera,” Victory Over the Sun, produced in St Petersburg in 1913. Complete with a libretto in the experimental “zaum” language – a kind of primeval Slavic mother-tongue, mixed with birdsong and cosmic utterances – it infuriated audiences, who reacted with violent outrage.
Malevich was not deterred. The stage sets formed the basis for his first Black Square painting, and the foundations for his fractured visual language of suprematism, one of the defining movements of the period. It was here in these gnomic theatre designs that he began his urgent pursuit of the “supremacy of pure artistic feeling”, of geometric splinters flying through limitless space, fuelled by the impending trauma of revolution.
These striking drawings form the opening to a new free exhibition in the V&A’s theatre and performance galleries, which traces the effect of war and revolution on Russian avant-garde theatre design, from 1913–33, a period that saw an earthquake of artistic transformation.
Comprising 160 works by 45 designers, much of what’s on show has been unearthed from the dusty depths of the Bakhrushin Theatre Museum archive in Moscow, some exhibited in public here in London for the first time – and it is a thrilling hoard.
Facing off against Malevich are the early costume designs of Vladimir Tatlin, who would go on to dream up the spiralling skeleton of the Monument to the Third International, a plan for a gargantuan double-helix structure that would have loomed 400m above St Petersburg. While Malevich was brewing up a universe of dynamic shards, Tatlin’s designs – for operas with nostalgic titles such as Life for the Tsar and His Disobedient Son Adolf – reveal the beginnings of his constructivist style.
These counterpoints set the tone for a show that reveals the breadth of artistic styles spawned in these tumultuous years, with the theatre proving a hotbed of experimentation and a powerful vehicle of revolutionary propaganda.Women designers loom large, with the dazzling work of Alexandra Exterfeaturing extensively, from her bold reinventions of classics like Romeo and Juliet, to impossibly futuristic costumes for Aelita, one of the first ever sci-fi films, made in 1924. Based on a Tolstoy novel, it tells the story of an engineer who travels to Mars, falls in love with the Queen of the Martians, and organises a revolution. The space-queen was conceived as a Soviet Barbarella, clothed in a swirling dress of orbiting loops, topped with a many-pronged head-dress that gives her the look of a human TV aerial. It exudes the excitement of what the promised revolution would bring, the humble engineer discovering a brave new world through hard work. Utterly groundbreaking for its time, Exter’s alien set designs would go on to inform the dreamy aesthetic of Flash Gordon and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.
“I want to burn with the spirit of the times,” declared Vsevolod Meyerhold, another influential figure of the period, and one of most enthusiastic activists of the new Soviet theatre. He joined the Bolshevik party in 1918 and became an official of the theatre division of the Commissariat of Education and Enlightenment, trying to radicalise Russian theatres under Bolshevik control. Developing what he called “biomechanics”, he championed a form of acting in which bodily expression was all, teaching his students gymnastics and circus skills, in a bid to transform the theatre from a place of naturalism and emotion to a full-blown fairground spectacle.
“Meyerhold laid the foundations for modern physical theatre, and groups like Complicite,” says curator Kate Bailey, “as well as a lot of the techniques of projection and moving sets that we take for granted as part of contemporary theatre design.”
A key to realising his vision was Lyubov Popova, the daughter of a textile merchant who had been a member of Malevich’s Supremus art group from 1914-16. She produced a spectacular moving set for his production of The Magnanimous Cuckold in 1922, a model of which takes pride of place in the exhibition. The play follows the trials of a miller who suspects his wife of being unfaithful and pursues her lovers through the village, and Popova transforms the mill into an all-consuming acting machine, a thrilling landscape of rotating cogs and wheels.
Under the influence of Meyerhold, theatrical characters were reduced to types, emotion and psychological experience substituted for the gawp of physical and mechanical prowess. Similar narratives recur, in which “impure” characters of merchants and royalty, capitalists and priesthood, face off against “pure” peasants and sailors, the old order trounced by the newly awoken masses. Costumes of the old world are heavy and clumsy, set against the thrusting, cubo-futurist lines of the new Communist utopia.
It all comes to a satirical climax in Vladimir Mayakovsky’s comedy, The Bedbug, in which the brave Bolshevik protagonist, Prisypkin, is cryogenically frozen in an impossibly modern-looking spacesuit – to designs by Alexander Rodchenko – to be thawed when the ideal Communist world has been attained in 1979. Severely underwhelmed when he awakes, he finds a bedbug on his body, which becomes his only friend.
It is an appropriately gloomy end to the exhibition, which concludes with the rise of Stalin, who presided over a return to socialist realism, and the accompanying vicious backlash against the avant-garde. The final piece on show is a miraculous wooden and plaster model for Mayakovsky’s satirical play, Mystery-Bouffe, directed by Meyerhold, which depicts the North Pole, where the earth’s last survivors have voyaged, to be offered the choice between heaven and hell. They decline heaven, in favour of the promised land of the Communist paradise.
It was not to be so for the two leaders of the avant garde under Stalin: disillusioned and driven to despair, Mayakovsky shot himself, while Meyerhold was arrested, tortured and executed. “Theatre is not a mirror, but a magnifying glass,” Mayakovsky once said. And their powerful lens clearly looked a little too closely for the regime’s comfort.
The V and A exhibition, Russian Avant-Garde Theatre: War, Revolution and Design 1913-1933 has an associated Pintrest Board with some great images, as well as a blog.
Today I would like to share two new excellent video documentaries from the American Theatre Wing. The first is about the creation of site-specific theatre. Since I Suppose is a site-specific theatrical experience based on Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure which allows the audience to travel on an immersive journey through downtown Chicago.
The video follows members of the Melbourne-based theatrical group, one step at a time like this and Chicago Shakespeare Theater who share a behind the scenes look at how the experience was created using digital technology and the architecture and culture of Chicago.
The second explores another visceral theatre experience but this time of the immersive kind. In the documentary Randy Weiner (Producer, Sleep No More), David Korins (Scenic Designer, Here Lies Love) and Zach Morris (Co-Artistic Director of Third Rail Projects) describe the ‘staging environment, the state of heightened theatricality, and the effect of the immersive movement on the audience and its influence on today’s theatre scene.’
If you are a first year IB Theatre Arts student reading this, both of these videos would be superb for your Collaborative Project.