All In A Day’s Work

Building2The 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.

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Have a look through the rest of their videos, they are wide-ranging and some are really fascinating.

Heads Up

photo-exhibition01-1A couple of puppet based things to share today. Over the Easter vacation I spent a few days in Taiwan and while I was there I paid a visit to the Taiyuan Asian Puppet Theatre Museum, which is an absolute gem and I thoroughly recommend a visit if you find yourself in Taipei. Spread over four stories of an old colonial merchant’s house, the museum houses a 100 seat puppet theatre and puppet workshop where puppet carver Lai Shi-an plies his craft in front of visitors. However, the exhibit itself is what makes the museum really worth a visit. Beautifully curated from a collection of 10,000 artefacts drawn from right across Asia, it traces the rich history of puppet theatre in the region.

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I also want to share an interesting interview with puppeteer Max Humphries, whose work is largely inspired by Japanese Bunraku. In an article. No strings Attached by Max Dorey 4429097for Exuent, Dorey talks about the anatomy of the puppet, the puppet as actor and the joys of working with no strings attached.

I believe in trying to achieve the best possible mechanisms for a puppets movement and manipulation; finding the line between the needs of the puppet, the puppeteer, the maker and the performance. My ideal would be a theatrical landscape in which the puppet is viewed as actor, without preconceptions

Fascinating, I recommend a read.

Bending Light

fe1c42e4531891ca7abef4377b0834bbI 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, Hakanaïcreated 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.

A Collective Visionary

croppedimage254254-1927-The-Animals-and-Children-took-to-the-streets-Nick-FlintoffOne 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.

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There are also a couple of super articles about their work here and here, both well worth a read.

Scene But Not Heard

mfQueen-bThis 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.

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The second is a series of interviews with theatre designers published by Exeunt. Spread across 18 months, Exeunt talks to Nick PayneChloe Lamford, Es DevlinAmanda 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.

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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.

A Heavy Wei-ght

Shen WeiDriving home from work recently I heard an interview with Chinese-American choreographer and director Shen Wei. Sometimes late to the party, I knew I had heard the name before and with my interest piqued by the interview, which ran as a strand on the BBC World Outlook series, I went digging. Shen came to international renown as lead choreographer at the Beijing Olympics in 2008. In itself this says something about the man and his international standing. To be invited to return to a country which would have once banned and perhaps renounced him for taking citizenship elsewhere, is powerful statement about his talent. It wasn’t this so much that attracted my attention, but his childhood in Hunan Province. Born during the cultural revolution, his father was a director of a Chinese Opera company and he literally grew up in the theatre. This is the BBC interview

Shen went onto study Chinese Opera at The Hunan Arts School and then to perform lead roles with the Hunan State Xian Opera Company. His journey from there to his own celebrated dance company in New York, Shen Wei Dance Arts is a fascinating one and detailed in these two interviews:

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Clearly never a man to stand still, Shen is now gaining credence as a visual artist too and there is a clear link between the two art forms in much of his dance, easily illustrated by his piece for the Olympics:

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You can watch the same video, with an english commentary here. In another piece, Second Visit of the Empress, he brings together Chinese opera and modern western dance in a wonderful fusion of the two forms:

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Before leaving China Shen was one of the founder members of the Guangdong Modern Dance Company and was asked back in 2000 to create a piece called Folding which particularly caught my attention with its stunning imagery. Shen not only choreographed Folding but also designed the costumes, set and make-up.

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Like much contemporary dance, it is hard to draw a line between dance and theatre and the excerpts above make that evident in Shen’s work. For the boy who grew up back stage, the act of making theatre would appear never to be far from the surface.

A Roaring Success

Lion King Las VegasAs those of you who read Theatre Room regularly will know that I’m no great fan of musical theatre.  There are however some exceptions, one being The Lion Kong. I first saw it in Los Angeles many years ago, and have been urging people to go and see it ever since. It first opened in Minneapolis in 1997, quickly transferring to Broadway. in 1999 it opened in London at the Lyceum Theatre, where it is till running 15 years later. In fact, it is currently playing in 10 cities world-wide. In its 17 years it has been seen by an estimated 75 million people and taken $6.2 billion, making it the highest grossing musical ever. Impressive figures indeed.

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In a great article by David Gritten in The Telegraph, How The Lion King became the most successful stage show of all time he quite rightly points to the original director, Julie Taymor, as the creative genius behind the show.

It’s easy to overlook, what with all the trumpeting of huge grosses and audience figures, what a radical piece of theatre The Lion King is, and always was.

Credit for this goes to the prime mover of this stage version, director Julie Taymor, who came from avant-garde, ritual and experimental theatre, and had already used masks and puppetry in other productions. Taymor also helped design the costumes for the Lion King, and even wrote the lyrics for one of its songs, Endless Night.

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She has created a world that is fiercely non-literal, often to moving and wondrous effect. She makes no attempt to disguise the fact that these animals are moved and performed by humans. A drought on the African plain is conveyed by a circle of blue silk gradually vanishing by being pulled through a hole in the stage. When a lioness weeps, she pulls lengths of white ribbon from her eyes. Taymor evokes a waterfall using a huge sheet of billowing silk. A score of actors stride on stage, boxes on their head with long grass sprouting from them; this is Taymor’s way of representing the African savannah.

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All of which seems a long way from the animated film and video of The Lion King, which proved immensely successful for Disney in the 1990s. They’re agreeable entertainments, based on a hero-myth story redolent of Hamlet. As a young lion cub, Simba is hoodwinked by his malevolent uncle Scar into believing he was responsible for his father the king Mufasa’s death. Simba flees before returning as an adult to reclaim his birthright from Scar, who has installed himself as king.

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This is all fine as far as it goes, yet there’s a cosiness and reassurance about the film that Taymor withholds; in the stage version there is simply more at stake, along with a recognition that life is fragile. She also gave far greater emphasis to the film’s female characters. There’s a tough-mindedness about her method of story-telling; it’s surprising that Disney, to its great credit, approved such a radical reboot of the film.

Gritten’s article is well worth a read in its entirety here.  Another one, this time by Adam Sherwin here in The Independent explores the money-making side of the The Lion King. Apparently Sirs Tim Rice and Elton John, the composers and librettists of the musical, have made a whopping US$120 million apiece from the show!

To finish with,  it was recently announced that Disney have adapted the musical for schools which will be licensed for performance from January 2015. Disney, Rice and John will no doubt need to get deeper pockets.

By way of a post script, I should say that the show’s appeal for me is the ingenious way in which the animal characters have been brought to life with puppetry.  The man behind most of the puppets is Michael Curry, and there are a couple of interesting interviews with him here and here about his work on the show .

Soviet By Design

c3ada36768c4bcfd35c1fc16ab83985bMy 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.

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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.

Lyubov Popova’s fantastic mechanical set for The Magnanimous Cuckold, 1922.

Lyubov Popova’s fantastic mechanical set for The Magnanimous Cuckold, 1922.

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.

Vladimir Tatlin, costume design for Life for the Tsar, 1913-15.

Vladimir Tatlin, costume design for Life for the Tsar, 1913-15.

“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.”

The Queen of the Martians, costume design by Alexandra Exter for the 1924 sci-fi film Aelita, based on a Tolstoy novel

The Queen of the Martians, costume design by Alexandra Exter for the 1924 sci-fi film Aelita, based on a Tolstoy novel

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.

Alexander Rodchenko costume design for Bedbug, 1929, a comedy by Mayakovsky whose hero is frozen for 50 years to await a Communist paradise

Alexander Rodchenko costume design for Bedbug, 1929, a comedy by Mayakovsky whose hero is frozen for 50 years to await a Communist paradise

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.