Ambiguous Categories – a puppet & poet on tour in Ireland.

This essay was written for Unima Australia’s website earlier this year – it reflects upon the experience of touring in Ireland.

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In October 2013 poet Andy Jackson and myself took our collaborative work of poetry/ puppetry, ‘Ambiguous Mirrors’ on tour to Ireland – it was a mutually surprising experience for performers and audiences alike.

Puppets are controversial things it seems, burdened with presumptions about what they are, what they represent and where they belong. Upon arriving in Connemara for Clifden Arts week people were curious, they openly interrogated us about how poetry and puppetry could be combined, given that their understanding of puppetry was that it was ‘kids stuff’ – would a fusion of puppetry and poetry not be a tasteless and crass thing? I actually enjoyed the candour of the people I met in Ireland – one person openly said ‘That sounds awful’ when I described our project.

Poetry has a long and esteemed history in Ireland, so to suggest it could be performed with puppetry seemed sacrilegious. I was reminded about how little is known about the potential of puppetry as an art form and how it carries a stubborn low-brow historical association with it.

Interestingly, although there was a photo of Andy, the puppet and myself in the festival program, a few people we spoke to did not recognise my puppet as a puppet. Indeed after the performance we had many passionate debates about the semantics of whether the thing I had created was a puppet. People were adamant that puppet was not the correct label for the object I had made or the style in which it was performed. It intrigued me that there seemed such a strong dissonance between people’s associations of puppetry and what I had created.

Perhaps the most moving and startling feedback I received from an engrossed audience member was the comment: “Now that I have seen him, I am sorry I called him a puppet.”

Despite the reservations that people expressed about what collaboration between poetry and puppetry might entail – we did have a solitary audience member walk out of one performance clutching her disappointed child (clearly she had expected to see a ‘show for kids’!) – ‘Ambiguous Mirrors’ was well attended and the reactions were startling in their appreciation and depth of feeling. During performance it was as if the whole audience was hushed, poised and utterly ‘with’ us for the duration. People came up onto the stage afterwards, moved beyond words, tears flowing, hands extended.

As an artist I found this performance a profoundly liberating experience – ‘Ambiguous Mirrors’ is a sparse work with very ‘naked’, simple elements – poem, puppet, song. The effect that it had on people however was not simple and reminded me of the power of language and the uncanny lure of the puppet on stage. I was powerfully reminded that there doesn’t need to be elaborate production values, multitudinous effects or a convoluted story to hold people and to hold them rapturously – for it was rapture that ‘Ambiguous Mirrors’ provoked.

‘Ambiguous Mirrors’ is risky in its simplicity and preparedness to share human truths. It strives to evoke emotion with the space around one beautifully crafted poem, two bodies on stage (one extraordinary, Andy has Marfan Syndrome and writes about non-normative embodiment and identity) – and finally, a little puppet, lovingly crafted in the image of its sitter – a tiny, animated mirror.

I re-discovered that silence and stillness could be as dynamic as action. To simply be and breathe with and through the puppet in response to the emotions expressed on stage can be as daring and transcendent as grand dramatic gesture. To resist the impulse to ‘fill’ space with movement is a difficult thing to do – and to maintain ‘aliveness’ in a moment of emptiness demands absolute commitment to and belief in the life of the performing object.

In these moments I came to know the ‘puppet’ I had created in a different way – he seemed to be an entity unto himself. He became an instrument of expression straddling the thin divide between life and non-life. Such an instrument is hard to categorise, to name. Perhaps the puppet is the ‘ambiguous mirror’ in this performance.

~

In Ireland audiences were generous, astute and quick to enter into discussion. Here we found a culture steeped in poetry and music. Here we felt welcomed with our offering of poetry, puppetry and song.  Andy and I felt greatly affirmed as artists and were reminded of the reason behind the desire to make work and keep offering it to audiences. It is the deep satisfaction of communion through the acknowledgement of our shared humanity.

The transfiguring of loss and vulnerability into metaphor and poetry; the joyous triad of a tiny sculpted man, his living, speaking flesh-double and my hands, our intentions – flowing.

 

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Many thanks to Dr Robyn Rowland AO, Arts Victoria and all our supporters on Pozible – we couldn’t have done it without you!

 

 

Ruminations on transcending sadness

Lately I have been focusing on sculpting and writing. Performance and puppetry are on hold for a while as I recover from ill-health and reconsider my life and creativity.

I have been writing a series of micro essays on various aspects of living with depression – the most recent can be found here on the ABC Open website.

Here is a link to a short essay “By a River”

https://open.abc.net.au/explore/80829

And here, a recording of me reading my piece “The Clouds”.

~

The 44th Summer

To all of you who have experienced a season of significant existential doubt – you will understand that this has been a strange and quiet year – a gap-year of sorts – the year my certainty broke. Many aspects of my life are on hold – I am re-appraising my art and theatre practice, my ways of thinking about the world and what constitutes a ‘good life’ – and I am getting my health back.

Shared here is a link to an article, “The 44th Summer”  that I recently contributed to a mental health awareness project. It is a re-working of a post on this blog “Black Dogs and Assumed Vocations” – but charts the last 11 months in more detail…and from the hindsight I have gained in that time.

https://open.abc.net.au/explore/13jq3ko

If you are unable to open this link – contact me and I’ll find an alternative way of sharing the content with you.

Rachael;s portrait 9 72ppi

 

 

Opportunity Shop

While travelling through a small Tasmanian town I passed a bric-a-brac shop – in the window was a luminous green vintage sewing machine. Upon entering the shop I was submerged by the honeyed tones of a counter tenor singing baroque – my senses converged on the waves of music, the array of objects – wicker baskets, tea cups, crocheted rugs, books, glassware – a jumble of times-past, a hoard of the bygone.

The proprietor was singular, commanding. She wore a large kaftan with a satin sheen and sharp red lipstick. Her hair was audaciously black and her eyewear too – but it was her voice, her voice… It was deep and sonorous; its tones billowed and caressed like the slippery folds of her kaftan and hinted at a life beyond bric-a-brac.

I complemented her taste in music and as we chatted she disclosed that she herself had been a singer – she had been known as the ‘lady bass’. She was a contralto who had specialised in baroque music and had trained with the best, but had had a crisis of confidence and had fallen silent for the past 12 years.

It was striking to discover the parts of our stories that overlapped. I too trained as a contralto and have not sung professionally for many years now; I too have had a major crisis of confidence. As I commiserated and began to hint at my own decade of silence, I asked what had caused her to stop singing, if she missed it.  It was then that a wave of pain crossed her face, a wave that I recognised – I had stepped too close to the source of her pain.

Song is a beautiful tyrant – its absence is felt as keenly as its presence. A singer in the exile of silence endures the horrible nagging ambivalence of losing faith in the thing that has once defined them. A singer understands that song has been both a source of transcendence and destruction; it has been the thing that constituted your very being and has also dismantled you.

In the silence grows doubt, yearning. You try to rebuild, to keep your own voice hidden from your imagining of future possibilities – but the seed of it sits there in the back of your mind, of your throat like a degrading heirloom, a missed opportunity.

~

We stood quietly for moment, eyes not meeting. I bought the green sewing machine and a single elegant, yellow cup.

 

 

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On Black Dogs and Assumed Vocations.

Black Dogs

Depression is not sadness – it is cessation.

At 44 years of age, I have found myself struck down by a strange and paralysing sense of refusal. It has resulted in me having to cancel a forthcoming season of a solo show – and also having to quit my job. I have recently returned from touring Ireland and somehow as my last ounce of resolve gave way to travel fatigue, the existential dam burst.

As the shadow of depression has deepened, I have prepared for a kind of death, have begun relinquishing my attachments and identifications –  loosening my grip on what has sustained or given shape to my life. I have been attending to my daily life as if it were my own wake; present, but not present, harbouring the little secret that I am not actually there; that I am insubstantial – illusory.

I have ‘died’ this way numerous times before – as a singer of opera, a voice for hire, community artist, gifted child – a young person with ‘potential’. Gone is the frantic youth eager to please, gone too, the newly initiated lover chasing new highs – in their place  stands a maturing woman. Her skin grows flawed, her body hums on it’s inevitable trajectory towards change. She’s aware of the depth of her own ignorance, knows that time is finite and that the world harbours cruelty, irrationality and unrest…

And so my ambivalence and sadness grow a little deeper and more quietly insistent with each year that passes. But I know also that on good days this sadness can resemble a state of grace, or even liberation.

The acute and vibrant aliveness of things is bittersweet – it dazzles and stuns me, burns bright and searing into the core of my sadness.The truth is, I don’t want to become too attached to anything – because I know that you and I and every living creature must lose everything. Life is a compulsory paring back – we fall, a particle at a time, into nothingness.

Behind me (and all of us) lays a slew of old identities, previous loves, possessions, houses, cities, relationships and memories – ghost towns of the self.

 ~

SONY DSCVocation?

As a consequence of some decisions I made in my late thirties to study postgraduate puppetry, I am becoming known as a maker of puppet theatre. But is that what I am? Puppetry has been a means to an end, not a life-long vocation. Labels worry me deeply – they evoke a kind of existential claustrophobia. To be called a ‘puppeteer’, an artist – or even a ‘creative’ at once affirms and unravels.

But herein lies the problem – I have always been loath to identify with any single direction. My only vocation it would seem is shrinking from any one fixed perception of what that might be.

As I grow up into my middle-aged self, I am faced with a dilemma – that of my own temperament and other people’s expectations. People are seemingly interested in the work I make, while I am deeply diffident and reluctant to be public. While I am touched that the work engenders interest and at times delight, I have no passionate attachment or identification to any singular art form.

It is the process of investigation that engages me, the personal satisfaction of chipping articulation out of the nebulous, making meaning out of the tiny inchoate mysteries that demand attention and expression. The communion of sharing the work with others is an added gift, but neither a demand, agenda nor an expectation.

Puppetry has been a sojourn, but how can any one thing be the final destination? As a medium it intrigues in so far as I can make objects and harness their latent anthropomorphic qualities in order to perform – beyond that I feel no attraction or compulsion towards the form. And it is ironic that I gravitate towards making theatre as theatre is a collective art form and am not a comfortable collaborator. I find it excruciating to allow someone else into the space of my creative process; to invite another rhythm, thought pattern or shape to intrude into the silent space of creative percolation is highly disruptive. In that private room of the mind, a quiet unnamable shape forms just below the level of consciousness – to hear another’s voice in that room could shatter a window or topple the furniture…

Collaboration physically and psychologically distresses me because I am simultaneously a chronic accommodator as well as an autocrat – and in the process of trying to be open to other’s input, I split into conflicted directions and lose my original impetus. So what then am I left with?  Refusal…?

I also acknowledge that collaboration doesn’t always hinder but offers the possibility for expansion, for unseen possibilities…perhaps it is a question of at what stage of the process you let another in, rather than keeping the room definitively locked.

My partner Andy suggested that I am perhaps an artistic nomad – perpetually setting up camp, and then moving on. This way of being is a difficult fit with a society that values consistency and specialisation.

In this limbo between shedding ‘what has been’ and growing into ‘what might become’, I am questioning what to keep and what to let go of. I have no answers. For the time being all I have is this space, these words.

~

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Duality is a traveller.

Recently myself and friend/collaborator Andy Jackson took our work of poetry and puppetry, ‘Ambiguous Mirrors’ on tour to Ireland. It was an extraordinary experience – but a twofold one. Here you will find two short essays – one about performing and its pleasures and revelations, the second about the overwhelming nature of travel, fatigue and depression.

~

Naming.

Pauses can be as dynamic as action – this is what I discovered while performing in Ireland. To simply be and breathe with and through the puppet in response to emotions expressed on stage is a daring and potentially transcendent dramatic gesture. To resist the impulse to ‘fill’ space with movement is a difficult thing to do – and to maintain ‘aliveness’ in a moment of emptiness demands absolute commitment to and belief in the life of the performing object.

In these moments I came to know the puppet I had created in a different way – he seemed to be an entity unto himself. He became something other than a puppet

The most startling and intriguing feedback I received from an audience member was;

“Now that I have seen him I am sorry that I called him a puppet.”

So what then do I call this thing I have made?  – a simulacrum, a doppelgänger, a sculpted actor, an inanimate impersonator – a decoy?

This instrument of expression that straddles the thin divide between life and non-life is hard to categorise, to name. Perhaps the puppet is the ‘ambiguous mirror’ – or as I suggested in my recent Masters thesis, an ‘existential mirror’.

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In Ireland audiences were generous, astute and quick to enter into discussion. Voluble and intelligent, here we found a culture steeped in poetry and music – here we felt welcomed with our offering of poetry, puppetry and song.  Andy and I felt greatly affirmed as artists and were reminded of the reason behind the desire to make work and keep offering it to audiences. It is the deep satisfaction of communion –the acknowledgement of our shared humanity.

The transfiguring of loss and vulnerability into metaphor and poetry; the joyous triad of a tiny sculpted man, his living, speaking flesh-double and my hands, our intentions – flowing.

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~

Wheeling

While wandering in Ireland recently, I came undone. The low diffuse sky and bare boned land, marked by thousands of years of human occupation caused me to sink into the gap between continuity and its absence. It was a long and painful free fall.

The bodily recognition I experienced towards this landscape existed outside of logic and time. It sang from deep within the unexplored spaces of my ancestry -it’s inaudible hum evoking a nostalgic grief I scarcely understood.

Although the land was alive with the markings of past eras, silence hung impermeably between the past and the present moment. Ruins stood open to the elements – churches, tombs and broken castles; grey stone walls traversed every slope, slicing the land into ancient claims.

Here was a wilderness infested by signifiers of religious and cultural meaning – in every crevice stood a dour Mary, in every window a chipped, plaster saint. On lonely escarpments Jesus thrust his ribs to the low grey sky, stick-thin arms flung across a crucifix. On the stony expanses, cairns tilted and endured; the rocks stacked like thoughts, one upon the other. At the sea’s perimeter the remnants of prehistoric forts made concentric circles in the grass.

In draughty backstreets archaeological digs yawned open, dusty post-mortems, fenced and floodlit. In the museum bog bodies lay desiccated and inert in their glass booths, as brown and amorphous as coconut fibre. They lay twisted in eternal rictus, lifeless beyond the hot, deliquescent vitality of decomposition.

Travel is a metaphor for life; we pass through but once and must relinquish what has been learned, loved, or passionately apprehended. Life and travel both are then lost forever. As I wandered Ireland I became a ghost, a citizen of no place. Ireland ran through me like water – I was porous and could not contain it.

Its ancientness and accumulated layers rendered me infinitesimal. My presence disappeared into the silence of the bogs; it drained away with the colour of the sky, passed across impassive exteriors of buildings as shadow and was carried away by the mute swan. The sky above an elm turned black with the bodies of rooks as they wheeled and screeched for roost at sundown and I, just like incalculable multitudes before me, was of no consequence.

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The story of Ambiguous Mirrors

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Ambiguous Mirrors is the first collaboration between myself and my partner Andy Jackson. The work, a puppetry/poetry collaboration is a response to Andy’s poem ‘9/10/1973 M3′ which explores the emotional and physical legacy of the poet’s deceased father.  Andy shares the rare genetic condition ‘Marfans syndrome’ with the father who he never came to know. For Andy the condition has meant living with an unusual physical embodiment – a theme that he evokes and examines in his poetry. In his own words:

The body I inhabit, or perhaps I should say, the body that I am, is visually extraordinary, due to a condition known as Marfan Syndrome. I am six foot three, and weigh around sixty-five kilograms; I am slender, with long limbs. My spine curves dramatically from side-to-side and front-to-back; I would be perhaps six foot six if my spine were straight. In a way, my body has easily adjusted to this shape. But in another way, this is the shape of my body, and it is normal. I do not experience pain or physical difficulty, as some people have assumed. My body experiences its shape in much the same way as any body experiences its shape.

 Andy’s incredible poem ‘9/10/1973 M3′,  is a meditation on loss, familial similarity and emotional absence. Reading like a poignant conversation with his unknown parent the poem begins:

Knowing only your earth-gripped body can accept this

wreath of questions, I call the Cemetery Trust. 

 

I clutch, for the first time, the date you died, a grid position.

The gates are held open by sleepless weeds,

 

their shadows unseen, locked inside by the sun.

It’s hot.  Removing another layer, I sift the crunch

 

of dry earth for sympathy in the sound, for some hint

at how I’ll feel when finally face-to-stone,

 

though I know every echo is open to interpretation.

When I reach your section, I find

 

it barren, abandoned by flowers and rain.

So many unmarked plots in this desert, no oasis.

 

The gardeners drive past, trailing boredom and dust. 

I walk the aisles until I become just one

 

more sigh in a crowd of upper-case names.

Grief is not a hand but an absence –

 

it flies in the breeze echoing in the curves of my ears

and reveals as much of what the grave knows

 

as the magpie eyeing me from a mute monument.

The portrait puppet I created for this work is a response to both the poem and to Andy’s striking physical presence. Like poetry, puppetry is a rich forum for exploring issues of embodiment and identity – curious about the potential ‘conversation’ between our art forms we collaborated, uncovering connections between object, word, physicality and memory. At times this was a disconcerting process for both of us. For me I was aware that I was dealing with an incredibly sensitive area of Andy’s life and also working directly with his likeness (a process which is never easy , but is particularly heightened for Andy who lives with a visibility that few of us have experienced). For Andy, he expressed the anxiety of opening such a personal poem to the act of collaboration – and also to be faced with a tiny emergent ‘Doppleganger’ in clay was at times harrowing and highly emotional. 

Like a hall of mirrors this project began to unfold – the puppet coming to represent both Andy (child and adult), his deceased father (with whom he shared an uncanny likeness) and an entity in it’s own right. 

 

In the shadow of the Ring Road overpass,

I wait at the bank of the creek for your image

 

to appear, your arms to reach out and around me. 

Apart from death, movement is the only constant. 

 

Ducks glide past rubbish – this is the consolation. 

You don’t keep the appointments I make, you slip in

 

through fissures between thoughts that collapse

as I catch myself in shop windows and see

 

your nose, your hairline, your spine…

My dead father, the roaring trucks overhead

 

couldn’t care less, and the neck of the youngest

swan is strong enough to break a human arm

 

or heart.  I want the texture of feathers to speak

to this skin, to smother my fear I will never be held. 

 

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The result has been a simple, but emotionally charged and visually arresting work which has captured audiences at various literary festivals across Australia. Now we have been invited to share this work with audiences in Cork, Galway and Clifden. We are incredibly honoured to have been invited and are intensely curious to experience audience feedback in another country. Andy and I are currently planning to work up triptych of poems into another visual theatre collaboration – this process has been deeply rewarding and held rich revelations along the way.

 

As you know we are currently raising funds towards our tour – please consider pledging to this project. There are rewards associated with your pledges – yes, we will gift you with poetry and your own cast of the puppets hands or head depending on your donation.

To donate click on this link, any contribution will be deeply appreciated:

http://www.pozible.com/project/27597/

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I will finish this post with Andy’s beautiful words  – on seeing a photo his late father -the poem concludes:

She hands me a photo. 

Sense-memories I’ve wanted so much erupt in my skull. 

 

In a cigarette-scented black suit and tie, salesman-like,

you sit solid on the porch.  I rest on your lap, gazing away,

 

my child-face vague and adrift as if already swimming

the channels within.  Are you in here?  Your big hands

 

and slim fingers close around us like unsaid things. 

You are looking into the camera, into her I guess. 

 

In this shot, I can’t see the unnerving curve

of your back, but I know.  You didn’t talk about it,

 

your body a vault that ran out of air.  Later,

different times brushing against each other, 

 

a thunder in my head, I trace the lake slowly,

my bones resounding.  Your mother was born

 

in the century before last.  You just got on with it. 

Why can’t I?  A moorhen senses my feet

 

crush the grass, signs himself against the sky,

trailing the long red legs he inherited.

 

 

 

To read more about Andy and his poetry go to: amongtheregulars.wordpress.com