Beyond the black curtain

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We have just finished performing our work Each Map of Scars at the Castlemaine State Festival. I am deeply tired. The whole town seems to be stilled by a post-festival hush – for ten days artists, performers and audiences came together in a mutual flowering. We bloomed brightly, like it mattered – now we turn to Autumn.

Theatre is a peculiar beast. You work long and hard, poring over excruciating detail for hours and months. You inhabit an idea wholly (sometimes at the expense of other aspects of your life) and commit to its completion. You show the work in a season that may last no longer than a few nights – then it’s over. The best you can hope for is some lingering impression in the people who attended, perhaps some modest transformative moment of recognition of disquiet or beauty, perhaps even dislike –  again, the ripple is only briefly seen and held in the moment of applause, sometimes encountered a few days beyond, as you bump into people who came and saw.

The aftermath of a theatre season is lonely and confusing. The work that consumed you, now sits ignored, no longer front and centre of your attention; those files on the computer, props on a shelf, the objects piled in a corner, built for a single purpose – now what? You consider what life the work might have in the future  – how to reinvent its relevancy, find new opportunities for it to come to life, be shown once more…?

I feel just like the puppets I made  –  paused and inert after seven long months of filming stop motion animation. They lie in my studio, seemingly without purpose –   I’m not sure of mine either.

I am reminded that by creating something we manufacture meaning. In the wake of such intensity, a sense of meaninglessness can pervade. In this space of quiet unknowing I’d like to step beyond the black curtain of closing night and reflect on some aspects of this project.

~

Our work was not an easy piece, it tackled loss, ambivalence, impermanence and pain. It delved into the bodily, both the unusual and the ordinary. Everyone of us involved, including people who volunteered to be photographed for the final section of the piece offered up something raw, personal, vulnerable and deeply human. This is how Andy Jackson, who performed and whose poems informed the visual and theatrical elements, described Each Map of Scars:

It explores physical likeness, bodily conflict, grief, imperfection and disability – but it also explores how writing can be embodied and how bodies can take on words. It’s not typical theatre, it’s even a bit anti-theatrical. It’s minimal, emotional, but also self-aware – we want to remind people that we are diverse, vulnerable bodies sharing a world.

A.Jackson

I should say that underpinning this work is his poetry, as well as his physical presence. Andy lives with a genetic condition which has made his body visibly different:

Seeing my physical shape, people make assumptions about who I am, what my subjective experience is like, the meaning of this body. This isn’t unusual. It’s what we do…

Not only his poetry, but his courage and willingness to be on stage has in part shaped this work, its content and the way in which audiences receive it. Words and visibility are core to Andy’s eloquent and deeply thoughtful activism. About the process of writing and its affect he says:

It [is] important to me to not only be able to use language to affect meaning, but to affect how we relate to each other, how meaning attaches to bodies, or moves between bodies. And of course, this is not only about this body, but about all our bodies, in their diversity and complexity.

A.Jackson

And indeed this work, reached out, implicated and touched other bodies/all our bodies. By and large the work received great appreciation – we got a standing ovation (which I found deeply moving) and people seemed to respond to the vulnerability and openness of the work with a reciprocal preparedness to be open and emotionally raw in return. Here is some feedback I received:

…the poetry, the music, the twins, the animation… it’s very powerful, a bit scary, a lot scary actually. Sadness, loss, separation, shame. So evocative… this is a tremendously important piece of work. Its topic, about difference, and deformity, which has so often been overlooked in our societal obsession with looking beautiful… is very timely. Your work allows people the chance to peek under the slipping white sheet and look at the raw wound, the cut and the stained skin…people have an opportunity to view the different body… I don’t say I enjoyed watching it, but it was strangely very beautiful and made me remember a part of my own story that I had not thought about for a long time.

A.Phillips

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For me this work has highlighted some primary things that I do and don’t respond to in theatre, aesthetic preferences which inform what I create.

I’m impatient with edifice and conceit. I like the material to be about presence and nakedness – that probably sounds ludicrous given that I work with puppets, but for me puppetry as a medium is capable of great directness, poetic delicacy and metaphor – it also risks monumental failure if it lapses into unintentional caricature or pretension. In creating the conjoined twins for Secessionist, I strove to build two figures dignified and realistic enough to empathise with, but improbable enough to avoid being perceived as caricatures of living twins. You can read more about Secessionist and the puppets here.

Here’s Andy’s reflection about the process:

How real is this world we’re creating? We decided that what was most important was the psychology of these characters, and that their experience is also somehow ours. There is a huge risk in creating work about extreme embodiment of it being a surreal, unrelatable alien world, or a freak-show.

We avoided this in two ways – first, by including the hands of the film-makers, puppeteering, which made the artifice visible, while simultaneously making the puppets seem more vulnerable. Second, the focus was always on their emotional states … through framing, editing and music, which meant we gave them dignity, and … their visceral experiences leaked from across the screen into the audience’s imagination.

A.J

I’m not very interested in straightforward narrative or storytelling – I’m much more inclined to work with the psychological or ‘felt’ aspects of the material, even if this creates a haunting sense of disorientation. I would rather an audience be impacted by something in a way which raises questions and evokes feelings rather than having a straightforward relationship to the material.  Working with poetry is very freeing in this regard as it too, isn’t necessarily concerned with linearity, exposition or the literal. It exists in a heightened place that takes you to the raw nerve, the bare bones. I think poetry it is an excellent companion for puppetry,  both mediums can be as impressionistic as they can be decisive.

Puppets should never speak – I don’t think puppets are fluent in our language, they excel at silence and say the unsayable through the strange paradox of being/non being. Little simulacra evoke empathy through gesture and presence – not through strange voices, flapping jaws and ill-synchronised lips… (is my prejudice showing? 🙂 )

I like to work intuitively rather than working to a schedule with a predicted outcome. While filming Secessionist (the puppet animation part of Each Map of Scars), filmmaker Leonie Van Eyk and myself kept finding that if we entered the studio with a hard intention and the expectation of a particular outcome we didn’t do our best work. Our shooting succeeded best on days when we happened upon chance ideas (usually dictated by the properties of the puppets and the materials at hand) and let those ideas continue to grow spontaneously – if we followed that spark of passion we had rich, interesting footage at the end of the day.

Working at 24 frames per second gave me time to get to know the puppets in a way I’ve never done before – it was as much a collaboration with objects as it was with people. Those objects were imperfect, stubborn, flawed and fragile. During filming tiny fingers would snap, arms would fracture, necks would only bend so far and the eyes could only swivel to a certain point. Because the polymer clay was brittle I could not tension the figures sufficient for them to stay upright so we had to do most of the filming with the puppets on their backs – this constraint gave rise to a surprising amount of invention. It also broke down any tendency to verge on ‘realism’ – we felt free to dismantle the figures, to reconfigure them in absurd, beautiful and distressing ways. We had to invent realms in which it made sense that these legless figures were floating, reclining, connected and disarticulated. The physical limitations became the palette and rationale through which we explored the themes within the poem. As I write this it also strikes me that the puppets through their limitations, inhabit the imperfect nature of embodiment and disability – the every themes of the show itself. Working with matter/materials is, by its very nature unpredictable, changeable, mutable. So it is, working/living within a body.

More soon.

~

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Photos courtesy Julie Millowick, Castlemaine State Festival

Progeny (poem for a puppet)

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Progeny

“Thine eyes did see mine unfinished substance …”

(Psalms 139:16)

 

In a miniature bed you lie, handkerchief for a blanket,

head so light it makes no indent in your tiny pillow.

 

Assemblage of wire and clay, glass and graphite, you are

an outpouring of love, the closest I have to progeny.

 

Dry slit of mouth, pained and vivid as a cold sore,

expression caught between startle and melancholy.

 

I dreamt once that you came to life, and ran from me.

I called you – but could not find your name.

 

At the bottom of my grandparent’s garden, I found you

in the shadows beyond the woodshed where,

 

a lifetime ago, I had loitered, morose beneath plum trees,

the summer my cousin died. Little doll, you were radiant.

 

Inside your hollow head, a ripening;

glass eyes gleaming, your tombstone pallor thawing.

 

Tell me your name.

 

Leaning in, you whispered a name so plain and small

I could not bring myself to repeat it.

 

But to be a mother is to accept the ways

in which our children fail to shine.

 

So I said your name and colour rose in your cheeks,

brittle fingers flexed and you moved towards me,

 

teeth chattering, stick-thin arms

winding tight around my pulsing neck.

Into the forest with the Scar Brothers

After a three-year hiatus I’m back.

For the past six months I have been working on a new show “Each Map of Scars” based on four poems by the talented Andy Jackson who writes poetry, essays (and currently a PhD) examining bodily otherness. The show is booked for the Castlemaine State Festival, March 2017. http://castlemainefestival.com.au/events/each-map-of-scars/

Below is our artists statement:

What happens when we encounter a body that is ‘different’, and what is it like to inhabit one? With great tenderness and power, Each Map of Scars probes behind essential yet rarely asked questions about body diversity and identity. Each Map of Scars uses poetry, puppetry and projected image, to bring audiences into an intimate encounter with our shared human vulnerability.

For me personally, the making of this show has marked an emergence from a very difficult period of ill-health and questions around the sustainability and continuation of my practice as a theatre maker and creator of objects for performance. What better place to start work than a place of “great tenderness and power…(probing) questions about body diversity and identity…”

About six months ago I set about building two ball jointed figures (who have affectionately come to be known as the Scar brothers). My intention was to build these figures for stop motion animation, an entirely new medium for me. I have never built ball-jointed figures before either – so I was in entirely unchartered territory.

These characters were created in response to Andy’s poem ‘Secessionist‘, here are some excerpts:

I feel a breath at my neck and wake. A dream
only a stranger’s brain could make jolts me back
into my body. Who else roams these bones?

The morning sun cannot melt him away.
He throws back the sheets as I reach for the snooze,
my brain a dead leg he drags through the day…

The poem has three parts – the first part examines the ambivalence of being conjoined and the desire for separation, the second part sees the twins surgically separated, only one survives. The third part is written from the perspective of the surviving twin – it is a searing rumination on absence and loss, and what constitutes wholeness…

I feel a breath at my neck

and expect you there –

but it’s a hard wind,                   your absence

pushing at my bones

through an open window.        Where

are you now?

Whenever I read Andy’s poem I have imagined the face of a boy, fragile, melancholic, enigmatic  – deeply lost within his complex predicament.

I decided to work with Sculpey as I wanted a fragile, fleshly finish – translucent and chalky. As I set about sculpting, the boy gradually ‘showed’ himself. In order to create his twin brother, I made a press mould from silicone from which I duplicated the second head. Due to the pliable nature of the polymer clay I was unable to make an exact duplicate which was perfect – the differences are subtle but the individuality of each character has come about through hand-finishing and handling the raw material. People frequently ask me if the puppets are based on a real person; “Who are they?’ they ask, “someone specific?” –   well, yes and no. They in part, made themselves in reference to the poem, but not in reference to any living person. And could I visualise their exact faces before I began? – no. They came into focus and into being through the making.

The whole process as been highly emergent – after creating the figures, I found a small wooden bed the exact proportions of the puppets. I made a mattress and pillows for it. While pondering whether the puppets had literal bodies I imagined they might be growing from a conjoined/entangled mistletoe mass, so I gathered many dry sticks and fallen mistletoe to experiment with.

the mistletoe…

Eventually I settled on the idea that the puppets do share a midriff and can be bodily reconfigured in many ways that aren’t literal. Sometimes they are disembodied heads, sometimes one face grows from the others rib cage and so forth.

As I started filming with videographer Leonie Van Eyk it became clear that the mistletoe was a psychological space; a space of dreaming in which things are liminal, imagined, lost and found. It is the forest in which dreams of severance occur, but also a place of memory, searching and irretrievable loss.

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lost in the mistletoe…

Like the poem’s three parts, the film has three distinct realms; the bed, the surgical dish and the forest. It is the interplay between these three spaces that compliments the poem and through which we can explore the themes without literally ‘enacting’ the poem with puppets. Here are some stills with fragments of the poem…

I feel a breath at my neck and wake. A dream only a stranger’s brain could make jolts me back into my body. Who else roams these bones?

But every life is a hive of many energies. And tonight, as he slips into sleep, a molecular frequency keeps me awake, sharpening this knife.

Hold me again and forgive me for letting them kill you, those philosophers with scalpels. They make a life normal.

We are in the final stages of our filming now and beginning the first edit – sound is to be the next development, combining spoken word, music and sound effects.

Wish us well.

Re-emerging

It’s been a long while since I’ve posted anything here – life has hurled some challenges my way in the past 3 years and subsequently theatre making has taken a back seat, but recently I have begun to make work again.

A new piece “Each Map of Scars” is currently in progress and will be featuring at a theatre festival early in 2017. A collaboration with poet Andy Jackson, the piece will build on our previous work Ambiguous Mirrors. Based on a triptych of three poems we will also be joining with videographer/animator Leonie Van Eyk.

Here the blurb for our forthcoming show:

you are disabled

            whether you admit it or not

            did you know that?

(from ‘Unfinished’, Andy Jackson)

What happens when we encounter bodies that are different? What is it like to inhabit one? With great tenderness and power, “Each Map of Scars” probes essential yet rarely asked questions of bodily identity. Based on a triptych of poems, Each Map of Scars probes issues of unusual embodiment from different perspectives.

This moving and thought-provoking triptych of short performance works brings audiences into an intimate encounter with bodily diversity and human vulnerability using poetry, puppetry and projected image.

~

Below is the conjoined twin puppet I have been working on. It will be manipulated live on stage and also used to create a stop motion animation. Incidently, the puppets were entered into a sculpture exhibition recently and won a prize at the fabulous Spring Sculpture show at Lot19

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These puppets have been created in response to this poem which appeared in Andy’s 2010 collection ‘Among the Regulars’ :

Secessionist

 I feel a breath at my neck and wake. A dream
only a stranger’s brain could make jolts me back
into my body. Who else roams these bones?

 The morning sun cannot melt him away.
He throws back the sheets as I reach for the snooze,
my brain a dead leg he drags through the day.

 How much can physiology explain? He puts on clothes
I know don’t suit us, eats the food I can’t bear to taste,
loops memories I’d rather lose. I’m allergic

 to the pills he takes that make us well.
My thoughts fall from the tree he grows.
Once I spoke up – he slapped me, I punched him

 in the guts. It hurt us both. On the surface,
all is calm. Skin keeps us singular.
In the gym, in a mantra of movement and sweat,

 tense men furtively scan me for sutures,
questions crushed beneath their teeth. But every life
is a hive of many energies. And tonight, as he slips

 into sleep, a molecular frequency keeps me awake,
sharpening this knife.

~

In the meantime I will keep posting as the process develops.

 

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