The Vanity of Star-dust

Figuratively and literally I have been down a mine. In March 2012, three performances of Hutch took place in a disused goldmine in the Central Victorian town of Maldon. The making of Hutch has been a slow burning process with many unexpected micro destinations along the way.

Did I stay true to my original vision? – Yes and no. Through the process of redeveloping Hutch (and considering the work in relation to my research question centering around anthropomorphism and transgression) the piece enlarged in the scope of its themes. In the original work in progress 2008, Hutch was a deeply personal, simple and straightforward expression of the associations I have with an episode of my mother’s life and the reverberations it had with my own upbringing.

My program notes read:

As an empty nester my mother bought herself a rabbit. Within weeks, her care had become so obsessive that her house had been transformed into a rabbit hutch. Watching this relationship unfold prompted me to think about how in the absence of human company we create substitutes. As human beings we ‘anthropomorphise’ companions into being whether they be inanimate objects, utensils, a doll – a rabbit.

As imagination and anthropomorphism are the animating forces within puppetry, puppetry seems an ideal place from which to explore this territory, to watch this story unfold.

And so it began –  a woman, a giant infant rabbit, a disused mine and the desire to tell. In this most recent re-iteration the initial compulsion to tell (which teetered on the verge of catharsis) cooled and the work opened up to delve into more layered psychological territory. The show investigated slippages and thresholds – the slippage between innocent/malevolent, alive/dead, and intention/distraction, humor and dark. And the thresholds of tenderness/ brutality, animated/inert, hilarious and tragic. The work also played with the alive/dead paradox – the way in which something can be suffused with vitality one moment and in the blink of an eye, utterly vacated – it’s meaning or identity turned upside down.

In the rehearsal room we spent quite a bit of time playing with the qualities of different objects – the material properties of the props; the squeaking wheels of the dilapidated pram, the prone and upright positions of the antique toileting chair, the diaphanous billowing of a yellowed nightie and the inert greasiness of an old chopping block.

I spent time responding to these objects gesturally, emotionally and theatrically – playing with shapes, moods, the details of little interventions i.e. passing my arms through the bars of a cradle, imitating the scoop of its architecture with my body, perching, rocking, wheeling, circling. At the end of each day I would write-up a map of gestures or discoveries.

The alive/dead paradox came into play as I really pushed the boundaries of the puppet’s use. Both the rabbit and the little ‘mini-me’ puppet went from being animated and then abruptly de-activated, abused, tossed lifeless to the ground or dangled by one arm. The puppets also transformed from being infantile characters that the audience sympathised with to more ambiguous figures – the rabbit with aggressive and sexual overtones, the mini-me moving from a doll-like quality to the deathly impermeability of an effigy.

In playing with my own body too, I investigated ways of being fiercely engaged (animated) and then illogically disengaged (inanimate). I used my body like a puppet and developed a gestural language with the encouragement and guidance of director Nancy Black. Through improvisation we teased open the possibility of lyrical movements, irrational gestures and inexplicable ‘collapses’.  We also investigated the notion of a life or will being focused in one part of the body but not the whole i.e the right hand investigating or seeing the space around it while the rest of the body lay collapsed and unresponsive.

The activated/ de-activated and nurtured/abused cycle with the puppet and with the body was certainly a vocabulary for describing  the way we move in and out of states of awareness and empathy for others, and also a way of exploring the nature of anthropomorphism and its fluidity as we move between states of belief and disbelief in relation to the inanimate.

Working with the puppet in the studio Nancy and I spent a lot of time examining the shifts of tone within the relationship between myself and the puppet – I imagined the whole play to be an extended examination of the fluidity and changeability of the “mother’s” engagement, imagined/or real with the object of her obsession. This constant slippage was played out not only through the alive/dead ambiguity but through the guises that the relationship seemed to move through i.e. rabbit as infant, lover, dead thing, live thing and the mother’s sense of compulsion to re-engage with and re-animate this creature to whom she is mother/lover/,abuser/abused. The flip-side of this compulsion to animate is the unacceptability of, or revulsion we feel towards an insentient thing, something dead.

Throughout the rehearsal period Nancy kept emphasizing the idea of polarities – the polarity between light and dark, between ambivalence and certainty, tenderness and brutality.

Humour became a potent ingredient within this mix – though I am witty and playful by nature, I am also grimly analytical and serious. Initially I had reservations about allowing playfulness to surface in this piece – I felt it would play down or trivialize the darkly ambivalent tone that I wanted to convey, but as the work-shopping progressed the humour of the piece found its way irrepressibly to the surface. This was a huge learning curve for me – a liberation. In hindsight Nancy was right – the humour and playfulness served to heighten the transgressive elements of Hutch.

Audience members reported enjoying the wit within Hutch and the exquisite discomfort of wondering if their laughter was illicit or permitted.

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During the rehearsal period Nancy and myself frequently forgot that the rabbit puppet was not ‘actually’ alive  –  Nancy would ask impossible things of the rabbit forgetting that it was attached to my body and in the improvisatory process I often felt like the rabbit was leading the actions. In order to get to this state I had to be deeply immersed – in a subtle state of mind. Was it the  transference of my own energy into the puppet that I was sensing in this state of mind, or was I simply more awake to resonances inherent in the object itself?

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Over the next few posts I will continue to examine this process and will have some film and photos of the actual performance to share.

But right now in the wake of it all, I am tired! I have been struck by that strange emptiness that is the post-project come-down – it all feels strangely illusionary. Just like life with all its creative fury, inconvenience, joy and bother, theatre too is a passing phenomena. Just part of the exquisite ambivalence of being momentarily in this place as animated star-dust. What are the chances? Sometimes I wonder what it is that compels me to make theatre, to make a spectacle of myself – is it a desire to commune with others or is it just my vanity ?- the vanity of star-dust.

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2 thoughts on “The Vanity of Star-dust

  1. Wow that was strange. I just wrote an very long
    comment but after I clicked submit my comment didn’t show up.
    Grrrr… well I’m not writing all that over again. Anyhow, just
    wanted to say fantastic blog!

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