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.

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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

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