The story of my marionette assessment for the London School of Puppetry and a collaboration with Stems Music, this post will explore Astrid's journey developing her debut performance. I was very lucky to have a handful of wonderful tutors overseeing my work, all of whom have contributed so much to how well the piece has come together.
Since well before her birth in January (see Marionette Carving at LSP), I knew I wanted Astrid to swim. When developing ideas for her debut, my main aim was to really challenge myself with my operating. Having some experience operating marionettes prior to Astrid's creation, I knew I needed to go beyond the basic movements. Hence Astrid was born with two extra strings to the back of her feet, allowing her to swim and/ or fly depending on the circumstance.
Early this year I was contacted by Stems Music, a three piece "Art Rock" band from West Yorkshire. They had been following my work on Twitter and asked if I would be interested in collaborating with them on a video clip. They sent me through some tracks to listen to, and I was absolutely blown away. With an orchestral sound, their music is incredibly engaging and very theatrical. I could feel the energy as I listened and I knew it would work incredibly well with marionettes. A perfect opportunity for Astrid to make her debut, I decided to develop a live show to their track "Anahata", serving the dual purpose as my LSP assessment, with the plan to later I would translate it in to film.
Returning to LSP at the beginning of May with my head full of ideas, I was eager to begin work on Astrid's debut. Assessed on a variety of tasks within the marionette module, the most challenging are the creation of your own marionette and a five minute solo performance piece with that puppet. My initial ideas for my performance assessment all centered around movement, leaving the story somewhat unclear; something not unnoticed by my tutors.
My first session was with LSP Head, Caroline Astell-Burt working with a fantastic exercise based around a grid. Developed by choreographer Wendy Cook specifically for the London School of Puppetry, this exercise, though very simple in its design, was really quite challenging and yielded fantastic results. With a nine square grid laid out on the floor and numbered, the idea is to explore the space, your own body, pace, levels etc. First playing in the space with our own bodies, working with different number patterns and moving around the grid, I worked specifically with the movements I wanted Astrid to accomplish. By the time Astrid entered the grid, I had such a strong connection with the space and the movements, it was easier to find her way. It was a wonderful exercise to start my work on this piece and made for a fantastic base to build from.
From here, I was passed on to my next tutor; LSP graduate and founder of Puppetuity, Chris Wylie. A talented and innovative maker, Chris first helped me iron out some of the issues I was having with Astrid, redesigning her knees and adding one more special string to the tip of her nose, allowing her to look up. These minor alterations made all the difference and gave Astrid that bit of extra variety and flexibility in her movement. Then, still working with the grid, and with Chris as my outside eye, we continued developing the action and eventually began playing with the music. Chris is a very good director with a keen eye for detail and working with him in this collaborative manner was really fantastic. The set also came to life during this time, a simple set up with a suitcase, some polythene and about four liters of sand! Being Australian, I was absolutely shocked that I had to go and buy sand! With no beaches nearby and only pebble beaches at a distance, a big bag of wet sand from the garden center was my only option. Something I never thought I would do in my life, I ended up cooking the sand in a wok to dry it out!
I now had my mock up, and after receiving feedback from three different tutors, the main issue that needed to be addressed was the story. The narrative was not clear; what is her purpose within the piece? I had focused so much of my energy on the action, working around the grid and honing specific movements, the story had been neglected somewhat. Following these discussions, I worked with Chris and another tutor, Kate James-Moore on strengthening the story. With two very different tutors offering feedback, though overwhelming at times, the work progressed quickly, the story becoming clear.
With Chris' departure I then had some one on one time with Kate, working further on the story and the action. A graduate of LSP and founder of Commedia Puppets, Kate is a fantastic outside eye, with a vast understanding of puppetry technique, storytelling and theatre conventions. Having her attention focused on Astrid for a couple of days was a real treat; she really helped me find purpose within the piece and discover moments of stillness and silence.
Very happy with all I had achieved in one week, it was time to head back to London where I would have the opportunity to work with renowned British puppeteer and co-founder of the London School of Puppetry, Ronnie Le Drew. Working within the industry for many years, Ronnie is an incredible performer and a fantastic teacher. A language of its own, Ronnie really understands the nuances of puppetry and helped me to tailor Astrid's performance to be the best it could be. Working one on one with Ronnie was an incredible gift, one which I was determined to make the most of. Covering Ronnie's floor in sand, it was so wonderful to share my work with him and have the opportunity to collaborate. I was quite proud of my work and so was very pleased to receive praise from Ronnie on the quality of the piece. That isn't to say there wasn't plenty to work on! The insightful and practical feedback I received from Ronnie was so incredibly helpful, allowing me to not only refine Astrid's debut, but grow as a performer and theatre maker in myself. My operating technique improved so much under Ronnie's guidance and the show itself went from good to beautiful. To use a phrase common to LSP, the feedback I received after my piece had been "Ronnie'd" was wonderful, my audience in awe, some even with tears in their eyes. It may have helped that when I presented it to Caroline for the first time on my return, it was accompanied by live music!
Returning to Grassington with Astrid's debut in a state of completion, I had arranged to meet Stems, the musical trio who had so kindly allowed me to play with their music. Violin, cello and guitar, the band arrived with all of their gear and were introduced to the lovely Miss Astrid. Shaking hands with the marionette, they were instantly taken in by her charm. A little nervous, I performed my piece to the recorded track, allowing the band to take it all in. As the show came to an end, Astrid received her first real applause. The band thoroughly enjoyed the performance and are very happy for me to move forward with the video clip. We then decided to have a bit of a play together, the band playing the track live in the LSP kitchen while Astrid performed her show. An absolutely beautiful experience, strings complementing strings, this was a wonderful afternoon and something I will remember for a very long time.
Looking to the future, I will continue to rehearse with Astrid, aiming to remember the piece in my body rather than thinking it through as I perform. She will make her official debut at a living room theatre event at LSP at the beginning of July where Stems will be accompanying her performance live. The video clip will be produced in Australia later this year. Stay tuned for these developments!
A really wonderful journey, I am amazed at how the show progressed in such a short time. I have come to really love performing with marionettes; with such a wide range of movement, and such expressive natures, there is something really magical about this form. I am so grateful to everyone who gave their support and helped me with this project and am really proud of what we achieved together.
All that is left to do is come up with the perfect title!
See the Gallery for more photo's.
I am now working on my rod puppetry module at LSP. Developing my show with the lovely Henri Orangutan. Follow @JhessPuppets on Twitter for regular updates!
For more about Stems Music visit http://www.stemsmusic.com/
For more about the London School of Puppetry visit: http://londonschoolofpuppetry.com/
For more about Chris Wylie and Puppetuity visit: http://puppetuity.weebly.com/
For more about Kate James-Moore and Commedia Puppets: http://commediapuppets.weebly.com/
For more about Ronnie Le Drew visit: http://ronnieledrew.com/