Beginnings of a Narrative Arc
When talking about Smoking Apples, people always ask me, so, are you in it? Or are you the director? Each time I hear this being asked, I’m always a little bit surprised and this is just because for me, devising requires you to be both. It requires you to be able to have the skills to show your ideas and deliver the goods in a performance but also go and mull over the heart, the soul, the point of what you are making.
Now, I will be the first person to admit that this does not come without difficulties and during today’s rehearsal, I found myself wishing that I could split into two people and have one rehearsing practically and one watching. This doesn’t happen very often but when it does it’s VERY annoying!
It all started as we tried to work our way into making the scientific process of MND clearer. From our scratch performances, we are aware that we used a rather simplified method of showing to audience our central character was being diagnosed with MND. This was purely down to time constraints and we felt as though, within the 10 minute time-frame we had, it was best to be as crystal clear as possible so that the audience were under no illusion that it was MND we were showing. Having reflected on this and although this served a purpose at the time, we were ready to move into a more subtle way of telling the audience about the process of MND.
At this current moment in time, there is no verbal text in our piece. This is not something that we have decided on for definite, it’s just that each time we try adding it in, it feels totally wrong and is therefore removed. Here, we have created another dilemma for ourselves. How do we go about showing the physical process of MND (some of which happens inside of the body) without speaking at all, without a doctor reciting exactly what it happening inside the body? This proved to be the most interesting exploration of our rehearsal today. We have been working around ideas of the external physical state caused by MND and the notion that this then inspires the internal mind, however, we had not practically explored yet the fact that the external physical is being caused by the internal physical and therefore, perhaps in order to provide clarity for the audience, they have to see that part too.
We have spent today working on a scene that shows what MND causes inside of the body. In between each of the thousands of neurones we have in our body, electrical impulses are transmitted. These carry the message from our brain to our body parts, allowing them to move in the way that we want them to. When someone has MND, those parts of the neurones that deliver and receive the impulses start to wither and the impulses can no longer reach their destination, therefore the communication between the brain and the body part breaks down eventually causing complete immobility.
I don’t want to ruin it for anyone who may come and see it (hopefully all of you reading) but I will say, at this point, it involves being in the dark, torches, lights and shadow play. Let’s see what everyone makes of it in our open rehearsal tomorrow!
Yesterday, I sent out an email asking everyone if they didn't mind preparing a one hour session each, either developing on from our scratches, or moving onto something new. We all came into the rehearsal with very different ideas.
Molly's session was first and she wanted to revisit the opening scene from the scratch. It is a domestic setting where Ted interacts with his cheeky pet fish. Molly wanted to develop this 'daily routine' motif into three repeated scenes, with each one showing various stages of the disease. This worked quite well and we captured one really nice moment when Will, who is puppeteering his right arm, drops it, so it becomes lifeless and motionless. It had a rather moving impact that wasn't too subtle, but also not horribly 'in your face'.
After Molly's session, we moved onto mine. From reading my devising books yesterday that I got from the library, I created exercises for us to get used to the puppet and to also start thinking about his manipulation. I started by leaving the puppet in the middle of the stage and asking the puppeteers to come in one by one, and start animating him. This lead into me shouting out instructions like, "discover your face...your right hand...ribs etc". This 'discovery' from the puppet was quite touching, considering I know the outcome of his fate. To watch the puppet be born and discover each limb and body part was quite captivating.
We then moved onto the puppet being in the space, moving under, over, behind, at the centre, at the edge, under the feet, above the head...The flight and freedom here given to the puppeteers, created some really stunning moments and I could see potential, especially for the imagination moments. You can find a video here, showing a snippet of the exercise: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HnNbaWWcnPc
We continued with exploring the puppet physically and with the puppet in the space. On a personal note, I thought, "Why are we doing this?" Here's the answer:
We need to develop the physical character of the puppet. BUT, we also need to develop a difference between the puppet in the 'external/reality' moments and the 'internal/imagination' moments.
With the scratches now past, this was our second of 2 days back in the workshop before rehearsals. The main aim was to work on the puppet, adjusting and re-designing parts that had been an issue or could be an improvement on our central character Ted.
Whilst Will worked on reshaping the hands and then covered them in reno-flex to give them extra strength and durability, I turned my attention to the detail of the head mechanism on Ted. Now that his character has been established, I could begin to work with a mechanism that both fitted my hand perfectly and also would allow me the control to create the puppet's head movements with ease. I had established that the old system of a central head rod, raised one issue: when the head turned left or right the body would also turn as it was attached to his lower body. After some pondering over design to solve this problem (it was in fact a keyring that gave me the idea) I decided to cut the rod and the lower half would now be attached to the body and the top half would be attached to the bottom half with a simple twisting mechanism, which meant when the head turned left or right, only the head would move and not the entire upper body.
This work took up the best part of the day and the day was finished off with re attachibg the head, and tidying up the mechanism inside the head and body, so it was free in movement. It was little touches like adding candle wax to the slide bar which moves the head up and down, which will make the puppet fluid in movement and comfortable for the puppeteer to use.
Onto rehearsals tomorrow with our updated puppet, Ted.
Today, I headed out to the Templeman library on the University of Kent campus. My aim? To browse the theatre section and hope some books would jump out at me, to help with our devising process. One particular book did, Body, Space, Image by Miranda Tufnell and Chris Crickmay. I want to briefly share a couple of my findings. I will try to explain my thoughts as best I can...bear with me!
"Our bodies are the reflections of our lives: sitting, walking, standing, we absorb the impact of each day. Each thought and sensation makes changes in the body".
This rings very true when it actually comes to puppeteering Ted. There are three stages we wish to achieve: a healthy Ted, MND at a mild/moderate form and MND completely taking over his body. The MND has the biggest impact on his body each day and this in turn creates inward feelings and thoughts of frustration, anger and even humour. These feelings therefore, also have an impact on his body, so what the audience are seeing is the physical impact affecting his emotions/thoughts and those emotions/thoughts impacting his body. This is something to keep in mind within the rehearsal process.
"The body, how it moves and dreams, becomes a route to the imagination".
This backs our idea that when the body physically begins to decline, the mind expands, creating a wonderful imagination in Ted. A crazy example of this would be the puppet, unable to moves his arms to reach for a glass of water, would imagine tiny toy soldiers flying in on parachutes and all working together to lift his arm, extend it, wrap his hand around the glass and take it to his mouth to drink. So, the physical everyday tasks that become harder and harder to do trigger an imaginative story that is delivered to our audience.
"The head directs. The torso is the power house. The arms act upon the world. The legs move the body around"
To demonstrate the decline of the physical in our puppet Ted, we need to act upon these things now, the head directing etc. The more competent we are as puppeteers, the more dramatic and impressive the degeneration should be. This has led me into writing exercises for tomorrows rehearsal. Looking forward to the outcome!
Gemma Williams, Red Threaders
Gemma, our Dramaturg, came along to our scratch at The Blue Elephant. She forwarded us some great feedback to reflect on and start to work into our future rehearsals.
We wanted to share a few of her thoughts with you:
- The piece was visually beautiful and moving, well done. Your puppetry is really sensitive which will really make this piece heart rending.
- I think the ten minutes were fairly clear in terms of an overarching ‘narrative’ which I know is of concern to you, however there can perhaps be clearer decisions on some of the detail...I think we may need to highlight more clearly some of the specific symptoms of MND so the diagnosis is not non-specific. I think the use of the text signs with the symptoms was perhaps a little clunky in this shorter version but I feel there is a way that the written signs and indeed the medical scans can be embedded in the piece stylistically.
- I left the piece wanting to know what made this character tick and hankered after a scene outside of home i.e. the train spotting or other activity.
- I still feel the transfer into the ‘imagination’ is not clear enough...When the man was lifted into the air I did not really see a reason or motivation behind it, I know this is something we have talked about before – we need to establish why ‘pre-diagnosis’ he reverts into his imagination and how this changes ‘post-diagnosis’ throughout the progression of the illness. What is the trigger – boredom, anger, frustration, pain? Why do we daydream anyway? For what purpose?
Food for thought and a somewhere to start with rehearsals again next week.
So...here we are then, our second Scratch in one week. This morning, we all arrive at the Battersea Arts Centre (BAC) for our 11am tech rehearsal.The stage is smaller than expected so after a quick 20 minutes tech we are off to rehearse in Kingston.
Firstly we tape the floor in the rehearsal room to the size of the BAC's stage, and start running through our 10 minute section to get use to the stage size.
On Wednesday we made a list of things we wanted to refine after the Blue Elephant scratch. So we made our way through the list, refining little details. One example of this is in the diagnosis scene, adding in Ted (we have now named the puppet) reading a health leaflet, while the doctors/ensemble pull out x-rays and scans around him. We decided to take our time in the imagination sequence, looking at where the puppeteer stands so as to not block the puppet, to making minute details like the head making subtle movements.
After rehearsal we are back off to the BAC, we are last in the evening's running order and so get the opportunity to watch other pieces, which was a welcomed break to our busy week. After performing, we collect our feedback and have the chance to speak to some people. The feedback below reflects the audiences thoughts and feelings:
"Beautiful. Absolutely charming puppetry. Genuinely moving."
"Needs music for paper flying about...otherwise promising piece."
"Beautiful and heart-breakingly emotional. My Grandad is currently undergoing similar trauma and is was almost agonising to watch, you really made me feel for the puppet. Huge opportunity of emotionally touching many people. Keep up the awesome work."
Last night I went to sleep feeling incredibly humbled and overwhelmed by the comments and feedback from our first scratch of CELL at the Blue Elephant Theatre, Camberwell. As with all scratches, the emphasis is on the experimentation and testing of new ideas in front of a supportive audience but as a performer, there is always something incredibly nerve-wracking about doing this. However, the positives of gaining constructive feedback that can be used in future rehearsals, massively outweighs this.
There were a number of surprises in terms of the audience reactions at the Blue Elephant which made us reassess the potential of each section we have created so far. The first surprise was the comedic value of the scene with Ted and the fish. The audience found it very humorous and took a particular liking to the fish with many comments about how much they enjoyed this little character. This was the first moment we presented and I wonder if the humour came from seeing an initial animation or whether it was because the audience could easily relate to the relationship between Ted and the fish.
During our process so far and in our journey to make our 10 minute scratch performance, we made the choice to create a mini piece rather than a 10 minute extract of a longer show. This was because we wanted to see if we could show the physical degeneration of Ted and whether this would come across clearly, due to a disease or whether it might be mistaken as old age. Some of the audience from the Blue Elephant said that it looked like a story of old age and some commented that it looked like a physically degerative disease so, therefore, we spent much of our rehearsal today exploring way of making this clearer. We wanted to change this today so that we can try a new approach in front of the audience at the BAC tomorrow night. We tried to focus in sharpening the diagnosis section and using brain scans and pictures of neurones to allude to MND without saying it. At this stage, we don’t want to categorise Ted as having MND but i’m sure there will come a point where we do, most likely in our longer version of CELL.
I’m intrigued, excited and once again feeling nervous about presenting our scratch at the BAC tomorrow, let’s see what the day brings...
Well, what a day. The morning was spent trying to finish our building jobs. When we met at the Rose Theatre at 1.30pm, we had a puppet body, a table, a chair and importantly, a puppet head which we are feeling pretty pleased with.
The rest of the afternoon was spent addressing problems and issues we had with the puppet itself and how we would use it on Tuesday at the scratch. There was a lot of deliberation, running around Primark, BHS and M&S, foam cutting and coffee drinking, but we got there in the end with a long to-do list and left the building at 7pm to go away and do our tasks. We reconvene tomorrow at 10am where I will lead a practical session until 3pm with our work-in-progress puppet.
Over the last week, Matt, Molly and Will all started to develop and build our puppet and props. Foam was being carved, clay was being moulded and tables being constructed. I was in Ireland at a family wedding...my time will come!
Today we met to discuss how our puppet and prop pieces have come along. We decided that we needed to return to our workshop this afternoon to finish them all for Tuesday's scratch at the Blue Elephant Theatre. But before we all ran off in different directions, we all went through some of our scenes and blocked them. Using a script Will had set up in Google Docs (which is a God send when creating new work), I was able to quickly type up each detail and movement.
Now that was logged, we went our separate ways to construct.
Today’s rehearsal, started with the movement of the puppet's legs in action, just the legs, whilst Molly and Will puppeteer. They followed a line along the floor of numbers and words starting from 1 through to 6, as the numbers got higher the puppets walk had to decline, from a steady walk through to a shuffle, as a stick and another stick was added to help aid the movement.
After that we moved onto the diagnoses section, and worked on the ensemble moving around the puppet with flying paper, this is to add to the confusion and to re-create the thoughts flying through the puppets mind, as he is told of his condition.
After lunch we were back to scrutinising the idea of the puppets imagination, what stimulates it? What launches the puppet into a new world that he has never experienced? The stimulant for the scratch performance we are moving towards is his glasses...
As the puppet struggles to pick up his glasses after dropping them, they become alive and the puppet is suddenly thrown into his imagination.
As we approached the end, we documented our progress with video footage, so that we can remember the detailed movement for next week. The following week, will be working on finishing the puppet, the fish and props.