Author Archives: joannahruby

On the Mayan Visual Storytelling Trail

February, 2015.

Chapultepec, Mexico City
Stage of altitude sickness: early symptoms

I am feeling a little shaky from the double expresso I just drank to rid myself of the unusual feelings of lethargy hanging over me. I am relieved to be standing in the cool, dark, air-conditioned expanse of the Museo Nacional de Antropologia the heat outdoors was not helping things. I am blissfully lost in endless artefacts relating to different areas of Mexico and indigenous tribes – from huge tribal headdresses to ritual objects, costume and architectural remains. My fuzzy head and lower-than-usual attention span mean I am not really reading captions next to the exhibits, but rather drifting around letting things of visual interest draw me towards them.
…Which is how I find myself standing in front of a series of glass cabinets containing what look like illustrated manuscripts, on thick, rough paper. On closer inspection of these pages I discover an utterly beautiful, minute world of hand-drawn, coded visual symbols. I momentarily forget my caffeine shakes and foggy, aching brain, and get sucked into a world articulated the ancient way – through image alone. My mind leaps to life, creating imaginary stories and connections between the symbols, exhilarated by the infinite possibilities.Museo Nacional de Anthropologia, Mexico Citycodices1
I discover that these are Codices – manuscripts created by pre-Columbian societies, which document all that is important to them – their belief systems, myths, practices, rituals – although much of the content of these codices is not understood today. They were painted onto various materials ranging from nopal cactus to fig tree bark, and can be several metres long.
These codices document the world of the societies which were subdued after the conquest of the Americas – and most of them were destroyed by the conquistadors. Bishop Diego de Landa ordered the elimination of many codices in 1592, stating: “We found a large number of books in these characters and, as they contained nothing in which were not to be seen as superstition and lies of the devil, we burned them all, which they regretted to an amazing degree, and which caused them much affliction.”Museo Nacional de Anthropologia, Mexico City
I am endlessly fascinated by this pattern – throughout continents and cultures it seems that our original written ‘folk’ languages, which connected people to their land, their beliefs and their communities, was an image-based language. And in all of these cultures there seems to be a point in history when a new social order arrives and co-ordinates a cleansing of these images and symbols, deeming them dangerous and malevolent, and replacing them with the written word. But the mystery of worlds created through symbolic language alone never fails to cry out for my attention. Definitely a line of investigation to be continued…

Tepoztlan, near Mexico City
Stage of altitude sickness: mid-flow

We just about managed the one hour journey on public transport to the Southern-most bus terminal of Mexico City. The winding bus route up into the mountains which surround the city, and then down into the valleys beyond, was just about tolerable, even with the deafening Shakira videos. And now we are in the sleepy refuge of Tepoztlan, with its clean air and neighbouring sacred mountain. Here, the city folk told us, our altitude sickness will get better.
On our last day here we finally feel we have the strength to sit in a café and maintain an adequate conversation with a stranger. Following the connection forged via a telephone number scrawled on a scrap of paper, we sit in Café Amor and wait for Sergio, the puppeteer. As the minutes past our arranged meeting time pass by, my strength begins to fade once more…the simultaneous brain fuzz and headache are winning their daily battle. Finally, a scruffy, wiry, bearded chap with a broad grin bounds into the café – it must of course be Sergio. His chirpiness and energy are infectious, and I instantly feel a little better. With my Spanish companions helping as language intermediaries, Sergio tells the story of how he came to be a puppeteer, via a romance with an Argentinian actress, an impoverished tour through her country and a store room of abandoned puppets along the way.
Nowadays he is based between Tepoztlan and Mexico City with his company, Teatro Artimanas, which specialises both in large scale puppets and teatro en miniature, ‘miniature theatre’ – sometimes combining the two together, with inspiring results…

Sergio invites us to camp up on his land in the mountains and have a barbeque – with our delicate dispositions we have to decline, and he bounds off just as he arrived, having scrawled down the address of Mexico City’s Teatro Tinglado, and instructed me to ‘ask for Pablo’.

Coyoacan, Mexico City
Stage of altitude sickness: improving

Teatro Tinglado in Coyoacan, Mexico City
I am waiting for the man called Pablo in a leafy courtyard in Coyoacan, the district to the South of Mexico City where Frida Kahlo’s Casa Azul lies, a few blocks away. I followed a street of gorgeously aged colonial houses and tall trees for what felt like forever, until finally I arrived at the entrance to Teatro Tinglado, (also known as Francisco Sosa 298) home to Coyoacan’s puppetry and ‘miniature theatre’ community. As I sit here, a couple of the theatre’s artists chat to me whilst carving a large puppet’s face out of foam.
Pablo arrives, fashionably late. He warm and welcoming, and takes me on a tour of this utterly idyllic little leafy, backstreet puppet theatre. Before long, my curiosity is piqued by a back room filled with boxes, some of them opened to reveal intricate elements of miniature theatres and sets. I catch glimpses of multi-coloured folk art treasures, and I’m hungry to investigate further…
Firstly, Pablo points to the framed posters on the wall, advertising past shows. Many of them mention Mireya Cueto – Pablo’s mother, a puppeteer and puppet-maker, and original founder of the theatre. Pablo speaks of his mother with immense pride (she passed away in 2013), and later research reveals that Mireya’s legacy stands beside that of Frida Kahlo – a truly creative force who used puppetry to create her own ‘universe’ of myth and story, in celebration of her Mexican heritage.
Mireya Cueto
Now, back to this intriguing puppetry store room. Pablo starts rummaging through boxes and assembling dismantled parts. I feel I am standing in a folk art grotto of colourful, ornately decorated theatrical objects – elaborate little proscenium arch frames, hand-painted scenic panels, several theatrical automata… My guide is patient with my mild hysteria, answering questions and offering back-stories. Pablo Cueto in his back room of wonders, at Teatro Tinglado
But my hysteria reaches its pinnacle when the final theatrical treasure is unveiled. For ten minutes, Pablo joins together various carved, wooden elements painted with bold Aztec-style patterns and symbols. There are frames of scenery, 2D jointed puppets, what look like conveyor belts of tiny wooden creatures…Finally, this wondrous theatrical mechanism is assembled, and Pablo brings it to life via handles, cranks and pulleys. The figures dance, the creatures spin around on their belt, the snake wriggles…its an Aztec ritual creation, vibrant and humming with life. I am blown away.
Pablo assembles his incredible Mayan toy theatre

Roma, Mexico City
Stage of altitude sickness: pretty much gone

I am in a small studio, clean and shiny with mirrored walls and a lino floor. I am sitting cross-legged in a circle with ten or so other people. In the middle is a large dish filled with tinted swimming goggles, which we are about to each put on after we have received our introduction and briefing.
I am about to ‘attend’ a performance by Sensorama, a theatre company which operates from this series of studio rooms on the 9th floor of a tower block. Sensorama specialise in ‘sensory’ theatre based on Mexican indigenous traditions and ceremonies – the performance I am about to enrol upon is called Cosas que solo de Muerte se saben (‘things which we can only know through death’) but their other theatrical experiences include Cuatro Elementos – Cantos Indigenas (‘four elements – indigenous chants’). Our guide wears a Sensorama t-shirt and gives us our briefing – this bright studio makes me feel like I am about to go for a spa treatment. I put on my goggles, which reduce my vision to blurry shapes and shadows. We stand up, forming a line, our hand on the shoulder of the person in front of us. The lights dim, and we are led through a doorway.
What follows is a strange journey into death, through sound, music, colour, sensory touch, smell and taste. We enter a space, and anonymous facilitators guide us into the right positions – sitting, then lying down. Music and a disembodied voice lead the process – I don’t always follow what is being said. Soon it becomes clear what is happening – we are on our deathbeds. A veil is placed over our heads and a rose placed into our clasped hands. There is the sound of mourners sobbing. This is not easy-going stuff.Sensorama
It becomes clear that this is not where it ends. The voice continues to talk…but I feel glad that I don’t understand much of what’s being said. My language barrier means that there is no risk of hearing words which are too prescriptive – I am able to interpret the experience in my own way. After the death, the sobbing, the shawl over my head, my eyes are being engulfed by golden light and the sound of rushing water all around me. Regardless of your perspective on death, this is an uplifting, open-ended metaphor.
Back in the briefing room, my fellow theatre-goers and I remove our goggles. They are a wide range of ages and backgrounds, some theatre types and some not, and we are all given a chance to reflect on the experience. My Spanish language skills get another workout as I listen to these Mexicans, many of whom are totally new to this type of non-conventional theatre. Its the feedback of some of the older participants which sticks with me – a man with a long term fear of flying, for example, who quietly contemplates what it is to take a risk.

Airport, Mexico City
Stage of altitude sickness: a distant memory

Persistent headaches, lethargy and, at times, swollen eyes, almost threatened to send me running from Mexico City. But in the end, altitude sickness lost the battle…against a medicinal cocktail of indigenous traditions celebrating life and death, joyous folk art colours, and inventive, ancient ways of telling stories.

I think I will be back.


The Weeping Tree and the Three Seeds of Inspiration

This year began with a stint of freelance work as a research assistant for a project bringing together various key figures from British puppetry to ask what puppetry, and the professionals specialising in it, truly needs to thrive in England. Having sifted through several hundred surveys completed by such professionals, one particular need came across strongly – that of puppetry not just being seen as an artform for children. This need was echoed by members of the Little Angel Theatre in London, whose Jabberwocky, a marionette-based interpretation of Lewis Carroll’s poem, was doing very well but not attracting quite as many adult viewers as the theatre had hoped. I saw Jabberwocky and found it dark, hypnotic and visually-mesmerising, with a sultry, electronica-tinged soundscape by multi-media artist Hannah Marshall. It was absolutely suitable for an adult audience – so why did it struggle to attract one?

Running in parallel to this problem highlighted to me during my puppetry research work, was another, personal one – my show, The Weeping Tree. A six year old ongoing, incomplete project – a toy theatre comprising cardboard panels, wire hooks and a paper tree with hand-animated, paper teardrops streaming from its eyes. The Weeping Tree began in 2009, with a doodle on brown parcel paper in the small, blacked-out puppetry studio at at Royal Central School of Speech and Drama where I was studying at the time. I drew a tree, it had eyes, and the tree wept. That was all I knew. An illustration drawn in an idle moment led to the creation of my first ever toy theatre. The Weeping TreeI had been obsessed by toy theatres for some time – this beautiful Victorian family entertainment tradition based on two dimensional panels of illustrated scenery and characters, hand-animated within a miniature proscenium arch theatre (see London’s Pollocks Toy Museum). Inspired by a story taking shape in my head, and a book of medieval woodcuts, I began making my toy theatre. I had no design, and no knowledge of how to make one – it was a truly cobbled together creation comprising endless fiddly, interconnecting cardboard pieces. It’s a wonder it stood up at all. Terry Gilliam would have been proud.The Weeping TreeThe following year, I applied to perform The Weeping Tree at Royal Central School of Speech and Drama’s International Student Puppet Festival. I was determined for it to be a completely non-verbal performance (more on that later) – for the visuals to tell the story. Accompanied by a pre-recorded medieval soundtrack on a CD, the thirty minute, non-verbal show was performed to a reasonably-sized audience. As soon as it came to an end, I knew that it hadn’t worked. This was confirmed when I asked a colleague what they thought of the show and they sighed, then said “You know….you have such a good voice, why don’t you narrate it?” The non-verbal, visual and emotive journey I had hoped for had seriously lacked something – and the helpful advice to give it words, those very things I was trying to avoid, was a further blow.

That summer, the fiddly interconnecting cardboard sections were dismantled and The Weeping Tree was flat-packed into a suitcase, to accompany me on an internship to Great Small Works’ International Toy Theater Festival in Brooklyn, New York. As I had hoped, it was an explosion of inspiring, unusual and quirky small scale theatre based around the toy theatre tradition – it was also an opportunity to give The Weeping Tree another shot at performing. This time, the set-up dictated a different performing style – I would be performing ‘on repeat’ to an ambulatory, transient audience wandering around the festival’s Toy Theater Museum. The performance needed to last five to ten minutes, and be appealing to a milling, wandering crowd.

Inspired by the playful, brash style of many of my US performer counterparts, I let go of my deadly serious, holier than thou performing attitude, and condensed the show to a slightly farcical five minutes, with some choice words and a catchy melody thrown in. This time, I could immediately see my audiences’ appreciation and enjoyment – it worked. This more successful ‘sequel’ gave me hope that there was life, yet, in The Weeping Tree, if I was open to reinvention – but I had used words – wasn’t the whole point to not use words…?

Back in England, I set to work developing my show visually, using some of the inspiring ‘folk’ visual storytelling techniques I’d been exposed to at the Great Small Works festival. I realised that if I really did want images to tell this story, rather than words, I would need to expand my show’s visual ‘landscape’. I began by creating a moving panorama box (see below), a scrolling automata device showing a moving picture sequence. This allowed me to show the central outward, and homeward journey taken by the protagonist of the story.The Weeping TreeNext, I introduced a set of Kamishibai cards – illustrated story cards based on the Japanese tradition which later evolved into anime. These allowed me to map out detailed aspects of important parts of the storyline. The Weeping TreeWith The Weeping Tree now more visually developed, I performed it a few more times in low key settings, teaming up with a fellow performer so that I could focus on creating live music and singing, whilst he narrated and animated. Yes, a richer visual landscape and new elements of music and song were beginning to bring the piece alive – but the story still relied on the spoken word…and at that point, life took over and The Weeping Tree was placed on a shelf beneath a cloth, where it remained for over a year.The Weeping TreeBut during the year that The Weeping Tree sat there on its shelf, gathering dust, I chanced upon a series of unexpected and truly inspiring theatrical experiences which stayed at the back of my mind, begging to be written about and properly reflected on. I didn’t realise it at the time, but these individual inspirations came together to create a vision – a vision of the kind of work I’d like to make, a vision of what The Weeping Tree might be able to become, and also, a vision of how performance in general can transcend the kinds of barriers which dictate that, for example, puppetry is ‘just for children’.

Inspiration #1: two uncategorisable gigs

At a festival last summer, I watched Gruff Rhys, Welsh former frontman of the Super Furry Animals, perform his solo concept album American Interior. I had come to his show not only because I liked the songs, but also because I had heard that this was not going to be any ‘normal’ gig – and these rumours proved correct. The musician settled himself on stage, next to a felt puppet dressed in 1800’s style, and began to tell a story. He reccounted the biographical tale of John Evans, a Welshman who left his small village in the 1800’s to journey to North America in search of a fabled, near mythical welsh-speaking tribe of Native Americans (he never did find it). Rhys’s songs wove through the story – told endearingly and humorously in a dead-pan, thick welsh accent, as did Powerpoint slides showing ‘puppet’ John Evans’s modernday roadtrip pilgrimage across the USA, joining Rhys to follow in the original John Evans’s footsteps.Gruff Rhys's American InteriorThe gig left a huge imprint on me because it showed how utterly refreshing it is to play around with disciplines. Framed by the experience of a ‘gig’, this was a combination of oral storytelling, puppetry, film and live music. It felt raw and totally engaging for those thousand-or-so people squeezed together in the darkness, listening intently to Rhys’s story, laughing at the off-beat humour and immersing themselves in his songs. The gig also reminded me of the immediacy, and power, of music as a driving, central force in a performance – how potent to combine this emotional intensity with a story, a theatre performance!

The originality of Rhys’s ‘audio-visual storytelling’ gig’ was rivalled only by another gig I witnessed that year – that of enigmatic swedish ‘psych’ band Goat. Goat also used the framework of a gig to create a totally unique, multi-disciplinary theatrical experience. Entering the stage heavily cloaked in extravagant folk costumes and masks, the group fused their songs with ceremonial dance choreography, echoing sacred ritual traditions from Asia to Northern Scandanavia. Using music as their glue, the group joined together an eclectic bundle of inspirations, defying categorization. Once again, it seemed to be proof that the heart and soul of performance lies in the places where artforms overlap and lose their clear distinctions.  GOAT promo photoInspiration #2: a theatre company that never uses words

For a while, I had put my ideas about creating completely non-verbal performance to one side – until I stumbled upon the website of a company which stirred those impulses once more. Mimika Theatre is a artist couple based in the north of England who create visual theatre shows, for children, which are always non-verbal. Gazing at the company’s website showed me that Mimika had an aim echoing my own, and that they were successfully fulfilling it. Within a self-contained white, domed tent they fused exquisite, hand-crafted visual landscapes and puppetry with music and lighting, creating an immersive experience which seemed to provoke just as much awe, wonder and genuine emotion in adult onlookers as in their child-based audiences. “Spells are woven silently…This is true transformation, the imagination is set free.” The Scotsman.

Reading about Mimika’s creative aims and seeing the rapturous reviews of their shows (as pointed out by the company, such reviews regularly feature the word ‘magical’) inspired me to believe once again in the power of the non-verbal, the purely visual. This company understood what I had been getting at all along (but not quite succeeding with) – that a completely non-verbal immersion into visual imagery and music allows the space to interpret, explore, imagine, and undertake a profound ‘inner’ journey. Although Mimika’s shows were aimed specifically towards children, they were breaking other barriers, besides those of age – they could be engaged with by children regardless of language ability, and those with special needs. Althought Mimika were working within the domain of children’s theatre, they seemed to be creating something universal.

Inspiration #3: a ritual theatre reinvention

The third inspiring encounter took place in the cosy little Pit theatre space of London’s Barbican Theatre, in January. I had travelled far to come and witness New York puppetry artist Basil Twist’s Dogugaeshi, a visual theatre piece based on the rare Japanese folk theatre tradition of the same name. The show began with a veiled, rectangular proscenium arch ‘portal’ opening to reveal layer after layer of hand-painted and illustrated panels, each disappearing to reveal the next and the next, taking the eye on a journey into the unknown. During the hour-long performance the panels slid, spun, closed and opened, creating a dizzyingly fast-paced visual spectacle, ever leading towards that final, distant panel depicting the snowy peak of Mount Fugi. A performance based, in essence, on opening and shutting doors – but somehow suggesting a sacred journey towards a distant, elusive goal. This animated journey was woven together by the music of a traditional shamisen player, and the appearance, at intervals, of a mysterious, long-haired dragon puppet dancing across the set.

The inspiration Dogugaeshi contained for me was a recognition of the power of ritual. By working with these traditional elements of dogugaeshi performance, namely the dozens of layers of sliding animated panels, the shamisen music and the dancing dragon, Basil Twist was able to create a unique fusion via a set of ritual tools.  The performance was based on a simple collection of elements – but the ritualistic structure held these elements together, and allowed them to be engaged with in a direct and unadulterated way. Again, this was an example of a performance that broke through barriers and represented accessibility –  through being based on a simple framework of rituals, a raw, broken down experience had been created which could have just as easily been enjoyed by a child, as an adult. And again, this accessibility had much to do with the fact that words had not been used, nor needed.

So what do these bundles of inspiration have to offer me as I prepare to take the dusty cloth off The Weeping Tree and enter into its story, once again? They tell me to choose my raw, simple elements – the visual, and music – and to treat them as such, keeping them unadorned, so as to be appreciated in their fullest capacity. These inspirations tell me to think beyond the box – which is theatre as we know it – and to think, instead, in terms of Peter Brook’s Empty Space, a place where a circle can be drawn in the sand to mark a space of liminal possibility. These inspirations tell me that ritual is the glue that has been used since the first circle was drawn in the sand, to combine endlessly diverse elements into a performance. And finally, these inspirations show me that, when all of the above are in place, a performance doesn’t need words.

At some point in history (our Western European history, at least), puppets began to be used predominantly to tell stories for children. Over time, the ancient glue of ritual holding these performances together was added to with other subtle, aesthetic and cultural baggage – baggage which now pigeon-holes puppetry into being something it is not, and distracts from its true nature. The inspirations I’ve spoken of can show not only me, but other creators of puppetry, how to shake off its residual cultural associations, re-invent it, and restore it to the ageless, ancient performance tool that it is.


James Bond to Baba Yaga: adventures in Story Theory

I’m thinking incessantly about stories at the moment. Not, surprisingly, the old ones set in Russia, involving red shoes, golden rings, bears, witches and houses on chicken leg stilts. I’ve recently been returning to one type of story which had a huge influence on me whilst growing up, and still does – the cinematic, the film, and in some cases, the blockbuster. At the beginning of this year I decided to learn how stories are actually structured and formulated, and this led me unexpectedly into the world of screen-writing theory for TV and film, via John Yorke’s book, Into The Woods: How Stories Work and Why We Tell Them.”   By treating blockbuster films as common members of the same story world also inhabited by fairytales and ancient myths, I’ve delved into the fascinating set of patterns, shapes and codes which underpin them all.

Over Christmas, my family and I settled down to watch the latest Bond film, Skyfall, as I excitedly proclaimed that it was the best one yet. When it was over, my father announced that it was ‘bollocks’ – unbelievably slow-moving and boring – “the only good bit was the first ten minutes” (which featured a fight atop a speeding train, followed by Bond falling off a viaduct and seemingly plummeting to his death into the river below). My brother agreed that he had found the rest of the film a bit boring.

I found all of this amusing because for me, Skyfall was not only the most interesting Bond film I’d seen (I’ll be honest, I’ve never been that interested in them), but I felt that finally, after growing up with cocky, self-assured, lobster-faced (sorry Roger Moore) Bond’s japes in Moonraker, Live and Let Die, Octopussy,  etc, Skyfall finally offered a glimpse into the man beneath the ‘Bond facade’.

The climax of Skyfall brings Bond back to Skyfall Estate in remote Scotland, where he grew up with his parents as a boy. The psychotic baddie is on his trail, and Bond and M are battening down the hatches, a sense of foreboding hanging in the air. Yes, the action virtually grinds to a halt at this point in the film, but something else is going on. Bond is back in the place where he lived as a boy, reunited with the estate’s wild-eyed gamekeeper, who knew him back then. Showing M around the castle, he points to the trapdoor leading down into the cellar, and says of Bond: “The night his parents died, he went down there and didn’t come out until the morning.” 

Later that night, the psychotic villain and his barbaric helpers arrive with helicopters and machine guns, destroying Skyfall Estate until only a fireball remains. Bond survives by sheltering in that same cellar where he hid the night he learnt of the death of his parents. He eventually comes out alive, but his childhood home has been obliterated. Skyfall EstateTo me, this climax in the film has as much…harmony, symbolism and material worthy of Jungian analysis…as a Grimm’s fairytale. Circumstances have brought Bond back to the underground chasm of his unresolved grief. For a short little while, he drops the artifice of being ‘James Bond’ and faces up to the reality he’s turned his back on for so long – a childhood marred by grief. That night, as the enemy destroys the dusty, gloomy home of his childhood and he shelters in the cellar below, it feels as though James Bond cannot run any further from his past. The ‘enemy’ has cornered him, in the place he thought he had managed to evade. That night, symbolically, he faces that place – something is released. He comes out with nothing left, materially – only himself.

Whether you see it as a masterpiece worthy of endless Jungian analysis, or a particularly slow-moving Bond film, Skyfall highlights some key principles of story structure which I’m learning from Yorke’s book.

 In his introduction, Yorke states that “dramatic structure is not a construct, but a product of human psychology, biology and physics.” The more I explore this structure underpinning story, the more clearly I understand what Yorke means. It’s a science. The pattern and shape of a story is no different from a mathematical equation, a chemical reaction. It’s a world of positive and negative, of opposing forces attempting to find harmony with each other. The only difference between science and storytelling is that in story, these little (+) and (-) symbols are veiled beneath characters.

Once upon a time, a character lacked something they desired, went on a journey to find that thing, and  found it. A negatively-charged molecule goes on a journey to find the positive charge that it lacks: it’s a chemical equation. The greater the obstacles facing that molecule, the more satisfying the story, and through facing those obstacles, the molecule ends up changed: in a different chemical state. As Yorke says, “The essence of all drama is built on change, and the internal struggle a character must undergo in order to achieve it.”

the holy grail of a story” a character goes in search of what they desire and lack – (they might have to look in many different places) – and in doing so they become complete.”

But Yorke’s book also puts its finger on the crucial reason why so many stories which follow this pattern do not deeply challenge or stir us. We consume these well-crafted stories and the messages within them, as in the case of the blockbuster film, but they wash over us and leave us gently entertained, but rather indifferent. Yorke points out that although all stories somehow involve a character with a desire, and track their journey to fulfil this desire, the stories which really affect us involve a character whose desire is in conflict with their need. 

Many stories, from fairytales to blockbusters, involve a character’s successful search for a particular thing, concept or outcome – wealth, popularity, strength, a ring, a grail… Yes, these characters often undergo inner changes in order to find this thing, teaching us about sacrifice, bravery, perseverance, etc. etc. – but they are what Yorke calls two dimensional stories. What happens when a character starts off searching for something, and in the process of reaching it, realises that they were searching for the wrong thing in the first place? This…is meaty. This is a three dimensional story which gives us a glimpse of what we really thirst for in a story – a character dealing with inner conflict.

In a three dimensional story (which Yorke describes as a sort of wholesome, multi-grain, sourdough rye bread compared with the ubiquitous, white supermarket loaf of the two dimensional story) a character starts off with a set of ‘superficial wants’, but during the course of the story these are “…rejected in favour of the more profound unconscious hunger inside.”  These stories speak of the ultimate challenge we face as human beings – the ability to separate the things which we think we need or want from those things which we actually need – by that, I suppose, I mean things which bring us true inner fulfillment. But what is inner fulfillment anyway? What does it even look or feel like, and how many of us humans are midway through misled quests, some set to last decades, perhaps lifetimes?

A film which I watched so many times throughout my early teens that it seemed to form a comforting wallpaper backdrop to that chapter of my life is Reality Bites (1994), a kind of Generation X indie hit written by Helen Childress and starring the beautiful, youthful Winona Ryder and Ethan Hawke. Re-watching it now, I understand why I needed that film – and its story – so badly while I was growing up. It’s a perfect example of three-dimensional storytelling.

Reality Bites (1994)Reality Bites (1994)

Lelaina (Ryder) has just graduated from university with a media degree and wants to make a difference to the world by becoming a documentary film maker. She works on her own documentary films in her spare time, whilst earning a living as a runner for an awful, soul-destroying TV chat show. She meets Michael – a nice, really nice, yuppie TV producer who falls for her and wants to help her fulfil her dream by getting her documentary onto a mainstream MTV show. Then there’s Troy (Hawke), a greasy-haired, unemployed slacker and musician – highly intelligent, unfulfilled in life but acutely aware of the games people play to climb their way to supposed ‘success’ – and he doesn’t want any of it.

Who should Lelaina choose – good, kind-hearted Michael, who has the potential to help her reach her ultimate goal in life, or bitter, jaded Troy, whose opinions hurt and offend Lelaina, yet seem to hold an inescapable power over her? Every ounce of good sense dictates to the viewer that she should choose Michael, the good guy, whose genuine interest it is to bring Lelaina fulfillment. And yet – some irrational impulse within you urges her to choose cynical, messed up Troy – who cannot promise her anything, who is riddled with fear and self-loathing.

Why? At last I think I understand why. Because although Michael offers Lelaina the thing that she most wishes for, it is not the thing that she really needs. Lelaina has been chasing the wrong dream. To successfully ‘break through’ in the world that she’s hungering after would involve compromising herself – but she couldn’t know that until she arrived there, and by then it would be too late. Troy doesn’t offer Lelaina the path to her dreams – he offers her the chance to see that what she was chasing after was a false dream that would have forced her to become someone she was not. By pointing out that what she is thirsting after is a load of bullshit, Troy is actually offering Lelaina a gift far greater than Michael’s promise of success on an MTV show. Reality BitesStories like these were vital to me during my adolescence. Without realising it, they showed me that so many of the goals being presented to me were misleading ones, and inspired me to begin to make choices which would lead me towards the goals I truly wanted, not goals that I, or other people, thought I ought to have.

So much is said about the importance and need for stories today, but learning about how they are structured and how they work has been a real epiphany for me. This is a science – a harmonious world unto itself, governed by its own set of laws and forces. And somehow, by understanding the laws inherent in story, perhaps we begin to see those very same laws at work in our real lives? If we can analyse stories to clearly see the inner predicament facing a character, surely we can use that very same analysing method to make sense of our own lives?

Maybe a fluency in this ‘story-crafting’ language is a long-overlooked, key component of human emotional intelligence? Perhaps it is indisputably treated as such in the cultures where stories are, to this day, known to contain tools for healing physical and emotional ills? (as spoken of in this lovely blogpost by mythopoetic writer and artist Terri Windling) Perhaps story intelligence is another, as-yet unacknowledged approach to learning within Howard Gardner’s concept of Multiple Intelligences? People are certainly beginning to gather for serious discussions on how we can use story to address the environmental, ecological and spiritual problems of our time – the Findhorn Foundation’s New Story Summit was one such recent experiment.

Although I continue to hungrily absorb these insights in story theory from the screen-writing world, from which the blockbusters of tomorrow will be born, I will be bringing them back into my own domain, which probably has a lot more in common with Baba Yaga than it does with James Bond. But delving into the world of the blockbuster film has taught me more about story than I could have ever imagined, and I’ve only scratched the surface.

Baba Yaga, by Rima StainesBaba Yaga illustration by Rima Staines




Performing Objects Conference 2013

Last weekend I headed to the lovely Falmouth in Cornwall for a day at the Performing Objects Conference, a four day symposium delving into the broad visual arts field inhabited by puppetry, digital puppetry, toy theatre, automata and more. I now attempt to translate a notebook of hurried scrawlings into a coherent report of the day.

The morning began with a Character and Story Development for Puppets workshop with Jonathan Leach, described in the programme as an illustrator – a modestly quiet and friendly young guy accompanied by a huge trunk. He proceeded to empty the trunk and cover the conference room table with a staggering selection of his puppets, ranging from waify little rod puppets to huge, mythical beings taller than him. All of them had an eerie, otherworldy look to them, with hand-stitched suede exteriors (which Leach enjoys working with so that the puppets can age over time), natural gems for eyes and, in some cases, real animal hair or fur. They were mysterious, beautiful and haunting puppets and I developed a particular crush on Hugo (below), an 1000yr old forest fawn with luxurious, silky goats hair and a jacket handsewn by Leach from dozens of tiny patchworked fabric strips. But the really interesting thing was the role served by Leach’s puppets – he’s an illustrator, not a puppeteer, and he brings his illustrations to life via his puppets in order to delve into their characters and develop his stories more deeply. (He first got into stories when, as a dyslexic school student, he was advised to turn his story ideas into scripts). This strange colony of beautifully-made puppets, acting as ‘intermediaries’ between the world of visual ideas and the blank page left a real imprint on me.

Hugo, by Jonathan Leach
There was time for a brief visit to the Poly‘s Felicitous Objects exhibition, ‘a gathering of assorted performing objects’ in association with the conference. There was a range of impressive automata, several paper theatres and other interesting storytelling devices, but I was most struck by Sabine Beitzke‘s beautiful and unusual Embedded (see below), which appeared to me to be a cross between a traditional storytelling scroll and a sleeping bag – a unique, multi-sensory storytelling environment exploring the territory between illustration and performance.

In the afternoon, Jenny Romaine and John Bell of Great Small Works delivered a paper on Puppetry and Community Activism which put fascinating perspectives on their use of arcane folk theatre traditions such as toy theatre and carnival puppetry to express strong social and political messages on the streets of New York. Here is some footage from their 2010 Greatest Smallest Parade, a procession of miniature, handmade floats accompanied by a brass band through the streets of Brooklyn (this was whilst I was on an internship with the company – spot my mini Hundertwasser House float about 20 seconds in, and throughout the film!)

Romaine blew the minds of most of the people present at this seminar by introducing us to the term dazzle camouflage, explored in relation to political theatre in Ezra Nepon‘s brilliantly-titled MA thesis, Unleashing Power in Yiddishland and Faerieland: Spectacular Theatrical Strategies for Resistance and Resilience. Romaine told us that dazzle camouflage refers to a little known practice, during the First World War, of painting war ships with brightly coloured, contrasting patterns rather than trying to conceal them by painting them the standard sea-grey colour (see below). They took this seemingly odd approach on the basis that it made the enemy struggle to determine the ships’ speed, direction and position – instead of concealing themselves, these ships chose to draw attention to themselves and to then dazzle, baffle and confuse the enemy – and it seemed to work.

'Dazzle Camouflage' WW1 boat
Analysing the idea of dazzle camouflage in relation to the arts and political activism opened up a whole colourful can of worms. In this era of post-modernism it is brave and perhaps a bit foolish to be colourful, vibrant, quirky and childish with your creative aesthetic – ‘highbrow’ culture prefers understated-ness and is wary of anything that comes across as a bit earnest. But by adopting a guise that is charming, aesthetically extravagant and playful, you are able to sneak your way into the Establishment via the side door and then reveal your underlying political messages in a quirky and ambivalent way, without causing hostility. When everyday people doing their shopping in a city centre see a typical demonstration taking place – glum faces, placards, tabards, etc – they often keep as much distance from it as possible because they find it unsettling and threatening. But when they see colours? Big papier mache, childishly-made folk art sculptures and puppets? People with painted faces performing, playing music, wearing costumes? A crowd of people of all ages will gather to enjoy it, and although a lot of them might just enjoy the visual and sensory entertainment, some people will quickly decipher the political message carefully embedded beneath the spectacle. By using the principle of dazzle camouflage artists can use popular, ‘lowbrow’ art forms (puppetry, carnival arts, circus arts…) to disarm, and charm, the general public and get their heavy messages across.

The afternoon ended with Colette Searls’ fascinating plenary address, Digital Puppetry – When Images Perform. Searls, an associate professor from the University of Maryland, explored the the principles of puppetry in relation to the current trend of mo-cap (motion capture) technology in blockbuster animation films such as Lord of the Rings, King Kong and Avatar, and articulated the essential problem she, and many other animators have with this increasingly popular technology.
In the beginning, Searls explained, there was the animated film – images and characters created entired through the animator’s imagination and drawing skills (whether by hand, or using computer animation software). It was completely different to non-animated films, of course, featuring actual human actors, and each type had its own unique merits – in animation, the limitless fantastical possibilities of the animator’s creativity, and in non-animation, the power of real actors. But the along came mo-cap, which involved getting actors (or, commonly puppeteers – who often have a heightened awareness of the mechanisms of human movement through learning how to manipulate puppets) to carry out physical movements and facial gestures with dozens of sensors stuck to their skin, enabling them to be translated directly into animated characters to make them incredibly human-like (see Zoe Saldana in Avatar, below).

Zoe Saldana in Avatar
This is amazing and very clever, and means that our animations are becoming even more amazing…right? Well, no, says Searls. As the line between the animated and real becomes increasingly blurred we encounter a problematic concept coined in 1970 by robotics professor Masahiro Mori – the uncanny valley. This term refers to the feeling of unease and disgust that humans experience when they see something that looks and moves almost, but not quite, like a human, and has also been explored by Freud in his 1919 essay The Uncanny. Take a look, for example, at the image below from the new animation Tin Tin, which uses some of the most advanced mocap technology yet. As discussed in this Guardian article, the characters are incredibly human-like but simultaneously there is something eerie, vacant and empty about them: as Searls puts it, ‘you can see the cladding but not the soul.’ Searls argues that this type of animation loses all the merits of traditional animation (the creativity), whist simultaneously losing the merits of non-animated films (human actors). When strong actors are translated into animated characters, such as Robin Wright in Beowolf, Searls argues that they are diminished to an ‘overlay’ of a face, and nothing more.

Searls’ point is that in order to avoid the uncanny valley animation has to return to its roots, and maintain a healthy distance from reality, between ‘the performer and the performed’. And of course anyone who makes, uses or appreciates puppets would probably agree with that.
As the talk came to an end, my mind was racing off in tangents thinking about the uncanny valley in relation to botox, and in relation to emoticons, those crass yellow faces with happy or sad expressions which have become so commonplace in text messages and on Facebook. It seems that in all areas of life we need a clear separation between that which is real, and that which isn’t – and that’s what allows us to truly suspend disbelief and harness our emotions.

The Little Angel Theatre Applied Puppetry Symposium, 2013

A friend who has been making puppets and puppet shows professionally for over two decades recently told me, in so many words, that “I’ve never been that much into puppets. It’s the ideas beneath them which interest me.” And so it is that last weekend I spent two days with an eclectic bunch of people, from a wide range of countries, with a hugely diverse range of backgrounds, who were all united by one key thing – their use of, and interest in puppets as a tool for change. They call these people socially engaged artists, participatory artists – and they call their chosen field that of applied puppetry. There were PhD students, dramatherapists, primary school teachers and clinical psychologists; arty types, beatniks and itinerant street performers. And although some attendees might have been able to claim a lifelong interest in puppetry as an art form, I have a feeling that most, myself included, would describe themselves as people who ended up stumbling accidentally into using puppets to explore the themes most inextricably linked to human existence.

The first day of the symposium was spent in the semi darkness of the Little Angel Theatre’s auditorium, absorbing insights from a series of speakers who spoke about the different ways that they had used puppetry in socially engaged projects.

Helena Korosec, a former primary school teacher based in Slovenia, described a research project in which she integrated puppetry into teaching and learning processes within primary schools, allowing a puppet ‘character’ to become a core, familiar member of a class. Teachers were equipped with puppetry skills and primed to document any perceived changes in pro-social behaviour, social competence, concentration levels, etc. All test groups showed a marked improvement in all categories, including a decrease in aggressive behaviour.

Riku Laakkonen came from Finland to talk about his use of forum puppetry, a technique fusing Brazilian social activist and theatre practitioner Augusto Boal’s forum theatre with the use of puppets. He discussed how, whilst working with a group of individuals recuperating from mental illness, he used Boal’s theatre techniques to explore and interrogate participants’ autobiographical stories – but found that often individuals were reluctant to perform as themselves, due to the heaviness of the material. In substituting actors with puppets, the group was able to enter into the material beneath a veil of anonymity, and engage with it safely.

Two professers of education from the University of Athens came to talk about using puppetry (mainly shadow puppetry) to merge the sciences with the visual arts within education, in teacher training. Antigoni Paroussi and Vasilis Tselfes, professers in theatre and  science respectively, spoke of the 8 years that they have spent investigating ways of ‘constructing scientific worlds using puppet theatre as a means’ – and showed some electifying performances created by their students, navigating scientific ideas through shadow puppetry and performance arts.

Photo0056Antigoni Paroussi and Vasilis Tselfes

The discussion of two projects based on collaborations between NHS therapists and puppetry specialists demonstrated the ongoing research into puppetry as a powerful therapeutic tool for people with mental health issues. Conclusions were still unclear – one group spoke of how the use of puppetry caused some participants’ mental state to improve, and others’ to decline – they talked about the powerful emotions unleashed by the characters that participants created, and the volatile state this left the group in. They also spoke of their disappointment when, during a discussion about what to do with the puppets made during the sessions, all participants agreed that they should be thrown away or destroyed. Having experienced the huge catharsis of burning my own puppet creation (see the Westcountry Storytelling Festival 2012 blog post!) I feel that if anything, this attitude might have indicated the success of the project – individuals wouldn’t have felt the need to destroy objects had they not come to carry pivotal and potent meanings.

Finally, two inspiring examples of puppetry being used to inject life into communities in far flung places:- firstly, Katie Francis and Sasha Nemeckova reccounted their tour of special needs schools in India, performing Rubbish, an interactive and sensory theatre piece involving puppets and set made from reclaimed materials (and making me wholeheartedly envious of their experience – see their blog here). And Frans Hakkemars and Joanna Oussoren presented a film showing the transformation of Feijenoord, a disadvantaged district of Rotterdam in Holland, through a project which turned a public green space into a regular hub of street performance, theatre and children’s art activities, heavily featuring puppetry. With an array of mobile theatres-on-wheels which would make Terry Gilliam weak at the knees, Hakkemars and Oussoren encouraged interaction and mutual learning within a formerly segregated community.

Kati Francis and Sasha Nemeckova

Day two of the symposium allowed attendees to immerse themselves more deeply in applied puppetry techniques, through workshops facilitated by practitioners using puppetry in varied social contexts. I joined the Puppetry and Performance Skills for Healthcare Settings group, led by Siobhan Clancy of Helium Arts, which delivers arts interventions for children within hospital settings. The group was introduced to the limitations and issues relating to using puppetry in hospital wards, and we were challenged to make puppets using extremely basic, limited materials, and with specific health issues or physical disabilities in mind (see my puppet attempt below). Later we absorbed a range of fascinating techniques and processes through which to begin to use these puppets to facilitate story, creativity and play. Siobhan introduced us to two excellent ‘story starters’ – a game called ‘Unfortunately/Fortunately’, in which characters spontaneously come up with lines of dialogue which begin ‘unfortunately’ or ‘fortunately’, and ‘Hours of the day’, in which characters describe what they would normally be doing at 8 o’clock, 9 o’clock, etc. At this point my puppet madame, in a sultry French accent, announced that at midday on a monday she might be at Heathrow airport waiting for a business flight, because her life is “soooo unpredictable and exciting…” Hmm.


Siobhan then gave us a range of processes (many of which she has borrowed from Augusto Boal’s range of community theatre techniques)  and asked us to use one of them to develop short performances, in groups. The techniques she gave us were: Mind mapping (a fascinating creative tool but one which I’ve never used to produce a performance or story); Stop and Think (a Boal technique which brings out characters’ inner dialogue within a given situation); Hanover Interrogation (also known as Hot Seating, in which a character is removed from a story/situation and interviewed to discover more about their inner world); analytical rehearsal style (in which a story or performance is created within which all characters are symbols of an idea or concept); Rashoman (a Boal technique based on hugely exaggerated characters); and Long Beach Telegram (whereby a story or performance is created through one-word dialogue only. Our group went on to use mind mapping to generate the themes of memory, time and memory loss, then analytical rehearsal style to perform a short surreal piece about a picnic attended by the guests of time, memory and memory loss!

Thus ended two intense days spent with people from around the world, forming a small, temporary community of individuals intent on figuring out what it is about inanimate objects made to resemble living beings that holds such potency. We might not be so interested in the finer aspects of choreography and dramaturgy when it comes to puppetry, but we remain fascinated by the power of a puppet to help, heal and develop the human psyche.

Hollow Heads and Woven Hands


Time for a little update from the Applied Puppetry realm……So far, 2013 is proving to be a craft-materials-all-over-the-living-room-floor kind of a year, which of course is a good thing in my book.

This spring has seen some new puppet making projects at the Theatre Royal Plymouth’s TR2 base, starting with a hectic marathon of bear making with 30 Year 2 Ford Primary School children.  Based on the book ‘The Jolly Postman’ by Janet and Allan Ahlberg, the session involved everyone making a bear puppet, and a lovingly decorated and enveloped card to ‘post’ to another bear in the forest. With a bit of creative visualisation our bears entered the forest in order to successfully deliver their cards to the correct bear.


There was also a sunny day of puppet making with eight enthusiastic participants from Lifeworks in Dartington, which supports young adults with learning difficulties. In a day we transformed the faithful plastic milk carton into a hare puppet complete with exceedingly large ears and whiskers, inspired by the story of the Hare and the Tortoise.


I’ve also begun a project with Dove Tales, the Theatre Royal’s arts group for asylum seeker and refugee women in Plymouth. By the summer we will hopefully create a large puppet woman decorated with fabrics from the womens’ personal collections (which I look forward to seeing), and it is already clear that this puppet woman will have gorgeous plaited hair and woven hands! (see photo below)


Meanwhile in the land of 2D arcane picture animation, my paper theatre club at Brixton Primary School has put together three final performances including one inspired by Micheal Morpurgo’s Warhorse and one pondering the various ways that members of One Direction might meet a grisly end.

DSCF8386  And here is a set of punch and judy style glove puppets in the making, which will hopefully come alive on Plymouth’s Barbican seafront this summer to tell the ‘alternative’ story of the Pilgrim Fathers setting sail from Plymouth in 1620, with the help of a seagull narrator bearing an uncanny resemblance to Morgan Freeman.

DSCF8514DSCF8549Besides these random endeavours I’m hoping to carry on exploring the possibilities for puppetry in education and applied settings this year, looking forward to meeting inspiring minds at the Little Angel Theatre’s Applied Puppetry symposium in April, and also forging links with my local new free school, Plymouth School of Creative Arts, to see if puppetry can help the school achieve its aim of encouraging cross-curricular learning through creativity.

Fureai Kippu and the silver-haired ones

On two occasions this week the people of Plymouth might have spotted a woman poorly attemting to park a Vauxhall Corsa, then lugging a large shopping bag of puppets up to a random doorstep. That would have been me, in what appears to be my newly-developing role as a Mobile Puppet Therapist. It’s a role not totally dissimilar to one I fulfilled several years ago as a care worker, except this time around the pay is a lot better and my primary task is to use puppets in order to truly get to know people, and help them to know themselves.

One of these visits was to a particularly lovely residential care home for the elderly specialising in dementia care. On this, my second visit to this extremely comfortable establishment run by friendly and happy staff, I spent an hour circulating through the different living spaces and floors of the building with my rod puppet Lucy, letting her interact with whoever she came across. As previously, the hour slipped by quickly. Lucy simply wandered around in her slightly dizzy way (having developed a bit of a ‘friendly local TV news presenter’ facade of late) approaching people to say hello and then see if a nice little round of smalltalk might emerge. No more of a plan than that was needed. Some residents stared at Lucy without speaking. Some managed to tell her their name. A few managed to talk of their lives, families and pasts, describing beautiful gardens, seaside walks and memorable smiles. But generally Lucy encouraged the simplest of fleeting interactions during which she watched distant gazes turn into bright, focused concentration and neutral expressions open into smiles which implied comfort, recognition and connection. As Lucy said her goodbyes one enthused gentleman stooped to flamboyantly press her wooden hand to his lips for several fierce seconds, whilst another lady repeatedly cried “I love you! I love you! I’m so glad I met you today.” Teary eyes were later admitted to by nearby care professionals.

Taking responsibility for the proper care and honouring of our eldest co-inhabitants seems to be another important item on the to do list of our culture. At a recent talk by green consultant and Totnes REconomy project founder Jay Tompt I learnt about Japan’s Fureai Kippu scheme, through which younger generations are encouraged to volunteer their time to help the elderly, in exchange for credits which they can use to access services when they themselves become sick, elderly or in need. Apparently the elderly are found to prefer those willing to be paid in Fureai Kippu than standard Yen, due to the closer connection forged through the exchange. Lucy and I certainly feel all the richer from the time we spent with these people.