profiles a company that dares to be odd
They hunched up into their puppets,
their eyes like dark fireballs, so lost, so focused. They
sighed and breathed into them, shared their arms and their
bodies, and at times, it seemed their very souls.
Nicola Barker, The Observer, 22 May 1994
Nenagh Watson decided to become a professional
puppeteer at college – Crewe and Alsager College, where
a puppetry course formed part of the Integration of the Arts
BA. She and a like-minded friend David Mason carved a niche
for their vocation out of their sculpture and theatre studies,
and the company Watson and Mason was the result. The work
they produced was unlike anything audiences had seen before,
anarchic and modernist, with one show memorably called Toenailed
to the Floor.
The partnership lasted only a few years,
and Nenagh then formed her own company which owed much to
the collaboration of Anna Markus, a Manchester puppeteer remembered
with great warmth and admiration. Nenagh is a northern lass,
by adoption, and all her work is testament to a raw boned,
large-scale, windswept northern background to which she will
always, I would guess, be true.
However, her next partnership tempered the
rawness more than somewhat, as the work soon reflected the
sensitive painting of Rachael Field, one of the many fine
artists attracted by the potential of the puppet medium –
wishing to bring life, kinesis, and music to her pictures.
The collaboration was fruitful and successful. Nenagh is a
performer and a puppet maker, Rachael designs, paints, organises
the lighting and animation, and both contribute to the content
and shape of the shows. They invite musicians and writers
to work alongside them. To quote their words from the website:
How did it all begin? In 1986 we both
exhibited work in a lesbian art exhibition; during the installation
we met and that's the beginning... Our work individually and
collaboratively is created and drawn from our lives, often
autobiographical but also inspired by stolen true stories
of the lives around us. Life is a duality of beauty and despair
and so is our art.
It began in direst poverty, and with the odds stacked against
them. They had to borrow the money for Nenagh to attend a
workshop in the Charleville Institute run by the great Tadeusz
Kantor. His teaching was part of the foundation of the work
by Rachael and Nenagh. The new company was christened Doo
Cot, and based itself in Manchester. The first production
was Discarded Memories in 1991, and it toured without subsidy.
The second show was Other Shadows, with Sylvia Hallett as
composer, playing several instruments in view at the side
of a beautiful setting for the shadows: this is up to now
the most tender of the Doo Cot shows.
The company was leading a precarious existence
but its work attracted notice from the first. Shadow puppetry
and 2D animation was the preferred technique of Rachael –
best suited to her art – but although the shadows were
beautiful, the dramaturgy of the shows became increasingly
dark, with deliberately ugly elements to reflect the world
as Nenagh and Rachael saw it. Obviously designed for adult
audiences, the work caught the spirit of the times, a spirit
of diversity and inclusion, and soon drew the attention of
the Arts Council, and a regular subsidy.
Doo cot’s collaboration ‘is a
process of conflict: it is born out of struggle, but one which
sheds new light on the other's working process, eventually
creating a hybrid. It is the ultimate in artificial procreation.’
Doo-cot seek out other collaborators: Sylvia Hallett has composed
with sounds stolen from the street, haunting melodies and
strange ditties; Anna Furse penned and directed the piece
Ultra Violet. More recent collaborators are choreographer
Emelyn Claid, composer Kaffe Mathews and dramaturg Bush Hartshorn.
Julia Parker creates soundscapes and helps Rachael with Doo
Cot’s online presence; she’s also the third full-time
member of the company.
Cages was the first nationally toured show
to be funded by Arts Council Great Britain, as it then was,
and since then Doo Cot have become an established feature
of Britain’s theatre scene. There have been six national
tours in all, the theme of each hooked into contemporary life.
Peacock (1994-5), Odd if you Dare (1995-6) which was a Barclays
New Stages award winner, about society’s outsiders,
‘trash lives meets trash puppets’. Lynne Walker
on the BBC Radio 4 programme Kaleidoscope described it: ‘The
characters in the contemporary drama may only be puppets made
out of a load of old urban junk, but they take on a strangely
vivid persona and a disturbing reality partly, I think, to
do with the sensitive way they are manipulated by the animators,
and more than a little because of the haunting expressions
worn on their faces.’
came Ultra Violet (1997-8), Frankenstein (1999-2000), Golem
and now the seventh, Fold Your Own: think ‘Origami meets
the rampages of Godzilla and the silken hands of a Geisha’.
The autumn 2006 tour includes such venues as Exeter, Ormskirk,
and Wolverhampton, and the Drill Hall in London.
Between the dramatic shows there have been
many exhibitions and installations, winning plaudits and awards.
Nenagh is now planning her own show for 2008 with a good deal
more puppetry in it than Fold Your Own contains. Provisionally
called Attachment it is a ‘beautiful and humorous story
to tear the heart out’ she says. The mentor of the project
will be the well-known Japanese expatriate Noriyuki Sawa.
Rachael’s animation will have input too, of course.
She is highly qualified not only in fine art but in lighting
technologies, and her work has been moving surely into a variety
of new media, such as computer animation.
Rachael and Nenagh recently experienced a
life-changing voyage to Japan. You can sense it in the work
of Fold Your Own and the presence of at least one Japanese
collaborator in that show (the talented young Aya Nakamura,
still completing her MA at the Central School of Speech and
Drama) and in the forthcoming project, Attachment. Their Japanese
Diary, which is well worth some of your time, is to be found
on the website.
Doo Cot’s Fold Your Own is currently touring, dates
including Drill Hall, London on 28-29 October 2006.
For further tour dates, the Japanese diary, and more information
on the company’s work, see www.doo-cot.com