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Doo Cot
Penny Francis profiles a company that dares to be odd

doo cot

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.

skull japan

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.’

Then 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

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