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a company profile by Dorothy Max Prior
I am rushing down a corridor in Mayday University Hospital; along a fawn coloured walkway, up a stairwell, through double doors that swing back at me… and into an anteroom to await the start of the operation. No, not a medical emergency – I’m here for the press performance of the new theatre-rites show Hospitalworks and I’m running a little late…

‘It has been the most difficult of our shows to get off the ground’ says company director Sue Buckmaster. The difficulty is not a reference to any problems with her collaborators, co-director David Harradine of Fevered Sleep and installation artist Sophia Clist, as this has been a harmonious and fruitful relationship. The difficulty has been finding a real working hospital willing to allow a site-specific performance piece for children age 3-6 to be enacted in its midst! But after a long search, Mayday Healthcare NHS Trust has come to their aid. The opening of a new wing at Mayday has meant that a block of old Victorian wards has been vacated awaiting renovation – and so in step theatre-rites with their latest site-specific work, a promenade performance in and around the wards that mixes physical performance, installation, object animation and sound design which, in the company’s own inimitable way, hangs together with a light and easy touch.

We are taken into a ward where there are no patients in the beds because the beds themselves are breathing, heaving patients with audible heartbeats. The hospital equipment has a life of its own – Anglepoise lamps twist and turn, pillows become babies and lights flash on and off. Curtains dividing beds are used to change the dimensions of the performance space – and to create different theatrical possibilities such as shadow-screens and the walls of a labyrinth (trips through labyrinths being a recurring feature of theatre-rites work!). There is a wonderful moment where there is an extremely gentle and beautiful portrayal of the inevitable deaths that occur in a hospital, as a trolley-bed decked with real flowers is slowly wheeled through the ward. We move on into other spaces where we encounter a bed with bones, a loud and grumbly toilet and a room full of drip lines, amongst other delights.

Hospitalworks, like other pieces by theatre-rites, offers children the opportunity to experience a theatre of sight and sound where space, site, animation and the physical embodiment of ideas is at the heart of the experience. Hospitalworks is the latest in a series of site-specific pieces that have included Houseworks, Millworks, Cellarworks and Shopworks, many of which have been performed as part of the London International Festival of Theatre (LIFT). One such example was the LIFT 2003 show Shopworks, sited in a disused shop in Tooting. This later transferred to a similar site in Vienna. Hospitalworks is also a European collaborative co-commission – in this case Polka Theatre in London with the Stuttgart Theater der Welt, Germany’s largest theatre festival.

In Shopworks, we meet shopkeeper Mr. Brown (who is close to retirement and reluctantly and wistfully finding ways of letting go), and his team of brown-coated shop assistants, who breathe life into a motley assortment of objects - coffee pots, brooms, vases, overcoats – which take on the personae of past customers. The constructions (created in collaboration with Lyndie Wright and others at Little Angel) are of the highest level – there is no conscious suspension of disbelief needed to truly believe that this animated vase or coffee pot talking to us is a real personality!

Musing on his experience of working on Shopworks, assistant director Mervyn Millar had this to say:
‘For all the joyously lunatic logic of Sophia Clist’s shop installation, teeming with surprises and details, the object aesthetic of this show was rigorous, and the whole story of the show grew out of the objects in the shop… Slowly, over a long and thorough development process of more than six months, more and more of the paraphernalia of the shopkeeper was given meaning and started to coalesce into the puppet characters from the shop’s past.’

Theatre-rites was founded in 1995 by the late (and much-missed) Penny Bernand, and works under the artistic directorship of Sue Buckmaster. The original mission was - and remains - to create theatre work for young children of the highest standards, the company believing ‘that children should be offered work that is challenging and inspirational’. Mervyn Millar, Sophia Clist and David Harradine are some of the many artists who have been brought into the theatre-rites fold: the company works with puppeteers, visual theatre-makers, sculptors and installation artists (amongst other artists), aiming to ‘present children with unusual contemporary imagery and to push the boundaries of theatrical form’.
Creating site-specific performance work is one aspect of the company’s work. The two other main strands are: small-scale touring shows and exhibitions/installations (without any performer presence).

A recent example in the former category is In One Ear (seen at Lyric, Hammersmith in December 2004 with a tour being planned for 2006). This was a collaboration between theatre-rites director Sue Buckmaster, visual artist Sophia Clist and composer Evelyn Ficarra. It is a 'play' in the purest sense of the word. Four musician-performers spend an hour playing: with the space, an empty stage with a series of beautifully-lit sliding screens at the back; with each other through simple mime and clowning; with a series of ever-more intriguing objects which include cylinders and balls, an enormous hat-box that somehow moves from solid construction to a pliable loop, and some impressive musical instruments including a cello, an organic-looking harp and drums of all shapes and sizes. There is a very simple narrative, but this is principally a series of games and vignettes, full of visual and musical delights. Performers appear and disappear from behind the screens, call and response rhythms abound and there many lovely moments of simple but highly effective animation as two hands and a couple of wooden balls become puppets, or a little walking figure suddenly evolves from a drum hoop.

Past touring shows by theatre-rites have included The Lost and Moated Land, Catch Your Breath and Sleep Tight – which, like Hospitalworks, features animated pillows.

Exhibitions and installations include the wonderful Taking Shape that occupied the Theatre Museum for a year from May 2001 to June 2002. Visitors could just take in the visual delights on offer – or if feeling brave, pop their heads through holes to become ‘humanette’ puppets, bounce around with the squidgy pillow-people or enter transparent labyrinths of light. Other installation/exhibition projects have included Finders Keepers at the Livesey Museum and Outside In at the South Bank Centre.

New for 2005 (opening 20 May and running until 2 October) is Hans Christian Anderson, an exhibition commissioned by The British Library.
It marks the bi-centenary of Andersen’s birth and is a new-style exhibition for the British Library - theatre-rites’ puppets, pulleys, projections and paper-cuts complementing more traditional historical material – not least of which is a twenty metre-span swan flying above it! The installation/exhibition is being created by Sophia Clist who is being assisted by puppetmakers Simon Auton, Lyndie Wright, Jan Zalud, and Peter O'Rourke. Theatre-rites are also creating free accompanying performances, inspired by some of the best-loved moments in the writer’s tales, for ages 4–8 years and their families, which run throughout July and August.
Future plans for the ever-busy theatre-rites include a Barbican BITE/ Young Vic commission which is on the cards for October 2005. Called The Thought That Counts, it will be an exploration of genius that takes as its starting point the idea that a genius is someone who asks the questions that children ask. It will combine physical performance/dance with puppetry, animation and video.

If you haven’t yet experienced the work of this innovative company, there will be plenty of chances over the coming months. If you have a five-year-old to tag along with, fine, but if not, brave it alone – no reason why the kids should have all the fun, and otherwise you’ll miss out on one of the best visual theatre and object animation experiences on offer in the contemporary theatre world!

Hospitalworks at Mayday Hospital, West Croydon runs until Sat 28 May 2005. For ages 3-6. Advance booking essential. To book tel: 020 8543 4888 or see
Hospitalworks, Stuttgart: Tuesday 21 June - Saturday 10 July two performances daily:
Hans Christian Andersen, British Library.
Exhibition for all ages: 20 May - 2 October. Free. For full details of dates and times, see
Unfolding Andersen, performances to accompany exhibition, for 4-8 year olds. Free but booking necessary.
For performance details tel 0207 412 7797, see see
Further details of theatre-rites work at



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