Adam Bennet from DNA reflects on an influential conference appearance by the legendary Robert Lepage
Puppetry is at the core of all the artistic work we do at DNA. This work includes the creation of devised visual theatre; facilitating creativity in artists and the general public; encouraging people to view the collections of galleries and museums in a new light; and the creation and commissioning of works of art and installations. Puppetry is an artform that not only mixes quite a few performing and fine art skills and disciplines together, but also in this combining expands the horizons and opens up new possibilities in the creative inspirations of artists in related disciplines. Because of this versatility, we at DNA don’t fit easily into the conventional theatre industry. The way we make work has nothing to do with scriptwriting, though scripts do emerge. We don’t start with a theme, though the work always ends up with very clear themes. We also don’t start with any designs for puppets or set, though we end up with visually appealing sets and captivating performing puppets and objects.
It is therefore always inspiring to learn from other artists working in a similarly cross-discipline way.
Recently (February 2007) we attended a conference at Northern Stage in Newcastle. Called ‘Making Theatre with Robert Lepage’, it was a one-day event organised by a scriptwriting group from Newcastle University. In the opening session, we were given an overview of the work of the world-renowned French Canadian artist Robert Lepage and his company Ex Machina, before Monsieur LePage himself took to the stage to explain his methodology in the creation of his work.
We found it a revelation. Here was an internationally successful company that was working in a very similar way to ourselves and taking even bigger risks.
We first learnt from Lepage of Halprin’s RSVP cycle method, which originated in California in the late sixties. RSVP is an acronym for Resource, Scoring, Validation, Performance, and it is essentially a way of making theatre by starting with a ‘resource’ and exploring the performance possibilities of this ‘resource’ before ‘scoring’ a dramaturgy – a theatrical development of image, character, action, theme, etc – prior to ‘validation’, which is a kind of editing process. The performance of the piece, explained Lepage, is the first time you start to find out what the piece is about. You may think you have an idea, but the audience will tell you what the piece is speaking to them about.
It’s called a cycle, because after the performance the process starts again. With the knowledge and experience of the first cycle, the ‘resource’ is explored again, re-scored, re-validated, etc. This cycle is repeated as many times as is necessary. Robert Lepage explained that the ‘conventional’ process of theatre creation not only undervalues the creative contribution of designers, technicians and musicians, but also ‘locks’ the performance on the opening night – the moment when the process of making theatre really begins.
We found it enormously helpful to listen to this, as it helped us to consider and validate the way we have been making theatre for the last twelve years. We choose carefully a resource we wish to explore (for example tissue paper in our early-years touring performance Atishoo! or sideshows/freakshows for Skin Deep Circus) and go through a process very similar to the one outlined above. After listening to Lepage, we have even more confidence that not only that the way we make work is recognised as a valid theatrical methodology, but that we have a model that we can consider and compare our working practices against. Most of all, we can see now that it may be risky, it may not always result in easily understood or accessible work at first, but it can result (as the international reputation of Ex Machina demonstrates) in some of the most astounding and memorable theatre around.
Robert Lepage also talked about ‘object poetry’, exploring the practical performing potential of the object as well as ‘squeezing’ its fullest symbolic and metaphorical potential in a very playful way, allowing space for serendipity and accidental association with a performing artist’s sensibility. This is a very important aspect of our way of making theatre. In the afternoon at the conference, we attended a workshop which incorporated a group exercise, in small groups, of exploring ordinary objects found in our pockets and ‘squeezing’ associations and performing potential from them. At the end of the session, some of the groups shared their results, and apart from the astonishing amount of material produced in such a short time, there was a lot of object puppetry demonstrated as people got very playful discovering the performing potential of simple objects. Although we have been using object theatre technique for a long time, it was interesting exploring these resources as sources of personal associations, thematic connections and indications of forms of staging and design.
With the inspirational conference now over, we are back in the world of theatre-making. Currently, we at DNA are focusing our artistic activities on work for Early Years audiences. Our new touring production Ball Pond Bobby incorporates visual theatre performance and guided play activities for children between the ages of two and five. Exploring the world of round and round, DNA have collaborated with dancer Tids Pickard and developed the piece with the assistance of the Lowry, Salford Quays and the Guild Charter Theatre Preston. By incorporating the play activities and leaps of imagination of early years audiences, we’re making them integral to the piece. Using a rehearsal technique that involves lots of trialling ideas in front of groups of Early Years audiences, and provides opportunities for free play within the event, this piece combines my experience in the creation of Early Years work with Theatre-Rites, and Artistic Director Rachel Riggs’ research into Early Years development and free creative play.
DNA are also currently developing a three-year programme of work called Imaginary Leaps, which will investigate the way our style of performing arts can contribute to Early Years development within the variety of settings that the very young gather in groups. Alongside this, we are also working to bring young children into art galleries and museums in a way which supports their viewing of the works of art and collections that engage them, giving not only aesthetic appreciation, but also some context.
Robert Lepage/Ex Machina were in residence at Newcastle Playhouse February 2007 to present a first glimpse of their new work Lipsynch, produced in collaboration with Théâtre Sans Frontières and described as an “epic panorama that spreads from the middle of the 20th century to 2010”.
Previous work by Lepage/Ex Machina includes: Elsinore, The Far Side Of The Moon, The Andersen Project, Seven Steams Of The River Ota and The Dragons’ Trilogy.
Lipsynch will return to Europe in 2009 as a nine-hour epic.
Dynamic New Animation (DNA) have been recently
(spring 2007) working with [Jonny] Johnny? Quick and Tids
Pickard on Ball Pond Bobby at The Lowry, with the show premiered
there on 10 March 2007. The company have had invitations to
take Puss in Boots to Ireland and Skin Deep Circus to Denmark
later in 2007, and are currently in discussions with
the Lowry to do a Christmas run of Atishoo!. To find out more
about DNA’s current and future projects, see www.dynamicnewanimation.co.uk