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What a Site!

Christine Marfleet
reflects on the origins of an artistic collaboration that led to the inauguration of a site-specific puppetry in performance strand at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama

Puppetry in all it forms is now an essential component in the training of Theatre Designers at Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama – but the annual site-specific performances have become legendary! Wonderful and extraordinary stories, derived from the worlds of Kafka, Schulz, Svankmejer and Beckett – unique performances that fire the imagination and animate the inanimate.

Six years ago, Sean Crowley (Head of Design) and I inherited the awesome task of exploring puppetry with undergraduate designers. As all artists know, exceptional serendipitous accidents can sometimes happen. In locating the elusive Liverpool writer Jeff Young, meeting Chris Pirie (of Bristol-based puppet theatre company Green Ginger), director Amy Rose, and composer Dan Jones, people and place collided. New friends, a new post in Wales, and falling in love – with Penarth pier!

From this nearby quirky stretch of Edwardian seafront came the raw ideas for Fishwish (June 2001) – the story of a hollow promise to see the sea, made to a boy who makes a vengeful wish: that his Mum and Dad become great big fish! A belief that puppetry should be anything we wanted it to be fuelled our early thinking, with no concept of where this might lead.

The pier, with its fantastic Moroccan style pavilion, suggested a wonder filled journey – a promenade adventure, following the boy and the fate of his parents. It seemed incredible that our vision was then thwarted by problems over access; the pavilion sadly remains as tantalisingly unused today as then, and the subsequent transposition of ideas that had been rooted in a specific site felt devastating, until early one misty morning unveiled the magic of Atlantic College grounds at St Donats, just a few miles from Cardiff.

This was nothing short of a miracle: an estate with a castle (once a popular holiday retreat for Charlie Chaplin), a church, a jousting field with palm trees, woods and a maze of terraced walled gardens, winding down to a wild rocky coast, and the sea you might just not see. And with this, another deluge of fantastic story and character imponderables.

In these early stages thoughts and images took the now familiar form of my unedited series of explosions of ‘what ifs’ and ‘how about’, and ‘wouldn’t it be amazing’, bombarding Jeff and Amy with reams of scribbled notes and disconnections that might challenge and inspire.

The suggested scale of the work, the scope for design interpretation, and the resulting visually rich poetic style of the narrative evolved from the crafting of early ideas, shared discussions and refined editing until we achieved a final working script that enabled interpretation and allowed for change.

From designers to puppeteers

Over seven weeks, armed with text and spaces as starting points, twenty first-year student designers and a handful of experienced second years worked in groups to find a world and its characters; all would be performing as puppeteers.
Researching – from bunraku to shadow puppetry, object animation to giant processional imagery – opened up all sorts of possibilities.

Workshops in animation introduced performance opportunities: designers inventively applied their practical design skills; used recycled sourced materials; struggled with limited budgets; and challenged and tested a core staff team, capitalising on the particular textile skills of designer Bettina Reeves and problem solving panache of construction tutor Ian Buchanan – both now indispensable veterans of the puppetry in performance projects!

Through a collaborative process of briefings, site visits, read-throughs and designer/ director progress meetings; and out of a mass of drawings and maquettes; and from the mountains of metal, paper, wire, fabric and gas pipe came our cast… lobsters on stilts, mermaids, sirens, gangster fish and skeleton dogs – an eclectic, often surreal, medley of approximately a hundred puppets shaped and crafted into a unified whole, through resourcefulness, simplification, Amy’s strict choreographic eye and love of picture making, much lateral thinking and Chris Pirie’s wisdom to help us find out what a puppet offers, as opposed to what we thought it might do.

Rehearsals to Performance

Three students actors, a crew of stage management (prepared to dig in thousands of metres of cable and make our site appear as low-tech as possible) and half-a-dozen unsuspecting musicians from the college joined the designers for an intensive three-week rehearsal period, bringing the entire company ensemble to about forty-strong. Here the designers now became performers, experiencing the rigour of rehearsal and re-rehearsal, the demands of devising and character creation, learning choreography and spoken lines, and functioning as ensemble chorus as well as having responsibilities for individual character puppets.

After much debate we discovered that despite broad daylight and limited visibility, the freedom offered in using black outfits and veils meant we could make twenty designer-puppeteers be anywhere and anything at any time. The possibilities with such a large and talented team were astonishing. The concentration, physical demands and sheer focus on the cohesion of performance was phenomenal.

Live music composed alongside the design and making period now supported and underpinned the journey; sound and lighting design and the willing of good weather promised a potentially beautiful, meaningful show.

Our arrival at St Donats must have seemed bizarre: an old Merry- weather circus tent, a Morris Traveller, rusty bicycles, and copious tailor-made weathered wooden blue doors that fixed to the many existing archways to unify the promenade route. We had just a day to install designed elements at the various locations, and a day to work technically for the first time within the actual site spaces. We even managed to build a bridge!

By living and camping on site, with an excellent caterer and the support of the Arts Centre bar, we managed twelve shows in one week, swam in the sea, and worked until we collapsed. Audience members ranged from discerning eight-year-olds in daytime schools shows to astonished and enchanted adults and families at the twilight evening and fire-lit late night performances. Much care had been taken to consider the movement of our audience throughout the journey, with music accompanying and puppetry always kept ‘alive’ and present to try to ensure a continuous flow from scene to scene and make the walk an essential part of the experience. Visual reprises threading through the scenes worked as linking devices and layering. The response was astounding, the theatre magical and affecting.

The somewhat accidental birth of this diverse scale of work, from the tiniest puppetry moment to huge visuals, plus the difficulty of performing in outdoor spaces (which frankly were not conducive to puppetry performance!) was unlike anything any of us had experienced. This was a truly inspired visual performance from its inception, and historically marked the start of something amazing.

Although a year in planning, and given the unfathomable logistic nightmare of making site-specific work in the UK, site-specific puppetry in performance is now a major event in the Summer programming for the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama.

To be well supported and able to create unique, visually-based work; to design, make and perform this work has enabled designers and practitioners to diversify as artists, develop as scenographers, and contribute substantially to theatre, film and television as exciting new performance-makers.

Our ambition is to continue to make new work and publish our new writing so that others can enjoy and experiment with their own puppetry. We invent for found and alternative spaces to enrich our learning and teaching, and in the hope of making performances that just cannot be missed!

As Senior Lecturer in Theatre Design at Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, Christine Marfleet teaches set and costume design and has to date co created and coordinated many of the Puppetry in Performance projects.
These have included Sweet Green Peas (2002); Wide Awake and Dreaming (2003); Alice and Wonderland (2004) and The Secret…sshhh (2005).

The 2006 show is Alice Through The Looking Glass, directed by Emma Williams, written by Amy Rose and devised with RWCMD Designers – an urban journey to the lesser-known corners of Cardiff city centre taking place in the first week of July.

2007 will see Unfinished stories and Stranger Tales an absurd and surreal enlightenment by Chris Marfleet, created and performed by theatre designers from Cardiff, Sofia and Barcelona and shared at the Prague Quadrennial of World Theatre Design, Czech Republic

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