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A Happy Accident

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Emma Leishman looks into the Accidental Festival, held at BAC May 2010

Wow – talk about a flashback in time to my days at drama school. Central School of Speech and Drama (CSSD) has taken over BAC for the weekend with their happy accident of a festival. The Accidental Festival is an annual performance festival programmed, produced and led by the Performance Arts BA (Hons) 2nd year students at CSSD. This year’s event took place over the weekend of 28–30 May 2010, and featured a collection of short works and performances, presenting broad spectrum of entertainment and spectacle.

On the Friday night I was particularly interested to see, in the Smorgasbord, Ivan Thorley’s remounted piece Eat the Unicorn. Having seen the original scratch (Ivan Thorley was part of the PCT 2009 Graduate Resident Scheme, showcasing their work at BAC on 15 December 2009), I noted that this latest version was quite different from the previous presentation, showing an interesting development: still focusing strongly on the ark (a wooden box with wings placed centre stage) but lacking the bearded Noah who was a character in the piece in the last showing. Monkey (blue headed and mischievous) was still the key character in the piece and presented himself to the audience with a rapid succession of boastful gestures as though to say ‘Ta Da!’. The piece this time round was simpler and far more focused on its key character, Monkey. However the storyline was still a little too ambiguous: Why was the unicorn there and why did it appear first as a smaller strange creature from out of the box and then as a full body magnificent costumed creature? And why does monkey disembowel himself – what does this all mean? This does intrigue me and I am keen to see what happens in the next Eat the Unicorn development stage.

I began day two with a short puppet theatre piece, Breaking News, by Sigríður Sunna Reynisdóttir. This object manipulation and puppet piece on the economic crash in October 2008 (and subsequent consequences in Iceland) presented some thoughtful and well-crafted moments, but as a whole it lacked strong conviction. The piece could have investigated the political controversy that surrounds the subject matter further, but instead it remained fairly lighthearted. The newspaper that came to life and killed the reader; the paper cutout baby; and an ‘O’pen-mouthed puppet head, which reminded me of a car dashboard bobble, all had moments that delighted and captivated the audience, however the piece would have been enhanced with more pace, better direction and presented in a less broadbased acting style.

Dennis Sold Me The Moon by Onethousandladders was a fun piece combining barbershop quartet voices with visual theatre where we were transported to the moon and back again. This was a well-planned and executed piece, with clever use of props and staging, and delivered with loads of energy and enthusiasm. However I would question this piece as a ‘puppetry performance’. While the use of human silhouettes was used throughout the piece, there was very little object or puppet manipulation work and given that puppetry was the first theatrical element listed on the company’s handout, it was a little surprising.

Later that afternoon I visited the one-on-one devised piece Ten Types of People by Shun May, where I met ‘Henry’, a talking robot who interviewed me for a job (although he would not tell me what the job was). This ‘puppet’ was in fact one of the iconic Henry the Hoover mini vacuum cleaners, however the only animated element about it was its electronic voice box. Henry had not been significantly changed from its original form - it did not move and its features were painted on: so is this puppetry and is that what the artist was exploring, stretching the concept of animation? Hmmmm questions to ponder…

Luckily I managed to squeeze into the audience for the very popular Accidental Itch (bite-sized performances in development – some in very early stages and some more developed shorts) later in the evening and was able to catch The Rainbow Collectors’ Un-Cuckoo. This was a highly developed work-in-progress that already alludes to the promise of a genuinely unique theatre experience. The creatures that existed in the half-light were like something from the depths of the ocean, or perhaps something found within the darkness of a twisted fairy-tale style forest, distorted and gnarled. One puppet’s fingers were like the roots of a tree dragging along the floor; another had its spongy body attached to one leg of the puppeteer, its head and abnormally exaggerated hand detached from the body. 

Often you forgot there were human beings behind these creatures, especially the great tree-like two-headed/armed central creature that had lights for eyes. A technique that is not new, but most effective in this setting, was the illusion of the puppets manipulating the puppeteers. This decision strongly affected the quality of movement of each creature, creating a very specific and organic physicality and giving each puppet a genuine sense of reality. With a live electro-acoustic guitar accompaniment, this piece had me at the edge of my seat, waiting to see what these creatures would do next and how they would interact. The musician was also a strong part of the aesthetic, painted like a tribal warrior and adding to the mysterious, dark and ominous world that was presented to us. I can’t wait to see this piece in its entirety and fully developed!

Last show on my programme for the day was Wash-a-bye-baby, a solo performance by Kati Francis.

Francis is one of those performers who look completely at home on stage. A strong physical-comedic actor, she was not afraid to break the fourth wall and incorporate her audience into the drama: the show starts with a doorbell sound effect and the actor welcoming us into her ‘home’ as an old friend. Here on in, the audience is transported into the day in the life of a single mother and we witness how she copes (or otherwise) with her demanding baby. A washing machine centrestage becomes a key character/’puppet’ in the story of the life of this woman – beginning as a friend to a lonely young girl, and turning into a sexual device for a struggling mother.

From a simple nappy change came the puppet ‘baby’, transformed from a white sheet to an object you cared about in seconds. This kind of versatility and ingenuity was present throughout Francis’ piece and demonstrated her level of talent and skill in securing the audience’s engagement with and belief in this everyday object.

My favourite moment was her ‘suicide hour’ in which the audience assisted with and witnessed the final spiral-out-of-control as she tries to feed, wash, and clothe the baby. Incorporating the audience into the story as another character was a clever way of emotionally drawing us in further, so that the final scenes – even though slightly predictable – became more real in this heightened atmosphere. Wash-a-bye-baby was definitely worth hanging around for and a highlight of the festival.

While walking to catch my train home, I mulled over the scenes from the day and pondered my questions, remembering the written words of the festival’s artistic director, Sian Ní Mhuirí, in her message to the audience regarding the association between accidents and artistic evolution – and I wondered, are some accidents meant to happen? I’ll let you, the reader, decide…


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Accidental Festival took place 28–30 May 2010, hosted by Battersea Arts Centre (BAC). www.accidentalfestival.com/2010

Ivan Thorley was part of the PCT 2009 Graduate Resident Scheme, one of a group of artists who showcased their work at BAC 15 December 2009. For more on the Graduate Resident Scheme see www.puppetcentre.org.uk

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Image credits top to bottom:
Kati Francis, Wash-a-Bye-Baby
Rainbow Collectors, Un-cuckoo
Sigríður Sunna Reynisdóttir, Breaking News
Onethousandladders, Dennis Sold me the Moon



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