FROM THE FRONTLINE:
Wobbly Parts, Crumbled Logic,
Annie Brooks on the making, and remaking, and making again of her first professional show
A fascination with food, families, cups of tea and wobbly body parts has continually led me to create work about consumption, body image, gender and finding our way home. These themes have culminated in my current work, Colossal Crumbs, as a bizarre array of anthropomorphic characters that go on journeys through strange and beautiful surroundings to evoke and nurture the imaginations of the audience.
Colossal Crumbs is a wordless theatre show, performed by puppets and people. It combines film and music whilst altering perceptions of scale to reveal surprising and enchanting characters, who are born into a continually transforming set.
An undulating, handmade world provides a warm playground for faceless individuals, whose honest spirits are only acknowledged by their silent presence. The ageless, sexless inhabitants eat and excrete their own surroundings amidst their search for homeliness.
The narrative of the work is not linear and often ambiguous in its plot, focusing more on the characters and their spirit. The set itself is a sculpture made out of tights, wadding, baked goods and knitted wool, in various weaves and textures. The relationship between puppet and puppeteer is one that continues to change – with the status of the puppeteer ranging from anonymity to being an active performer in the piece.
I came to using puppetry in my work after a ‘Puppetry for Film’ module at Brighton University as part of the Performance and Visual Arts course, led by Matt Rudkin. What I find so fascinating about the field of puppetry and object manipulation is its ability to create its own rules – you can crumble rational logic and anything can happen and this is accepted by an audience: the sky can fall down or a tomato can be your protagonist. Puppetry is a live performance medium where you can create characters that are free of gender, sexuality, age, which further allows you to explore themes in a more focused and honest way, making issues with a capital and a lower case ‘I’ much more accessible to an audience. The work remains playful and entertaining, as these are the qualities that puppets themselves exude so naturally.
I am continually inspired and influenced by many different types of artists – illustrators, puppeteers, comedians and theatre practitioners. I am visually influenced by the works of Philippe Genty for his enchanting and majestic performances, John Isaacs for his grotesque beauty, Annette Messager and Rob Ryan.
The work derived from an idea for my degree show, where I devised the narrative, made the set, costumes and puppets and then brought in a cast to perform. It has now become a collaboration of artists – illustrators, dancers, visual artists, physical performers and puppeteers, who all contribute to the creative process.
The original concept for the work came from a photograph – ‘The Lonely Doll’ by David La Chapelle, which inspired me to make a giant ‘fat’ suit, which I soon changed into a 9ft puppet. The show developed very organically, working with a strong vision of simple images and ideas which I then workshopped with performers. The ways in which these ideas were conjured and realised were varied. Many aspects of the show derive initially from beautiful and exciting objects found in junk shops and markets. For instance, the piano-playing jazz zebra was a finger puppet I found in a Christmas market. Other ideas are contemplated through sketches and words. Sometimes it’s a silly suggestion or an accident during a rehearsal that just makes sense.
As a recent graduate, the transition from working in a student environment to a professional one has been steep and daunting yet wholly rewarding. I continually find myself on new and unfamiliar territory, never knowing if we’re quite doing the ‘right’ thing. It seems, however, that the dedication, belief and love for the project combined with the hard work and commitment from everyone involved has made Colossal Crumbs a success.
The development of the work, both artistically and logistically, has been determined by the events we have performed at. From an artistic point of view, these events have been helpful goals in getting the show to a stage we’re happy with, incorporating new ideas and improving its visual aesthetic. Logistically, we’ve learnt from experience along the way. Colossal Crumbs started as my university degree show. The show at this point was a firm foundation for a ‘first draft’ of the project, but certainly not a complete one. In April 2010 I gained a residency at the Puppet Centre Trust. When I first started the residency, I wasn’t sure quite how or where to start, however it has since provided many opportunities for me to gain a much wider understanding of the production process and allowed Colossal Crumbs to flourish. Our first performance since June the previous year was to be at the International Student Puppetry Festival, May 2010. After having to rehearse within the constraints of my living room and also deal with mice destroying the set, we performed a successful show to a full audience. We also had to learn on the spot that the ‘get ins’ in a festival environment are a world away from what we were used to at university. Having experienced Edinburgh festival with other theatre companies in the past, we quickly adapted.
This made our next show at Secret Garden Party, an arts festival in rural Cambridgeshire, a better-organised and more successful operation. The show at SGP (July 2010) had to be stripped back technically, having a detailed lighting plan reduced to one light operated by a plug socket. It has been these conditions that have made Colossal Crumbs a better show, allowing us to focus on the raw puppetry and actions to create the atmosphere we originally thought would be created by beautiful lighting. The next show was for the album launch of The Moulettes at the Marlborough Little Theatre in Brighton, August. The obstacle here was that the entire venue was the size of the show, leaving no room for an audience. The soft, amorphous nature of the set allowed us to fold and manoeuvre it into a much smaller space, albeit a tight squeeze for the performers, and we adapted the show effectively.
The varied spaces in which we have performed Colossal Crumbs have educated us about our own show. They have all contributed to teaching us the spectrum in which we can work, from the smallest space with the most minimal technical equipment, to the most spacious and detailed.