How Dare We!
Isobel Smith follows the Ephemeral Animation trail set by Nenagh Watson
Nenagh Watson meets us at reception of Central School of Speech and Drama and all but lays a trail of breadcrumbs to lead us to the puppetry room and a very different approach to animating objects.
The group comprises: A film animator wanting to escape the computer and get down and dirty with puppets; an artist with an interest in physical theatre, object choreography and surrealism; an actor on CSSD's MA Applied Theatre course inspired by Polish film; a student on CSSD MA Applied Theatre interested in acrobalance, dance partner work and human puppets; a voluntary worker with people with emotional problems exploring if puppetry might help; a student about to embark on a Diploma at London School of Puppetry; a Greek actor from National Puppet Theatre of Greece and Slovak doing short courses in London, a Northern storyteller wanting to get back into it; a freelancer starting a company with dancers and shadow puppets in the North East.
We begin with Nenagh's favourite ball patting exercise.
As we concentrate on patting a light ball to one another, Nenagh explains that how we hit it dictates how it is received. There's an equality in the exercise, everyone focusing on the journey of the ball – a beautiful focus, we are moving with a shared responsibility. She changes the ball and the dynamic changes. Nenagh talks about the functionality of an object: in this ball game what happens when the ball drops? We see it as failure, but when it drops it is still being a ball, not a mistake. It's what we want to do versus what the ball wants to do.
The balls return to being balls and Nenagh introduces the plastic bags. We close our eyes and feel them and hear them, such a delicate rustling sound. As we experience the unique qualities of our bags, Nenagh tells us that Tadeus Kantor (legendary Polish painter, assemblage artist, set designer and theatre director) found that scrunching a plastic bag makes perfect rain noises – and it does, as subtle or stormy as the hands around the bag dictate. Nenagh demonstrates.
We gently encourage air into our own bags.
‘Where is it happiest?' she asks.
Mine likes the pause after the in breath, before it outs again. We delicately fill our bags and then allow them to breathe.
'It’s what the bag wants, not what we want', says Nenagh. 'The way we treat things – how dare we just grab them? We need to have respect for objects.'
She's quite right and I feel sorry for the carrier bags that I have taken for granted over the years, other objects too that I have taken for granted. Now Nenagh asks us to consider that we are the bag, at the mercy of two enormous hands, how does it feel?' It feels horrible actually, and I feel slightly nauseous but notice that I am experiencing my plastic bag in a heightened way and it feels, sounds and looks amazing – enlightenment through plastic bag squeezing, it's the new way!
In a way it is, rather it isn't, it’s a very old way. It’s not about the bag, it’s about pleasure in the mundane; it’s about the exquisiteness of noticing, and yes, it's in the detail, the empathy and the allowing. I feel excited but not quite able to put my finger on why.
This plastic bag has lead me on a journey, because I stopped imposing my ideas on it and started hearing it. It’s exciting because I get what Nenagh is so passionate about – sort of. It’s important and liberating, and I have a creeping suspicion that it is related somehow to my previous sculptural work and my desire to liberate objects from their humdrum existence. Now I have a glimpse of how I could bring that into puppetry, it’s an exhilarating thought.
Thus, this workshop did what it said on the box. It claimed it would turn puppetry on its head – either that or its stood me on my head.
And so to Nenagh’s films…
It has been said that Nenagh takes puppetry to minus zero. After seeing her Ephemeral Animations it’s easy to see why. These short films are of chance happenings, found objects moving all by themselves.
First, a cardboard coke cup, lid and straw are blowing about in on the deck of a ferry. With an epic quality, the cup is lashed by a piece of pestering paper. Lid, incensed, goes to help. It’s too much for lid, which then attempts to throw itself overboard only to become entangled in the railings. Or else it’s just some rubbish blowing about…
Next, shredded bags are flapping high on a phone wire. Ghosts, silky flowing angel-lovers, passionate and haunting. And they are strips of plastic caught.
They are intrinsically beautiful, egoless, perfect.
Nenagh reflects on her dilemma: how to bring her Ephemeral Animations to a wider audience. Screen them in a performance space and they are altered: ‘We can only taint them with our ego and our stuff.’ A compromise is to 'frame it' as an invitation to others to enjoy something that they may have been missed.
Umbrella time: Nenagh unzips a bag and hands out one to each of us. They are bright yellow wooden-handled rolled-up-tight beautiful ones 'from the posh umbrella place in Covent Garden'. We find our umbrella’s balance and let it lead us round the space.
'Try to unpack the ego and see how beautiful is the umbrella' invites Nenagh. 'Try to trust your relationship with the object and let it do what it wants to do, not forcing it to do more.'
Nenagh demonstrates and her 20-year relationship with umbrellas is apparent. My speed date and I struggle to find common ground.
Tadeusz Kantor said of the umbrella, ‘its metal skeleton explodes like fireworks’. I can feel its bones through the yellow skin and feel its potential for movement too. An umbrella possesses its own integral movement. I am enjoying its unfolding. I hope it is too. All the participants are engrossed with their explorations and this is a treat to see.
After lunch, the shopping bag fun continues, this time out on the roof. The wind becomes a third element: 'Show the bag to the wind.' The bags look for every opportunity to escape. Ultimately one does and it is a joyous sight – 'American Beauty' style against the blue October sky.
Back in the puppetry room, Nenagh introduces us to Aspects of Puppet Theatre by Henryk Jurkowski, a chapter she thinks we will enjoy entitled 'Towards a Theatre of Objects'. In particular she introduces us to his idea of 'Opalisation'
'When movement fully dominates an object we feel that the character is born and present on the stage. When it is the nature of the object which dominates we still see the object. The object is still the object and the character at the same time. Sometimes however this unity splits for a short while, to be regenerated after a moment. This is what I mean by “opalisation”.’
I am very interested in this idea of an object fizzing between readings, opalisation is an exciting concept. It's great to have a name for it.
Opalisation and other ideas Nenagh addresses in Concertina for the Gods, which is showing at Central as part of the Suspense Festival. I'm looking forward to seeing Nenagh’s ideas put into practice…
The show’s action begins with the sight and sound of spinning tops. Then there are helium balloons, a bank of umbrellas, a table cum altar, a roll of paper, and a projector.
The performers – Isabel Lyster (recent graduate from CSSD BA in Puppetry), Jemima Yong (also a CSSD graduate), and Nenagh herself – start with a game of keepy-uppy with a ball. When it falls, the performers stop and follow it with their eyes until it stops moving. Then play continues. Perfect nifty solution to the failing ball quandary.
Feeling privileged to have inside info on the work, I watch as two puppeteers each put a gloved hand alongside the ball, the third puppeteer lifts the ball up and the hands lift too, for a millisecond the ball takes on a character – and as soon as it is identifiable, POP the ball is thrown once again. The playful investigation continues – glove, ball, character, ball. A now-you-see-it-now-you-don't exploration of opalisation.
Breath. Nenagh breathes like the sea, and like breath itself! Leaves are blown, blow, and are swept away. A characterful toolbox opens to reveal bradawls flicking between object and character as they jump out, take a bow and lie down.
An accordion, breathing, blows the umbrella and red balloons and paper flaps. The umbrella opens. Hands touch it, then transform it into its puppet existence. The ball looks on. Clown-whizzers whistle while clattering platform wooden flip-flops join in and become the puppet umbrella’s legs. There is a genius moment when yo-yo powered balloons on strings make their way across the stage. The finale is a balance of wills, as the performers attempt to pile flip-flops, balloons and umbrellas on top of the ‘altar’. The objects do not want to comply.
An inspirational end to what has been a fantastic and thought-provoking day – a wonderful opportunity to see Nenagh Watson’s research in action.