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FAULTY OPTIC

Surrealism on screen, traditional puppetry craft, and making homes for gerbils have all been contributing factors to the world of wonders that is Faulty Optic.

PROFILE BY DOROTHY MAX PRIOR

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Faulty Optic feel so much of the moment – creating a theatre of puppetry and animation which challenges most expectations of ‘theatre’, ‘puppetry’ and ‘animation’ – that it is a shock to realise that they have in fact been doing so for close on two decades.


Those twenty years have seen a succession of shows – all carefully crafted, darkly funny, visually innovative – which have won them a constant stream of critical appreciation, and a steadily growing audience in the UK and around the world. It is appropriate therefore that they have been chosen for a high-profile appearance (in July) at the flagship Manchester International Festival 2007, with a new show, Dead Wedding, [image left from show rehearsals] a collaborative piece commissioned by the festival and by Opera North Projects.

To mark the 400th anniversary of the invention of opera, Faulty Optic and composer Mira Calix reinvent the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, picking up the tale where the ancient myth ends. Dead Wedding uses puppets, film, laptop, live musicians and strangely distorted voices to remix the Orpheus tale for the 21st century. This being Faulty Optic, we can rest assured that magnificent constructions, disturbing visions and macabre humour will all play a part…


Taking time out from a busy devising and rehearsal schedule, Faulty Optic co-founder Gavin Glover helps Animations with his company’s history and offers us some reflections on their work.


So first to the starting points. Faulty Optic is the brainchild of Gavin Glover and Liz Walker, and was founded in 1987. Despite their reputation as innovators challenging the mores of theatre in general and puppet theatre in particular, Faulty Optic’s co-founders are keen to emphasise that their roots lie in traditional skills, learnt at The Little Angel Theatre.

“We have great respect for the Little Angel; for the attention to detail, lighting and theatrical beauty of their work. We learnt 80% of what we do from them - puppets still have to be manipulated well to be alive regardless of whether the show is contemporary or classic. Lyndie Wright was an inspiration with her making and John Wright was a wonder to watch and learn from.”


This firm grounding in the traditional crafts of puppetry was then informed by exposure to key contemporary visual artists, film-makers and animators who inspired Gavin and Liz to create a new hybrid art of their own making:

“This all stems back to the mid ’80s when we saw Svankmeyer and the Brothers Quai at the ICA during a festival of new animation and surreal film – from Bunuel’s Chien Andalou to Svankmeyer’s Dimensions of Dialogue
[image left]. Svankmeyer has been inspirational. I love the cycles he bases the stories on – what goes around comes around, the futility of war…. It opened our minds to other forms of dramaturgy. The Quais were also an influence – the best has to be Street of Crocodiles – rich and symbolic, disturbing, cruel and moving – and great music.”

Other influences cited by the company include sculptor Tinguely – inspirational for his sets and kinetic work (“The jagged shapes and dangerous movements look chaotic – but they desperately try to do something (blow balls, scribble messages, spin tiny feathers) and they just look great”) and Outsider Art/Art Brut by untrained artists is “always an inspiration – their ideas are unsullied by institute or technique”.


So all of these influences and inspirations went into the melting pot, and out came their first production, a trilogy of short pieces based on the themes of power, greed, religion and obsession, which was first presented at the Rosemary Branch Theatre in Islington (an enterprising little pub theatre that continues to this day to programme innovative puppetry and visual theatre productions). The three short pieces – My Pig Speaks Latin [image below] /Dolly Death’s Cabinet/Three Sides of Idolise (1998) – garnered critical attention, from Time Out amongst others. But it was the show that followed two year’s later, Snuffhouse Dustlouse (1990) which brought Faulty Optic to far wider attention. The company’s website describes it as “an orgy of visual experience, including winged creatures whose beaked masks hide their eyeless human faces, maniacal disembodied legs, an automated thunder machine, pickled talking-heads and a glittering finale!”. Like many subsequent works, this show has had a long life: having toured extensively throughout the world, with British Council help, it was revived 1999–2000 for a major UK tour funded by Arts Council England.


The last decade of the twentieth century brought a series of other successes: Darwin’s Dead Herring (1993) based on the theme of evolution and creation; Shot at the Troff (1996), a return to the trilogy format featuring underwater marionettes and a marvellous use of live-feed video (this was my first taste of the company, seen at the sadly now defunct Visions Festival in Brighton); Bubbly Beds (1996), which took the 28 minute underwater video section originally performed in the Shot at the Troff trilogy and toured it in its own right; and Tunnelvision (1998) [image right] , which investigates imprisonment and freedom using “zeppelin dreams, frustrated tea parties and a video-projected miniature ghost-train ride.”


Over the years Faulty has remained a tight operational unit, circling around the two key makers/animators Gavin and Liz – although they have also established some enduring relationships with collaborators, (including musician Daniel Padden, from the band Volcano the Bear, and automata maker Martin Smith).

The haunting soundscapes and marvellous automated contraptions are two of the recurring strands. Another of the characteristics of Faulty’s work is their innovative use of moving image – be it pre-filmed or live-feed video (a technique that they have very much made their own). This imagery is used to play around with scale in an often disconcerting way – I remember watching that Bubbly Beds sequence on stage at Komedia Brighton, with the tiny puppets on view acting out their miniature traumas in a fishtank whilst on screen enormous close-ups of the scene seemed somehow to be telling a wholly different story.


So when and how did this start and how has it evolved over the shows?

“We have always been fascinated by animation, ever since that ICA film festival. So when video equipment became cheaper and more viable, we started to explore. It enabled us to take the audience to another world, create sets that seemed enormous just by reducing the scale. I think there is a fascination with small-scale sets – I love model boxes (maybe it comes from building little rooms and obstacles for gerbils when small!). Our work crosses so many boundaries – manipulation inspired by mime, movement, clowning, dance – and encompasses so many techniques of puppet-making, kinetic work, automata, sculpture. Deciding what everything looks like is often the hardest bit – we use whatever tells the story.”


horseheadThere is always something apocalyptic about their work and I can’t think of a more appropriate company to be landed with the Fin de Siecle tag. But lest this implies that they’re somehow not right there at the forefront of puppetry and animation practice in the twenty-first century, be assured that more recent shows such as Soiled (2002) and HorseHead (2005) [image left] proved to be more than a match for their earlier work.

Horsehead and Soiled, like most of the company’s work, have appeared at the London International Mime Festival (Horsehead in 2006; Soiled was revived for LIMF 2007), prompting questions on the relationship between puppetry and mime/physical theatre in their work:


“We generally don't rely on text, the subject matter is usually metaphoric and the performance involves watching characters develop the narrative through movement which is based on mime and physical analysis. The work is devised – we're using puppets instead of people, creating work mostly for an adult audience. So we have been able to crossover. We have a very good relationship with the Mime Festival and hopefully Dead Wedding will be playing there next year.”


How, I wonder, is Gavin feeling about this new show?

“I am directing it – which is interesting although a little daunting. The story was written last year (on other shows we’ve done it’s been normal for the story to be changing up until the opening night) so this means we can focus on the movement. There are three puppeteers, three musicians from Opera North and one composer, Mira Calix. So it is much bigger than our usual work. It’s going to be full on.”

So what can we expect this time round?


“There's no live-feed this time but four animation/puppet films which relate to the main character’s memory. My favourite bit is in the film when a lift door opens, a high jumper runs up to the screen, jumps and you realise that the high jump is painted on and he splats the glass and slides down with a bloodied nose leaving a red trail. (You have to see it really).


So there's plenty of Faulty Optic angst and trademark cruel humour in Dead Wedding, and (as Gavin says) hopefully plenty of audience to enjoy it! So if you are anywhere nearby – do go along, I doubt if you will be disappointed.

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