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FROM THE FRONTLINE
Get In Yer Box!
Gilbert Taylor and Darren East of Unpacked on how puppetry always informs their process of theatre making


Unpacked’s current show, Funeral Games, began life as a scratch night at the Nightingale Theatre, in Brighton, in July 2006. (At this time the show was called Idyll – A Comic Lament). During the eight-minute presentation a puppet – the mother of the two human characters – climbed out of a filing cabinet drawer and danced with her youngest son, before meeting a sticky end. It was an elegant moment. At the feedback session afterwards one enraged man slated us for using puppetry. He could see little point in the form and urged us to do without it. His remarks were followed by a heated exchange of friendly fire, but the man would not come round to seeing our side of things. He picked up his umbrella and hurriedly made for home.

Ten months later we performed the complete show for the very first time in the same space. A post-show discussion followed, and to our astonishment, the same man sat in the audience. As the session drew to a close he hesitantly raised his hand and spoke softly saying, “I saw the scratch night of this show some time ago and remember that you used a puppet. I rather missed it, maybe you should think about putting it back in.”

The way that we use puppets has been different for all of Unpacked’s three main shows so far. Our first piece, The Fourth Violin from the Left, was built from what was initially almost a collage of favourite bits from the work we’d done while students (on the MA in Advanced Theatre Practice at Central School of Speech and Drama). The puppets included a large ad-hoc figure of suitcases and umbrellas, a brazen tabletop figure constructed from domestic metalware, and a pair of newspaper figures – for the first few months of working on the show, we remade the latter for every performance, until we settled on a more permanent design with a solid skeleton. The perishability of these continued to be important to the way they functioned in the story of the piece, however. All the differing puppets were intruders into the world of the show, or, more figuratively, representations of the human characters’ paranoia, which they could torment each other with. Thus the puppets were ever at risk of being fought over, tortured, broken, burned, or just flung back into a box. And it wasn’t only puppets that could be so disposed of: in imitation of them, we started putting people forcefully away in boxes, too.

For the next show, No Obvious Trauma, we had longer to consider what it was we wanted the puppets to do. This piece had a solid, if complicated, storyline that mainly took place in a restrictive institution. The puppetry and other abstractions gave us ways to play the emotional turmoil within it. We had another pair of tabletop figures who this time enacted the past – unreliably remembered or imagined – of two of the characters, and shadowplay for the unspeakable moments of therapy. Less successfully, perhaps, we attempted to animate all the spatial elements of the set – constructed from a desk, an antique wheelchair and two screens, all on wheels. The tabletop puppets not only forced us to find their natural integration to the piece but also made us work with the physicality of the actors to match them.

And so to Funeral Games. It wasn’t long after that first scratch night that we changed our minds and decided not to use figurative puppets at all in this show. The puppet we’d argued over on that first night was definitely not appearing, as by then we’d decided not to use the character of the mother in the show at all – it is more or less entirely about male relationships. And while we certainly could have used a puppet father, the world that we’d created for the show just didn’t seem to need puppets.

But that didn’t mean there wasn’t a lot of puppet thinking going on. The main starting points of the creation of the piece included a pair of filing cabinets, and the idea of a puppet dragging a dead body across the stage. The latter, unfortunately, never quite made it into the piece (our rehearsal process inevitably produces lots and lots of “bits we like” that we have to store up for “later”) but it did make us think, again, about actors as puppets. A lot of the work of the piece involved making “scores” for the action of the actors, both external physical routes and internal emotional tracks. It became a process of puppeteering ourselves, and each other, in coordination with the other objects we were using. Without puppets we grew as actors. We found that all the essentials that go to create characters through puppets also go to create a human character. There are differences of course: a puppet cannot act without someone to manoeuvre him, but then neither can an actor, if he is his own puppeteer.

Puppeteer Rene Baker (renowned for her approach to using puppets for actor training) came from Barcelona to work with us for three days of exploration of the qualities of our objects. This time, two stubborn four-drawer filing cabinets posed as our main collaborators and to animate and transform them was a huge challenge. Many hours and one broken toe later we found some essential characteristics that showed us the way forwards in terms of tone, story and place. Funeral Games has other specifically puppetlike elements: the father appears, not as a figurative puppet, but as a sternly framed photograph – and as an unsuspecting audience member. The cabinets themselves become many things, including a bunk bed, a TV, washbasins, coffins and a horse-drawn hearse (another audience member gradually realises he or she is playing the horse).





Unpacked works in a realm of many voices. Being a company of five, our work has many threads – they don’t always join up, to begin with, yet at the centre remains a mutual love for puppets, objects, dark comedic tales and the absurd. The characteristics and qualities of puppets and animated objects are key to our creativity, to the process of making sense of the world through play. But getting to performance takes time: time to play, time to experiment, time to build, and time to assess. We have always worked with other practitioners in a variety of ways, but this can cause confusion – and these days, where giving and receiving feedback seems like a constant preoccupation in fringe theatre, things can become very blurred, very quickly.

But those that are silent, or rather those that don’t necessarily speak, can sometimes be the best of advisors. Our work with objects, the transformation of objects and the physicality of the human body comes to a large extent, if not exclusively, from a tradition of puppetry. The specificity of puppetry applies to every action, the flicker of a human eyelash, the explosion of anger in the voice, the movement of the little toe.

We ended up taking the first advice of that stranger – although for our own reasons – which ultimately benefited this piece of work. But next time we will consider his later advice and “put the puppets back in”. If only for our sanity.

 


Unpacked was formed in 2004 and is based in London and Brighton. Their latest production, Funeral Games has been developed with support from the Nightingale Theatre, Brighton. Unpacked tell darkly comedic stories using high-octane physicality, object animation and a distinctive puppetry aesthetic. Their work is inspired by frequent collaboration with invited practitioners of all disciplines from directors to scientists, athletes to welders. Funeral Games will next appear at the Pleasance Below as part of the Edinburgh Fringe. For their next production, Unpacked are considering the use of large-scale marionettes. For further information, please see: www.unpacked.org

 

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