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The Visionaries
...
Dorothy Max Prior meets
Helen Lannaghan and Joseph Seelig,
directors of the London International Mime Festival

The weeks after the Christmas and New Year holidays are often the coldest and drabbest of the year. The temptation is to stay tucked in at home, ignoring the outside world…

But bringing light and cheer into the midwinter months comes the London International Mime Festival (as it has every January for the past three decades), directors Helen Lannaghan and Joseph Seelig concocting a feast of exciting new visual theatre that teases us out of our hibernation.

Taking its cue from successful European festivals such as Cologne's Gaukler Festival and Amsterdam’s Festival of Fools, the first version of the London International Mime Festival (1977) was inspired by Nola Rae, organised by Joseph Seelig, and presented by The Cockpit Theatre (with the support of the Arts Council of Great Britain, as it was then).

That first season was so successful that plans were immediately made for a second festival. With international visual theatre work rarely seen in London, the festival struck a chord with public and performers alike. Helen Lannaghan, an early Mime Festival enthusiast, joined the organisation in 1987, bringing new energy and expertise. And the rest, as they say, is history – the London International Mime Festival going from strength to strength and now entering its fourth decade of sell-out success, proving that there is a thriving and growing audience for what Joseph describes as “a varied selection of work whose common theme was movement rather than text driven theatre”.

Now might be the moment to tackle the thorny question of nomenclature: why are the festival’s directors so keen on the term ‘visual theatre’, which they seem to be using with increasing frequency in their publicity material?

“Visual theatre surely implies that what's important is what you see, what you experience visually, not what's transmitted by speech” says Joseph. “No-one really knows exactly what is meant by it,” says Helen, “It's a self-descriptive catch-all, a term without harsh boundaries, so we're free to choose interesting work which fits it.”

A glance through the three decades of LIMF history on their website reveals the extraordinary range of work that they have presented – and demonstrates that puppetry, mask and theatre of animation have become ever-more important elements of the programme over the past decade or so.

“We aren't really making a conscious choice to do that,” says Helen, “it's just growing organically, partly through a continuing relationship with certain companies like Figurentheater Tübingen and Buchinger's Boot Marionettes, but also because there is an enthusiastic audience for the work and good work out there. Puppetry is alive and well both in the UK and abroad!”

The 2009 programme demonstrates this admirably, with a fabulous mix of international puppetry and animation work on offer. There is something for everyone: the family-friendly Familie Floez, from Germany, make a welcome return to the UK with a new comic mask theatre piece, an “alpine thriller-chiller” Hotel Paradiso.

There’s an appearance by the aforementioned Buchinger's Boot Marionettes with their homage to Alfred Jarry: “Think David Lynch’s Eraserhead, Goya’s hellish portraits or the world of
the Brothers Quay” says the Mime Festival brochure. Buchinger’s Boot Marionettes’ world is “a chamber of wonders, a miniature fantasy land, distorting, disturbing, surreal and enthralling”.

The internationally renowned Figurentheater Tübingen (who work “at the intersection of puppetry, object theatre and live art”) present Frank Soehnle’s Salto.Lamento, which Helen describes as “a marvellous danse macabre of his beautiful puppet creations”.

Glasgow-based Sharmanka Kinetic Theatre will install a selection of their beautiful sculptures in a time-based installation (lasting 30 minutes) at the Shunt Vaults: “It just seemed like a perfect marriage of atmospheric venue and work, especially as shadows play such an important role in the visual impact of the performance” says Helen of this show.

Also from the UK: a welcome collaboration from Faulty Optic and Sarah Wright, Fish Clay Perspex, which is “a series of short character studies and incidences based upon chance, futility, expectation, doubt and the turmoil caused by the flailings and failings of the human mind.” Highlights, we are told, will include “falling beasts, battered clay, bendy legs, bad drawing, frantic scribbling and the comic scrabbling of a guileless duo”.

For fans of Russia’s anarchic ‘theatre of engineering’ company Akhe, there are not one but two treats in store – a UK premiere for Faust 2360 Words at the ICA, which promises “2360 carefully chosen words, bizarre happenings, chemical experiments and [Akhe’s] trademark visual ingenuity,” and they also present their mad, bad ‘post-industrial’ cabaret show Plug‘n’Play at Shunt Vaults.

Then there’s Les Sept Planches de la Ruse, which Helen describes as an unusual form of “large scale object theatre… the fourteen Chinese performers manipulate the seven pieces of the giant tangram (a Chinese mind-bending puzzle) to create pictures, landscapes and cityscapes, under the directorial eye of Aurélien Bory, whose previous trilogy (IJK, Plan B and More Or Less Infinity) have been seen in LIMF at the Southbank Centre.” (Animations Online readers interested in a discussion on the use of the animated object in new circus shows: please read Ball, Stick, Rope – Puppet? In AO16.)

The Mime Festival is clearly one of the few platforms for major international puppet-theatre or animation work coming to London. As Joseph puts it:

‘We see the festival as a really important showcase for puppetry  – an artform which despite the success of Thunderbirds, Avenue Q, Spitting Image, The Muppets, Warhorse – is another case of work often taken less seriously than it deserves by 'legitimate' theatre people, but greatly liked by the public – and which has few other high profile platforms on which to be seen.... We've presented puppetry and object theatre in the festival over many years. We like it, we believe in it, we think its serious and worthwhile and we know there is a hungry audience for it out there.”

This is borne out by Helen’s comment that the first show to sell out at LIMF 2009 is a puppet show (from Buchinger’s Boot Marionettes). Buchinger’s are, like many of the puppetry companies that appear at LIMF, a challenge to the conventional view of puppet-theatre as a safe and wholesome entertainment for children. They are not for the faint-hearted! But clearly, their sell-out well before the opening date of the festival shows what a strong interest in experimental puppetry there is out there.

Over the years, the festival’s directors have chosen only work which is offbeat, innovative and contemporary:

“Frankly we are only concerned with what is usually described as 'adult puppetry'. We aren't really interested in anything mainstream, conventional or designed specifically for young audiences, however good it may be – there are other opportunities for this sort of work to be seen,” says Joseph.

Helen cites some examples of the sort of work that they have programmed in the past:

“We have been keen supporters of UK puppetry for years... from the Commedia antics of Punch & Judy Professors to the live art world of Ernst Fischer, via stand-outs like Improbable's Animo, Blind Summit and of course, Faulty Optic.”

Faulty Optic – seen by many as the finest of the UK’s ‘new wave’ puppeteers – have been firm favourites with LIMF audiences over the years, and their name pops up repeatedly in the website archive. 2009 sees a rather different sort of Faulty Optic show, presented at Shunt Vaults. Helen explains:

“One half of Faulty Optic, Liz Walker, wanted to try out some new ideas without the pressure of delivering a show for a formal theatre space like the ICA, where expectation could weigh down the creative process. She loved Shunt Vaults and that was mutual, so we agreed that she and Sarah Wright, who joins her for Fish Clay Perspex, would inhabit the Vaults for this coming festival.”

Sarah Wright’s previous work, Silent Tide, was one of the highlights of LIMF 2008. Helen mentions this piece in the context of a reflection of scale:

“With the work there's the question of scale - generally [puppet theatre sets] are much smaller creations than sets for human actors, so you can build incredible, but affordable sets and inhabit them with strange and wonderful beings, which can do, well, anything, including burning themselves as in Sarah Wright's show, Silent Tide.”

Joseph points out that ongoing support for artists is a key element of the festival’s programming:

“Once we find interesting artists we like to stay faithful, and where possible and relevant to present each of their shows, thus in 2009 Faulty Optic/Sarah Wright, Floez, Figurentheater Tübingen, Akhe, Sharmanka and Buchinger's are all making return visits with new work.  Of course we need to ring the changes, and we do. We'd love to bring Basil Twist's new work, but we need to find a hell of a lot of money first – and the sudden strength of the US dollar against the pound makes this even more unlikely”.

I’m interested in where there own particular moments of revelation came – which shows really wowed them?

Both mention Philippe Genty and Helen points out that Genty was a link between her and Joseph, before they knew each other:

“I saw Philippe Genty's London premiere in 1980 and loved his puppet creations. Funnily enough, it was my co-conspirator on LIMF who had brought him, but Joseph and I hadn't met at that stage. Shortly after that I was working at The Place Theatre which was a host venue for Penny Francis's big international puppet festival and I remember those companies even now: Eric Bass; John Wright and the Little Angel Marionette Theatre; and a delightful glove puppet show from Switzerland called Pamplemousse the Tiger.” 

“Genty opened my eyes to the enormous possibilities of puppetry - artistic, unusual, innovative, and in the sense that he also devised pieces for well known cabarets and nightclubs – commercial at the same time,” says Joseph.  Other eye-opening puppetry/object theatre shows he mentions are Nola Rae's Handlet (“Everything you really need to know about Hamlet conveyed by the movement of two hands”); Andrew Dawson's Space Panorama' anything from the Faulty Optic repertoire, and – from “way back”– the pioneering work of the Belgian group Radeis and solo performer Pat van Hemmelrijk.

 Is there anything they can remember as changing their view of puppetry? For Helen, it’s Ronnie Burkett:

 “I saw Ronnie Burkett's Tinka's New Dress in New York ten or so years ago and loved it. Even though it was packed with text, we said we'd do it in London - it just had to be seen here. As it happened, the Barbican stepped in - Bite's a better home for it and it's great that he returns there on a regular basis.”

It is very obvious from Joseph and Helen’s responses to questions that puppetry is an artform that have a great deal of interest in and knowledge of – and that they hold puppet-theatre creators in high regard. Here’s Helen on that subject:

“I'm in awe of the incredible multi-faceted skill of the puppeteer - sculptor, tailor, carpenter, engineer, electrician, performer, writer ... there's an incredible self-sufficiency, but which means the creation process for new work often takes years.”

Both mention the great boom happening currently in British puppetry, and particularly the incorporation of puppetry into very high profile shows at prestigious venues – Warhorse at NT; Improbable’s Satyagraha and the Anthony Minghella Madam Butterfly (with Blind Summit) at ENO. “I find the integration of animation and puppetry into opera, dance and west-end theatre very exciting. It's exploded public interest in puppet theatre and animation,” says Helen.  “It seems British artists are in many ways leading the field,” muses Joseph. He also reflects on the appeal of puppetry to audiences:

“Masks, disguise, transformative costumes, human puppetry - all those devices which introduce elements of uncertainty and fear as well as wonder, hold a fascination for audiences. This particular style of live art exerts a power and grip on the imagination which 'traditional' theatre rarely can.”

As always, the London International Mime Festival will be providing us with those precious and fleeting moments of theatrical fear and wonder, enchantment and transformation. For one short month, the deepest bleakest month of January, a whole host of venues will become the home of wild and wonderful puppets, extraordinary automata, magical moving objects, and shimmering shadows, real and imagined.

So if you are within a stone’s throw of London town, do stir yourself from your winter hibernation and come along to LIMF – it’s going to be a good one!


......


The 31st London International Mime Festival
runs at various venues
from 10–25 January 2009.

See the full programme details online at www.mimefest.co.uk 

A free festival brochure is available. Call 020 7637 5661 to order a print version, or download as a PDF from the website.

Book online via www.mimefest.co.uk or see venue telephone numbers with listings below.

Listings highlights for LIMF 2009 shows with puppetry/mask/object animation:

Familie Floez
Hotel Paradiso
Southbank Centre’s
Queen Elizabeth Hall
Fri 23 > Sun 25 Jan
Fri/Sat 7.30pm, Sun 6pm
After Show Discussion Sat 24 Jan
Tickets: 0871 663 2527  £13.50/£15.50/£17.50
Presented in association with Southbank Centre
Also at Corn Exchange Newbury
Wed 21 Jan 7.45pm 01635 522 733

Figurentheater Tubingen
Salto.Lamento
ICA Theatre
Sun 11 > Wed 14 Jan 8pm
Runs approx 65 mins/no interval
After Show Discussion Mon 12 Jan
Tickets: 020 7930 3647 All seats £13.50 (£11 concs)

Akhe
Faust 2360 Words
ICA Theatre
Sat 17 > Wed 21 Jan 8pm
Runs approx 60 mins/no interval
After Show Discussion Mon 19 Jan
Tickets: 020 7930 3647  All seats £13.50 (£11 concs)

Aurélien Bory’s
Les Sept Planches de la Ruse
Barbican Theatre
Wed 14 > Sat 17 Jan 7.45pm
After Show Discussion Fri 16 Jan
Tickets: 0845 121 6839 £10/£12/£16/£21/£26

Buchinger’s Boot Marionettes
The Armature of the Absolute
Barbican, The Pit
Tue 13 > Sat 17 Jan 7.45pm
Runs approx 70 mins/no interval
After Show Discussion Wed 14 Jan
Tickets: 0845 121 6839 All seats £12 (sold out – returns only)

Akhe
Plug & Play
Shunt Vaults
Wed 14 > Thu 15 Jan 8.30pm
Entry to show is included in Shunt Lounge admission fee of £5 and is subject to availability:
Doors open from 6pm.
Advance booking not available.

Sharmanka
Shunt Vaults
Wed 14 > Sat 31 Jan
(not Sun-Tue)
Wed-Fri: 6.30pm, 7.15pm,
8pm (not 22), 10pm (not 14)
Sat: 8.30pm, 10.30pm, 11.30pm
Runs 30 mins/no interval
After Show Discussion Thu 22 Jan after the 7.15pm showing
Entry to show is included in
Shunt Lounge admission fee
and is subject to availability:
Wed-Thu £5; Fri-Sat £10.
Doors open from 6pm (8pm Sats).
Advance booking not available.

Faulty Optic
Fish Clay Perspex
Shunt Vaults
Fri 16 > Sat 24 Jan (not Sun > Tue)
Wed-Fri 8.30pm, Sat 9.15pm
After Show Discussion Thu 22 Jan
Runs approx 80 mins/no interval
Entry to show is included in Shunt Lounge
admission fee and is subject to availability:
Wed-Thu £5; Fri-Sat £10.
Doors open from 6pm (8pm Sats).
Advance booking not available.

 

 

Top photomontage, clockwise from left: Familie Floez Hotel Paradiso; Buchinger's Boot Marionettes The Armature of the Absolute; Figurentheater Tübingen Salto.Lamento; Aurelien Bory Les Sept Planches de la Ruse (Photo Aglae Bory)

Bottom image: Figurentheater Tübingen Salto.Lamento

 

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