Emotional Diary of The Naked Puppeteer
Mark Down – actor, puppeteer and co-director
Blind Summit – shares some intimate details from his diary
on the making of On Emotion
On Emotion, written by Mick Gordon and Paul Broks, played at the Soho Theatre, London, 5 November to 20 December. It is one of a series of ‘theatre essays’ directed by Mick Gordon that have a question as their starting point. In this case, the question was: ‘Are we just the puppets of our emotions?’ The characters in the play are: Stephen, a cognitive behavioural therapist (played by James Wilby); Stephen’s actress daughter Lucy (Rhian Blythe); Anna, her puppet-maker friend (Caroline Catz); and Mark, Stephen’s son – described as a young man at a slight angle to the universe (played by Mark Down). The production was designed by Nick Barnes, with puppetry by Blind Summit
| April 07 |
Someone called Athina Kasiou emails me to say that she is working on a project with Mick Gordon and they want to use puppets. Would we be interested in meeting?
A few weeks later, at Cafe Nero at Covent Garden. Mick says that a few years ago he became fixated by death. This led him on a journey to explore “what we are” and he made a theatre essay called On Death. He has done a few more since: “On Love”, “On Religion”, “On Ego”, and now he wants to do one called On Emotion. He is working with a neuropsychologist called Paul Broks. “Paul says that we are just meat puppets”. I can't quite figure out what he is on about but I like the sound of it and I like Mick, so I say we're in if he wants us. Great he says. Great.
| July 07 |
Rehearsing our new cast for Low Life. Mick visits rehearsals with [actress] Jane Horrocks. We show them the stuff – focus, fixed point and breath. Mick says he wants to write a seduction scene using this vocab. He listens intensely and is very bright. Jane is quiet.
Mick wants me to act in the show and Nick [Barnes – co-director of Blind Summit] to design it.
| May 08 |
Mick and Nick have been meeting to discuss design and ideas. Mick doesn't want me to be involved yet. Nick has a panic that the puppeteer character has become a painter and there are no puppets in it at all! He points this out to Mick, who scratches his head and says, “yeah”.
| June 08 |
Mick rings to say they have hit a problem. My character, ‘Mark’, has Asperger syndrome, or something like it, and people with Aspergers don't bring objects to life.
| July 08 |
Received ‘towards a first draft’ for On Emotion from Mick today – very exciting. When I read it I find that it begins with Mark trampolining naked.
He has come up with a device in the first draft which I think could be brilliant - a moment where the actresses come out of character and say: “This is where we have our fight” or “How are we going to do that?..." Maybe if this structure is extended throughout the play ‘Mark’ can also come out of character as a puppeteer and say directly: “"he problem is that people with Aspergers don't bring objects to life..."
The big problem with the script at the moment is that there are too many ideas in it and it doesn't focus on its central themes of emotion and puppetry.
Look up Aspergers on YouTube – there are hundreds of ‘Me And My Aspergers’ films...
Long session with Mick over the model box in the workshop. Nick is feeling quite stuck but we end in a good place. The play is an experiment, but how to design a set for an experiment? It needs to be a theatrical space. Soho Theatre has two pillars in the middle of the stage which take your eye away from the centre and need to be ‘disappeared’. We concentrate on these and come up with an idea of a proscenium inside a black box. It feels like a good place to get to.
New York. Rehearsing Madam Butterfly at the Metropolitan Opera. Amazingly, a friend of mine, Haleh, remembers seeing a guy, who she thinks has autism, do a puppet show about eight years ago. She manages to track him down and we meet in a rehearsal room at the Met on Sunday. He shows me a mime of driving a truck which he did eight years before, and a sock puppet. He teaches me the mime. He is brilliant, but the most powerful lesson of the day is that he is normal. Real.
Nick calls to say he thinks he had an idea: to paint the back wall of the set with constellation maps [a key element of the story is Mark’s interest in astronomy and his obsession with the telescope in his therapist father Stephen’s study]. Real and beautiful: it's brilliant.
First day back from NY in rehearsals. The puppet is brilliant – the likeness [to Mark] is really good and Yumi has made a great silver space-suit.
The play feels quite painful and the puppetry very forced. I told Mick that the idea that my character learns puppetry during the play was unrealistic since I have just come back from three weeks and two years teaching three puppeteers to do Butterfly and they still found it bloody hard. Mick says, “you're just going to have to do it badly for a while.” In the shower later I try doing Spock in a high voice and Captain Kirk in a normal voice and it is quite interesting/ weird. Also try a squeal of anxiety which might work. Could he be really uncomfortable?
To be honest I am scared.
On the News - a guy from Plymouth has been found guilty of trying to suicide-nail-bomb a Giraffe restaurant in Exeter. His Mum, shocked, said, “He's diagnosed with Aspergers. He's been radicalised.”
Nick and I mess about with the puppet. I come up with an idea to open the sofa cushions like the bay doors of a space launch. Mick leaps on it enthusiastically and directs a sequence of the puppet coming up behind the sofa. Igor, the composer who is in the room with us all day every day produces a very cool Star Trek remix. This feels like Blind Summit Land.
Opening night of Complicite’s A Disappearing Number at The Barbican” - beautiful.
Call Mick on Sunday in a panic: I feel that ‘Mark’ is random and plot driven. He doesn't agree. I say I don't understand the character. I don't understand the story. What motivates him? He says this is the play and we've got to do it now. I say maybe I'm the wrong person for this. I don't understand what the fuck I'm doing in this play. Or what my character is doing. Or what my character is. Mick says, you have to figure that out. That's your job.
No amount of directing prepares you for acting. The humiliation, the anxiety, the uncertainty, the thrill, the vanity, the total neurotic self-obsessing headfuck of it. Mick rings the next morning to say, “I've been worrying about you fella and wondering what I could do to help.”
We did the wanking scenes today. James [Wilby] was pretty cool and just went for it. Afterwards making coffee he said to me, “was it all right, you know, man to man, did it seem real..?”
Today was miserable. I have a crisis of confidence and say I still don't understand the motivation for the puppetry. Everyone is tense and Caroline explodes, “it's your fucking back-story! We get together at 4 o'clock and do puppetry. It's what we do. I can't stand any more of this I'm going for a walk!” and leaves. Mick says I am bringing too much of our Blind Summit process into the room but what else can we do? James says, “Your character just has to love puppetry and that's that. Otherwise we have no play.” I can't understand this acting thing. These guys obviously know what they are doing but how can I have a back-story I don't believe in? I can't see a way through this. Nick and I go to the pub and talk it through. We are both confused by the day.
Run my lines with Sarah and start to see a way forward. Play my part and stop being Blind Summit. Acting is not about the truth of the play but about the truth of my part in the play. Division of labour. My job is to clear my desk – look after my character –-the truth of the play is other people's concern. If I am focussed anywhere else at all then I will not give a full performance of my character. It's very simple really and yet plenty complicated enough.
Wake up on Sunday morning feeling oddly full, relaxed, happy!
Run through of On Emotion goes pretty well. And afterwards Mick is alive and brainy and fast, changing everything around - exciting and scary - re-blocking and re-working, cutting stuff. There is a picture of the puppet in the Saturday Guardian Preview.
On stage. The show looks beautiful – Nick's set is great and the lights are lovely. Every star in the back wall has an LED light in it. Do the naked puppetry scene for the first time. Standing in the wings in a towel I thought of Little Britain and felt it was the right thing to be doing.
Show opened last night – full audience and good response. Now the work really begins! Fingers crossed...