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To Be Or Not To Be:
A Material

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Nigel Luck takes part in a workshop led by Compagnie Philippe Genty as part of the Suspense Festival 2009

Paper, plastic dustsheeting, lycra, hessian, foil blanket, faux fur, cornflakes, dough, cous-cous, sphagetti – all materials used in 'to be or not to be: a material', a workshop exploring the practices of Compagnie Philippe Genty run by company members Eric de Sarria and Simon Rann as part of the Suspense Festival 2009 (and presented in collaboration with Central School of Speech and Drama).

Whilst there are certainly similarities I wouldn’t necessarily call their approach ‘object animation’. De Sarria and Rann stress the importance of letting a material do what it does naturally, to lead the exploration, rather than forcing it into a prescribed idea, shape or personality. Animating the material and imbuing it with a lifelike quality is not the primary intention of the practice, albeit one way of engaging with objects. In this workshop it was the relationship between the performer and the material that was the primary focus.

Philippe Genty’s approach to performance is one of making metaphorical (experiential) performance rather than generating symbolic (semiotic) images. Often he will ask performers to work with childhood memories that have strong emotional connections – these he refers to as 'souvenirs'. It is important that these memories are quite distant in order to be able to retain a degree of detachment whilst maintaining an intuitive connection to the memory. As such it is unlike psychodrama where the performer immerses themselves in that emotion or idea; rather, through deploying the 'souvenir' strategy, it is possible for the performer to recall the emotional experience without it overwhelming them. This idea of transferring a 'souvenir' into an object was explored in the workshop when we worked with large sheets of paper. The task was simply to walk towards another person, carrying the paper whilst drawing upon the 'souvenir' as a stimulus to begin interacting with the paper. These experiences were then spontaneously transferred into the quality of the paper’s motion. Within each memory there is often a series of conflicting emotions – a sad memory may also contain anger or happiness – and the animation resulting from the 'souvenir' approach can produce some quite surprising movements, ones which go beyond representing an emotion connected to a character or place. An important aspect of this merging between emotion, memory, time and material (or object) is the idea that by engaging with emotion to devise and perform work it can transcend cultural boundaries.

Over the four days of the workshop, exercises were divided fairly evenly between working with materials and physical/dance practice. Much of the workshop explored physicality and the performer's relationship to space, weight and other bodies. Ensemble exercises that worked on a notion of complicite were prominent, as were simple approaches to contact (improvisation) looking at the sharing of weight between bodies. With both of these physical practices it is essential to find a way of working whereby the participant surrenders control and allows their own preferences and physicality to be informed by the partner they are working with. This is not a passive relationship but rather one that is constantly shifting. This listening, symbiotic relationship is the same relationship that the company try to incorporate in working with puppets and objects, a balance where the performer influences the movement of the object and the object has an effect on the performer as well.

The animation part of the workshop focused on working with different types of materials. Here an exercise would commence with participants working with their eyes closed to explore a material’s physical, tactile and aural qualities. From this each participant selected a material that they felt a connection with and continued to work with it. The first phase of exploration required participants to shape their findings in relation to the way in which the material moved and behaved. In the next stage a suggestion or ‘reading’ of what was presented (poetic rather than descriptive) was offered up that encouraged people to interpret and further develop the exploration into a short piece. For myself the exploration focused on the idea that 'between I and me there is something I can’t control'. In conjunction with this, as a layering device, we could also choose to work with a 'souvenir' to add further dimension and performer presence to the work.

The workshop culminated in short performances where the performer was always present in the work, with no attempt to hide them or background them behind the presence of the puppet. At times the materials assumed an animated life, and at others they became a medium for performers to communicate emotions: live people and animated objects, in equal balance. 



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Producing work that combines puppetry, physical theatre, song and illusion, Compagnie Philippe Genty are a giant on the visual theatre circuit, last appearing in the UK with La Fin des Terres (Land’s End) at the London International Mime Festival 2007 (reviewed by Animations, click here to view).

To be or not to be: a material was a four-day workshop that took place 2–5 November 2009, organised by Central School of Speech and Drama in collaboration with the Little Angel Theatre as part of the Suspense London Puppetry Festival

It was led by Eric de Sarria (Drifting, Dedale, Zigmund Follies) and Simon Rann (Stowaways, Le Fin des Terres), long-standing members of Compagnie Philippe Genty.

The purpose of the workshop was to transmit knowledge of the manipulation of materials, puppets and objects, and to stimulate each student in their personal search for their own visual language. The four days were focused on two tools which are central to the artistic process of the company: the manipulation of materials nourished by personal memory.

The workshop formed part of Central’s ongoing commitment to the development of puppetry practice. Upcoming events at Central include the Theatre Applications conference, 21-23 April 2010 ( http://theatreapplications.org.uk) and the 4th Student Puppet Festival, 5-8 May 2010. ( www.studentpuppetfestival.com )

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All images taken at the Compagnie Philippe Genty masterclass, Central
School of Speech and Drama, November 2009. Photos courtesy of Cariad Astles


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