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ao21: from the frontline

The Turning of the Tide

Puppet Centre Trust bursary winner Sarah Wright documents the creation of her latest project, Silent Tide

Some years ago I wrote the opening of a show and never got any further with it. It was about a desert at dawn. It was about people in movement, the constant movement of a restless humanity. It was an idea that stayed in a cardboard box for a long time.In 2005 I was awarded the Puppet Centre Bursary and travelled to Berlin to work with artist/musician Bastiaan Maris and meet Bob Rutman. Bob is a wonderful painter and musician. For many years (he is now 76) he has designed and played his own instruments. They are built from sheet steel, cable and rods, and played with a classical bow. His music is unlike anything I had heard – haunting, disturbing, emotional and evocative. He asked if I was interested in making a performance with him. The idea was still in the box and Bob’s music had opened it.Funded by an Arts Council Research and Development grant we set to work in the summer of 2006. The aim: to create a project that would bring together experienced international artists in puppetry, object theatre, mechanics and original music. To play and explore through process and into live performance with a non-text based structure and narrative. It was to take place in London and Berlin. We named it Silent Tide.

Developing the visual language

Lyndie Wright (co-founder of Little Angel Theatre) and I first developed a storyboard. We used picture references, old National Geographics; we painted, discussed, and made a model. All the while listening carefully and with great consideration to Bob’s music. The classical and industrial qualities of the musical instruments were also the key visual inspiration for the design.

bobWe drew together a core puppetry team (including Rebekah Wild and Milou Veling) and spent one week at the Little Angel Theatre workshop creating initial forms and figures. The storyboard and model were invaluable as a guide and springboard; we worked with them as a visual script.Through collaboration and the practical questions the process raised, I was constantly forced to examine the structure of the narrative, which ideas could work and why in that order. I continued to develop a logic that suited my idea of how the images and emotions would translate to an audience. Themes of migration and industrialisation were abstracted into visual forms intended to evoke thought but not to signal a ‘message’. We altered and enriched the storyboard as developments arose. In the ‘City’ section I had only storyboarded three scenes; Milou extended these to thirteen one morning and provoked us to look at what the scenes were really about, to take on the humour and quirkiness of life. We cut down again to nine, choosing ideas which had a possible sound element such as water and glass and looked at the humour, bearing in mind Bastiaan’s work with relay switches and Bob’s squeaky toy collection. The week in London was very important because it provided us with the real tools of the puppeteer – the figures. The concentrated work and long hours consolidated the puppet team in a very short time. This unity proved vital when dealing with the next phase, working with the musicians in Berlin. The experience sent us out with something to offer but ready to adapt.In Berlin we rapidly built the larger elements of the set in Bastiaan’s workshop. The instrument Bastiaan plays in the show, and some of Bob’s too, had been built there so we could literally integrate features of the instruments into the set, matching the steel pipes and echoing the curved sails in the form of the stage table. We investigated where the set and scenery itself could evolve as a musical instrument. Stainless steel pipes, which grew from the ‘City’, became space rocket engines as Bastiaan ‘played’ them with propane burner flames. During this building time we discovered that, even with the model to work from, there are many ways to translate a concept. Sometimes these differences of opinion were stumbling blocks and other times the results were instant improvements to the original intention.

Improvisation and Rehearsal

Dock 11, our Berlin venue, supported us with an ideal rehearsal space. It was a disused cigarette factory, close to Bastiaan’s workshop. A large, quiet hall with plenty of daylight, a yard for painting or eating in the sun and no neighbours to be disturbed by our late night rehearsals.Our aim now was to develop the storyboard towards performance. Each day we aimed to cover one section of the piece. Structuring the days became vitally important in order to accommodate the different disciplines of puppetry and music, improvisation and rehearsal. In the mornings we puppeteers worked to complete set building or improve details. We then practised technique, developing ways to move figures and sets and rehearsed ideas for a particular section. The musicians (Bob and Bastiaan now joined by Jeff Funt) then arrived and we would eat together, a meal prepared by friends, in our makeshift kitchen. After food and over coffee we talked the musicians through the section for the day. We demonstrated pieces we had prepared and shared ideas about the mood and drive of the images. We also talked about what had inspired the images, as sometimes this had been a specific piece of original music. The musicians then played and the puppeteers would improvise to the theme.Within the shape of the show we found that as puppeteers we were very demanding and needed a fairly secure structure in order to time pieces of action and execute effective beginnings and endings. The musicians were far more at home with improvisation and building atmospheres; they were more familiar with a ‘concert’ structure with longer and fewer pieces of music, as opposed to a series of short, interlinked ‘scenes’.Towards the end of the week Pete Charlton (sound designer) joined us. Pete worked with tones that played sometimes through and sometimes above the live instruments, finding another range of sound, bringing further layers of contrast and texture to the piece. Throughout the process the music provided a soundscape within which the puppeteers worked. It formed the emotional journey that supported the development of the scenes. It proved essential to develop the action alongside the music as each informed the other. At times the sounds provided a contrast to work against, other times they expanded the scene in terms of scale. Music could also provide surprise when it contrasted in style and pace with the action. During these rehearsals, as we sought out structure and pacing, openness, talking and eating together were all very important. Gradually we began to learn the rhythm of the performance, becoming flexible in the pace of our improvisation and rehearsal process at the same time. Our mornings were made up of fast puppet-making and the evenings of slow music. The evenings were times for exploring the sound in movement and choreography, times for playing.[sub headline] Berlin: PerformanceThe performances themselves were great experiences. The audiences included many friends, fans of Bob’s music and a regular DOCK 11 dance/theatre crowd but also people interested in puppetry. The audience response was very encouraging, though interpretation of the content varied. Many saw the piece as a ‘spiritual’ journey, some responded more to the industrialisation theme. I was satisfied that the show provoked thought and discussion and that the audience had personal reactions to what the ‘story’ ultimately symbolised.

puppetonfireLondon: Sharing Research

In the Autumn I worked on a talk and video presentation to be made to the puppetry community at Little Angel Theatre. I found both the process of preparing the presentation and the evening itself, the discussion and feedback, incredibly useful as it forced me to reflect upon the Research and Development period fully, acknowledging elements of the process and performance that were successful and analysing elements that needed work.

In Conclusion

Silent Tide has been a wonderful opportunity to work with so many artists, including Bob Rutman. I believe no one in England is making his style of classical-industrial music and I felt it entirely suited to combination with puppetry. I was fascinated to see how well the relaxed and improvisational nature of Bob’s work blended with the often exacting nature and precise timing of puppet work. I believe that ultimately each influenced the other in a very positive way.It was very exciting to lead a process through which raw concepts became three-dimensional works, to see how sketched ideas were taken up by others artists and developed. And I am very glad I hadn’t thrown away that cardboard box…

Images of Silent Tide courtesy of Sarah Wright.

Silent Tide has since played at PUF Festival, Croatia where it won the ‘Prize of the Wind’ for ‘innovative and inspiring work’.
It will play at the London International Mime Festival 24–27 January 2008. See More information on the company can be found on the website:


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