By Matt

Collage, then and now…

Thought I would share something different for this blog and do something visual.

One of the tasks, fairly towards the end of “The Artist’s Way”, and one of the more time-consuming ones, is to take about 10 magazines or papers and flick through, tearing out any images that seem to resonate or appeal to you. Once having done so, create a collage. The original task is meant to help you envisage and help you target your aspirations. It’s meant to appeal to you as a developing artist at that moment in time. I never found the collage the first time that aspirational, I couldn’t quite see it as a way to create an image of me in the future and the goals I was going to achieve. It did, however, offer me a chance to just be creative for the hell of it and make something that had no real purpose other than to just satisfy me.

Three months on you’re encouraged to update this and make a new one. Can’t say it’s been three months exactly, I knew it was “due” though and so threw this together over the weekend. If anyone reading this happens to be a therapist or psychologist and wishes to get in touch with some sort of an analysis, please do. I’d be fascinated to know what this came across as. In the meantime, I’ve done my own snapshot evaluation of the differences between the two…

Previous collage, created during “The Artist’s Way”

– The previous image seems a lot more chaotic, the current focuses on form, layout and landscape a lot more.

-The current image involves a lot of property (clearly on my mind as I’m thinking about ways to buy a house).

– The current image feels calmer and much more organised (perhaps insight into my psyche at the moment, I’ve been reading into things like minimalism and meditation)

– The quotes in the current image feel very aspirational and empowering. The previous just seem frivolous and disconnected.

– The current feels like a sense of perspective. The previous seems like an up close examination under a microscope.

I’m likely to do another in 3 months, let’s see how things change… If anyone fancies undertaking the exercise, it can be really quite satisfying to just sit and be creatively indulgent without having to spend a lot of money. It’s a great way of channelling your creativity in a new form or simply reconnecting with creativity in the first place.

 

Current collage, 3 months on

 

 

My review for Julia Cameron’s “The Artist’s way can be found here…

As a followup, my thoughts on the 174 days of Morning pages created as part of m journey on “The Artist’s Way” can be found here.

If anyone feels like checking themselves into creative recovery and doing the “The Artist’s Way” themselves, find a link to the book here – I found it really useful to have my own hard copy. I’m a big fan of marginalia and annotation and this is a book that needs that kind of digestion to make it your own.

 

522 sides of paper – What I’ve learnt from 174 days of Morning Pages

Morning Pages, an essential tool from Julia Cameron’s “The Artist’s Way”, consist of three pages of A4, preferably done in the morning, and are of conscious long-hand thoughts that cross your brain as you proceed to write.

Having done 12 weeks of these as part of finishing “The Artist’s Way”, you’re then encouraged to continue writing them for the next 90 days in a sort of remission like state. I’m just coming to the end of my 90 day stint and felt it warranted a blog of my experiences with them.

The process of writing down everything long as it drifts across your brain to fill three pages doesn’t sound too difficult, or so I thought when I first undertook them. It’s amazing how conscious you suddenly become that you are recording EVERYTHING; soon your stream of thought dries up and you’re left writing “I have nothing else to say. Literally, can’t think of anything.” As with any skill, you adapt and actually realise it’s fine to have these drought like moments. Having a moment of having no thoughts are in fact thoughts themselves. Similarly, this method of notation doesn’t have to be interesting. You aren’t writing to impress or publish. Cameron herself describes these as the lint roller or dust buster vacuum for the brain to clear your head of clutter, and it certainly works.

Morning Pages are an exercise and a safe space. Within that you’re able to achieve quite a lot in just being able to effectively have conversation with yourself – at a reasonable speed so your hand can keep up! – and you’re able to tackle any nagging matters. It’s a space where one is able to gripe and moan and never let the world see, but know you have “exercised your chimp,”, as Prof. Steve Peters of “The Chimp Paradox” would say, and cleared it from your system. Even at times you may find you have been able to debate and come to a more rational conclusion or better perspective.

These three pages of A4 offer a space where you’re able to answer questions, even the most trivial or seemingly irrelevant. Being in a position where I effectively don’t have a solid go-to source for my mentoring and so therefore rely on different networks of people and peers to help me in my development in offering guidance. It’s very comforting to be able to rationalise and expand certain thoughts or queries thoroughly. Note: as thoroughly as your brain will allow before you end up writing things like “I need to buy ______ today” and “Must text _______”

So what have I learnt? Firstly, that my brain manages to sub categorise huge parts of my life and keep them separate, but it’s a struggle to deal with them, and all of their must attend to issues, at the same time. Having gotten into the practise of Morning Pages I find my thoughts are a lot more comprehensible and I’m able to deal with each one much more effectively and succinctly.

Having slowed down my thoughts I also find I’m a lot calmer. Not everything seems to fly into my head at break neck speed, and when things do I can analyse a lot better. Not just at a surface level too. I’m able to identify where these thoughts might have come from and how to resolve any deeper underlying issues. I’m always reminded in this of mindfulness meditations when you’re asked to consciously observe your thoughts, remarking things like “ah, there’s worry”. It has been a helpful process to not only address surface level thinking, but take into account anything deeper that may need resolution.

Have I learned much about myself? Nothing too sensational or epiphanic that I didn’t know before, having now been presented with my thoughts on hundreds of pages of paper. I’m still me, perhaps a more refined version though. I do realise I tend to spread myself too thin and I’m hugely critical (of myself more than anything or anyone else). I think this a battle everyone deals with though, I’ve just not been as aware of it in my own psyche before.

I’ll continue to use Morning Pages, maybe not as religiously. If I miss a day, I won’t beat myself up over it. They are a great way to organise my brain and put me in the best way to start my day. Big issues suddenly seem logical and conquerable and minor niggles are weighed up and soon vanquished.

I’d recommend to anyone, provided they are happy to sit and openly write that they haven’t a clue what they are doing or why they are doing it, and don’t mind sacrificing a few trees worth of paper to do so! It’s a useful practice, give it a try.

CHECKING INTO CREATIVE RECOVERY – A REVIEW OF “THE ARTIST’S WAY” BY JULIA CAMERON

Again, another book always on the recommended reading lists for any creative practitioner or artist, and one of the most talked about. It only seemed right in my own journey of creative evolution that I put myself through the 12 week process to examine my own creativity.

For anyone who hasn’t come across this read, Cameron was a scriptwriter in Hollywood, boasting Spielberg and Scorsese as some of her friends and colleagues. “The Artist’s Way” developed in response to Cameron teaching a class on scriptwriting and her students claiming to have no creativity, and also her own experiences as a artist. It has now taken on its own following, spawning many follow on works and groups around the world….

The book compromises of 12 chapters of working weeks, each focusing on a different aspect of your creativity or existence as an artist. Each contains essays written by Cameron exploring deeper the topics being spot lit that week and then some following homework.

Included also are a few rather lengthy chapters of introduction which set up the whole context for what you are letting yourself into and introducing two key concepts that come into use throughout the book: Morning Pages and Artist Dates. Morning Pages are three A4 pages of conscious thought, written longhand, preferably done in the morning. An Artist Date sets aside few hours each week in which you indulge your inner artist in something you want to do. Some of mine in the last few weeks have included baking, walking, painting whilst listening to favourite album, walking around a food market, visiting a gallery, the cinema the other side of London to see a very obscure choice of film.

In speaking to colleagues informing them I was working my way through “The Artist’s Way” it was interesting to see that many had rebuked the idea, trying it in the past and stopping after a few weeks in finding it not very helpful. Admittedly this undertaking isn’t for the faint hearted, some weeks with Morning Pages, Artist Dates and the homework set, it can be quite time consuming. Cameron also asks you to delve into the dark corners of your mind and confront a few home truths which can be quite uncomfortable. I stuck with it though partly because so many people had claimed to have such success with the book; I was determined to do all 12 weeks as a promise to my own development (even if I took nothing away from it I would be able to say I’d done it and able to talk about it from an educated perspective

To clarify, Cameron hopes that in undertaking her course you rediscover your creativity, or further indulge in your creative tendencies. I expected it to be very different to what it actually is. Whilst expected tasks like collages and drawing are included, there’s also quite a lot of analysing, making lists, comparing and documenting. I wonder if this is why some of my colleagues struggled with it, it doesn’t immeadiately scream “this will make you more creative!”. What it does do, and I only realised this as I was coming to the end of the 12 weeks, is present you with a huge amount of evidence about yourself and gives you permission to explore realms of possibilities you may rule out in the day to day running of your life. It’s an excellent way to gain a distanced perspective of you as a whole person, from an honest and well rounded point of view.

12 weeks is a long time and I can’t say I enjoyed what was asked of me every week. I had to bear in mind that it’s a process that has been devised and refined for a specific reasoning to cause effect. Overall, take it with a pinch of salt and read into it what you will. Cameron refers to God in the book quite often, but you don’t need to believe in such a concept or be religious, I certainly don’t. Cameron merely asks you to believe in energy greater than you and that I can get on board with – this book is about opening up to possibilities, the world and energies around you and letting yourself channel them.

Can I say I am more creative for having done it? I don’t really know, I wonder whether it’s a bit like going to the gym; you rarely notice the small changes as you are living them day to day. I can say though this book has provided me with some excellent tools which I will be using again and again, and also a more open minded approach to thinking and problem solving. There are also some excellent essays penned by Cameron that I will be re-reading as resources and means of support on aspects of living a creative life, or life as an artist. (It’s as good as turning up to Artists’ Anonymous once a week)

I’d recommend “The Artist’s Way” to anyone, whether they were wanting to pursue a creative lifestyle or not, it’s a really delightful journey to reconnect with yourself and your key values. You emerge from the 12 weeks a better, more coloured-in version of yourself. For those of you wondering, and maybe have read the radical changes that some people have made in their lives after doing this book, divorcing partners, selling their belongings etc, there’s very little in this book that asks you to completely change your world. Moreover, it merely asks you to reconnect with yourself and harness the power of possibilities.

WHY REVIEW?

Purchasing things online has become very much a convention of modern day living. Things can be ordered without even having to push a button, electronic assistants can do so for you and, if you do wish to remain in control, one click and it’s all done. My point here is not about modern day ease of consumerism, moreover, I was paving the way to discuss that we are then encouraged to review what we have purchased.

To go further, social media and blogging has empowered the masses and turned everyone into their own self appointed critic, if they so chose to be one. Companies ask for feedback via instant social media now as opposed to slower methods like email, letters or picking up the phone.

Bearing these two things in mind, why should we review and engage in giving feedback? Of late I’ve been so busy that a lot of my sourcing for work has been done online as opposed to in person. I’ve become subject to the barrage of emails that then follow in making purchases. I’ve always been one to tweet my thoughts on shows, work and films I’ve seen – provided the criticism is constructive, positive, analytical or humorous (nothing good ever comes from a hateful tweet). I have shyed away from leaving reviews on online emporiums like Amazon and EBay. Confronted with my current demands from online retailers asking for my views on my purchases, I have started to engage and send my thoughts back to them.

It’s got me thinking about what use is a review or feedback.

Firstly, the two terms are used for different purposes but essentially, as a construction, they are the same thing: information passed from one party to another, they are just framed and intentioned differently. Reviews are intended to inform other consumers. Feedback is usually asked for from the vendor and more often than not, its aim is to improve.

I’ve re written this several times, from several
Starting points but have always come back to the same end point – so I think it may be easier to start there and work backwards.

Three things I’ve come to conclusion on whilst contemplating this: purpose, intention and function. Generally, all feedback or reviews inform. They are there to help gather data. How they are intentioned (as in audience) and function (how they are purposefully designed to operate) are what give us the difference between reviewing and giving feedback. However, bearing in mind that at their root these devices inform, surely we should then aim to provide honest, constructive, useful evidence.

A policy of honesty offers two off-shoots, each relating to the two parties involved in the process of giving feedback: the giver and receiver. Firstly, the receiver is presented with comprehensive data to be able to use – perceived opinion, insight into context and culture, effectiveness etc. Even negative feedback can be a good constructive tool for improvement.

The second off-shoot, or by product, of honesty is for the giver. Here is where I have really had to consider what the value of reviewing is. In creating evidence – particularly that which sits as hard evidence like a tweet or a review on a website – we are able to see where values and beliefs are held. This is a rare opportunity to gain a perspective on ourselves, externally, as opposed to through our own filtered vision. Having distance from something we said or did ages ago is a great way to gain perspective and also note development.

Conclusively, giving feedback or reviewing (done constructively) is a progressive tool to help inform and improve – we all kind of know this. However what is overlooked is the crucial opportunity for to be honest and reflective, not just as someone receiving this kind of information but also as to someone who is giving it.

On a greater scope, we are presented with excellent perimeters for context, culture and circumstantial information. On a more personal level, we are offered a rare chance to consolidate our own set of beliefs and values which in turn inform our judgement and behaviour.

“WHAT IS SCENOGRAPHY?” BY Pamela Howard

I’ve just finished re-reading “What is Scenograhy?” by Pamela Howard. I read it a few years ago whilst training as part of the reading list and it’s sat on my shelves gathering dust since. I thought now was an excellent time to revisit it.

Similar to my critique of Katie Mitchell’s “The Director’s Craft” this too feels a bit like a beginner’s guide to theatre design, more cunningly disguised as an elaborate series of essays, the key point to mention though (and Howard states as such) is that she is not a theatre designer. Howard is a scenographer.

What’s wonderful about this book is the subtle drawing of lines in the sand that Howard uses to show differences between theatre design and scenography. I’ve heard it being argued as the same thing amongst colleagues and peers, or rather that scenography is what theatre designers do. Having re read, I’d now like to side with Howard.

The craft and practice of scenography is an evolution of theatre design, theatre design 2.0, a more holistic approach . Her arguments take scenography into a new realm of design, to that of visual storytelling and interpretation. A designer, it could be said, merely will solve the problems of and create solutions to the list of prerequisites presented by the piece.

A scenographer, as presented from this read, is effectively a visual translator and close collaborator to the director – it is design in a much more applied and comprehensive manner from a greater stand point and concept. They have a deep understanding of the text, usually heavily analysed and prepared (to the extent that they could step in as director if needed, and Howard mentions having trained in direction as part of her training). They also seem to have influential say in the shape of the piece via their creations.

It has made me consider the idea of scenography in relation to puppetry. There is a difference here therefore to being a puppet designer, one who designs the things to be animated and then a puppetry designer/scenographer, one who would look at the overall concept of puppetry as a storytelling element. (This warrants a separate article before I vere off tangent wildly)

Howard’s book is a relatively easy read and highly accessible, punctuated with some rather exquisite drawings and diagrams from her own work. The 7 working chapters focus tightly on the elements that make up her practice and could be read as stand alone pieces with very little difficulty.

There is much to be gleaned from this book if, like me, you are in search of some inspiration and aspiring to develop your own practice. Read with a pad and paper by your side though, her ideas and tools are peppered randomly through the chapters and although explained well and thoroughly, if you were looking for them specifically in a focused turn-to-the-page-via-the-index-style-search you’d struggle.

Controversially, I can’t necessarily say I would recommend this to theatre designers, unless those designers are open minded and willing to accept a differing opinion and view point (there may be a lot of cross over with what they already do but haven’t considered it “scenographic” by Howard’s terms). It’s definitely a good read though to other theatre practitioners, particularly those who span several disciplines and class themselves as theatre makers. Similarly, Howard’s opus would offer great insight into anyone looking to investigate visual storytelling or understanding the semiotics of putting together a visual narrative.

“THE GIFT” – LEWIS HYDE

 

This book has been recommended to me by several colleagues, and indeed the internet via those “if you are an artist, you should read this” style lists. I can’t say that the blurb sells this book well, in initially reading it I was skeptical. However, having been so heavily recommended and labelled a “must read”, I decided to bite the bullet and see what the fuss was about.

First things first, it’s a mammoth of a tome. I read it on my kindle (purposefully for that reason, space in bag saving!) and it’s one of those books that seems to be a constant screen swiper. 50 pages later, you’ve achieved another percent and are told there’s another hour and 40 minutes left of the chapter. For anyone looking to tackle this, I’d recommend the kindle version.

This is a book of two halves, and it makes itself very clear in the contents and introduction. The first seven chapters discuss the concepts of gifts, gift exchanges and definitions between commodities, products and what makes a gift. The last 2 chapters are explorations and discussions upon the lives of poets Walt Wiltman and Ezra Pound.

Herein lies the ultimate problem in this book. Though wordy, the first 7 chapters offer interesting insight and discussion into what a gift actually is. There is great exploration into concepts such as commodities: when a gift changes into something else, and how gifts are used in different socio-dynamics. Whilst this doesn’t quite answer the book’s main aim, to explore “the gift” of creativity, it offers interesting reading and a good study into anthropology and human nature.

The last two chapters, the studies on the poets, seem to veer wildly off course and cloud the book’s focus. Pages upon pages of text that doesn’t seem relevant and more like a passion project for Hyde, the author, whose voice comes through clear in these sections. It made me wonder at times, as I trudged through this verbal treacle, as to why the editor had allowed these chapters to be left in at the length they are.

When we finally reach the conclusion, things seem to wrap up nicely, with a few useful gems that I eagerly highlighted. These are not enough to really spark other inspiring thoughts for research or contemplation; their appearances are brief, thin and fleeting. Instead there is too much excessive research and emphasis on areas that don’t really answer the book’s main objective.

This write up casts “The Gift” in a bad light, it’s not intentionally meant to. Perhaps it’s purpose was slightly lost on me. Despite providing information and discussion on quite a niche topic, there isn’t enough work in here discussing the effects of creativity as a gift, or the plights of artists as gift givers to feel it comprehensively fulfils its desired outcome.

Give it a read, but one I would move to the bottom of the majority of reading lists.

The “F” Word – Sharing and Celebrating Failure

Recently I was talking to a scientific researcher over tea (yes, dear reader, what a way to start a blog!?) Being naturally curious, I asked into the ins and outs of his work and him likewise; that chat has inspired this blog.

A common theme that was apparent in both our professions, in different guises, was experimentation. A major difference though: his job was to embark upon, document and share, all the possible outcomes from a question; in my work only the good outcomes ever see the light of day when an audience see the show. I hide my failures, he celebrates and shares his. Each one, to him, is a discovery.

Speaking to other artists and creative practitioners here, we will all come across failure. It is inevitable in our line of work. Whether that be a declined proposal, failed audition, or a piece of work that just doesn’t seem to want to happen, failure is a constant recurring event we come across. As artists though, we keep failure relatively private. We grieve, we acknowledge where we went wrong behind closed doors to avoid judgement or criticism and we may or may not beat ourselves up over it (despite it may not being our fault).

My scientific friend though had a totally opposing outlook on failure. To him, each failed experiment or attempt was a discovery in working toward the end goal – and each one had to be catalogued, documented and shared amongst colleagues! Each one, he said, presented a learning experience in gaining one step closer to pinning down the end discovery. It actually made it easier as he and his team knew where they were going wrong. Now, admittedly, it could be argued that the variables in a scientific experiment and the variables that go into creating a piece of art might be hard to compare, however it’s never going to hurt to be able to analyse what went wrong where and think what could be done better next time. Each attempt is indeed a step closer to finding out the end goal, even if that attempt doesn’t bring forth the answer we hoped for. It is likely, after we have gotten over the frustration, to learn something from it and it might spark a totally new stream of thinking and discovery.

Elizabeth Gilbert in her book “Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear” (which is an excellent read and a book I must review. Liz’s podcasts, “Magic Lessons”, are an excellent extension of the conversation or a great way to dip your toes into her thinking. Link here…. https://www.elizabethgilbert.com/magic-lessons/) discusses and explores failure as the process of the world asking if you want to try again. Many, in answer to this question, don’t. The pain experienced in not accomplishing their goal being too crushing to even consider attempting again. Bearing in mind the mentality from my scientific counterpart, isn’t it worth trying again, just to get that one step closer? Every step and newly gained knowledge (even if that knowledge is that something doesn’t work) is in itself is an achievement. It may not be right or what we asked for, but we know what to try next time. The universe effectively testing our determination and resolve as artists to work toward achieving the desired result.

I wrote in one of my earlier blogs about why it is important to blog, and why as artists we should share. If anything, in considering this idea of failure and actually celebrating it, “I tried this, it didn’t work as I hoped, but I did learn this”, it makes me want to share even more. Every discovery may be useful to someone, and actually any insight into my process, however poor the outcome, is still enlightening. This is one of the reasons why I set out to do in blogging and engaging in conversation about my work.

Ultimately, we should not evaluate work with such a black or white perspective. Labelling something as a failure almost seems to cast it aside, calls it false, wrong or incorrect. In engaging with creativity surely we just explore an idea and delight in whatever the outcome? We have created something new. Ultimately we are creative scientists, however we replace labs with our studios, desks and rehearsal rooms and their test tubes with bodies, fantastic collaborators, words or materials.

We are there to engage in and explore whatever brilliant insights and experiments come our way. If they end in a failure, let us learn from them, moving on to the next as part of our journey of discovery in engaging with creativity.

KEEPING THINGS OBJECTIVE – “THE DIRECTOR’S CRAFT” BY KATIE MITCHELL…

Recently finished this…. (a real bargain too, knabbing a pre owned – turns out, ex library copy – from Ebay, for a fraction of the cost) “The Director’s Craft – A Handbook for the Theatre” by renowned theatre and opera director, Katie Mitchell. 

IMG_3217
“The Director’s Craft – A Handbook for the Theatre” by Katie Mitchell

Firstly, I should begin by pointing out that I wasn’t reading this intending to glean lots of useful information specifically relating to puppetry or object work. Neither of these languages feature heavily inMitchell’s work and aren’t commonly seen as part of her onstage vocabulary; I wanted to read this to gain a more general approach, and different perspective, on telling stories through the art of theatre and performance.

Currently I’m being funded to research how I can improve my own creative practice and develop my career as an artist, and also into methods of storytelling through theatre. This seemed like an excellent choice of read to help filter into all of these aspects.

At times it reads a little like Directing 101, or “so you want to be a theatre director?”, however it’s approach to the subject is broad ranging and comprehensive and offers a lot of insight into Katie’s insights, experiences and personal views on many of the day to day things that are taken for granted that go into the process of making work. 

What really comes across from this text however are two main areas of consummate knowledge that have clearly helped achieve Katie Mitchell’s status and reputation – and they feed into each other nicely.

The first is Mitchell’s methodology in approaching work that keeps it measurable and assessable in regards to the effectiveness of its communication. She’s found a way to keep the creation of work objective. That’s not to say there isn’t passion here and the work is all about process (churning it out and following the Katie Mitchell formula) it’s very obvious that there is real fire and drive. The tone of the book feels conversational, with many asides and quips from the author from her own opinions and experiences.

What is very interesting, and something that I have noticed in creating work, is that makers can lose sight of the end goal and the work turning into a passion piece. Mitchell’s approach sees the work very much as part of working out a puzzle, analysing the best ways to convey what is necessary to ensure clear delivery and communication of what was intended. It’s very refreshing to read, every technique and device deployed has purpose relating back to, and fed into, the intended creation of the piece.

The second sensation that I got from this read – and also what I found particularly impressive – is Mitchell’s ability to account for human factors in the creation of work. Human factors, if anyone hasn’t heard the term before, boils down to all the possible outcomes and instances and influences that may come when working with, well, humans. It’s clear that Mitchell handles her teams well even if the team may have to buy into some of her ways of working in regard to her terminology and jargon to maintain a point of common reference. She manages to account for the unpredictability and flux that comes when working with fellow humans. There are detailed and thorough advice sections on how to deal with notes sessions and ensuring optimum clarity, the difference in speech between talking to your cast and creative team and even advice on sitting in a rehearsal room to get good results. It is evident that Mitchell’s approach is very much centred around the work; an objective undertaking to tell story and communicate narrative.

Only possible criticism, it could be argued that in these fast moving, economically taught times, most companies are lucky to receive 4 weeks rehearsal. Mitchell is clearly used to 6-8 plus tech, previews and works on the play well into the run. For her it seems the work is never “done”. It may come as a shock or struggle to the aspiring theatre maker wanting to implement her techniques that they may not have thus luxury and naturally be disheartened. This is taken into consideration though with advice about how to streamline her application and even acknowledgements of a clearly less established, younger Mitchell making her first steps in her directing career and making the necessary sacrifices and adjustments to make the work work. 

Furthermore, the book is written applying examples of the exercises described to Chekhov’s “The Seagull”. Mitchell admits herself that she usually works with scripted plays, and usually ones which have come from an author long since passed. For those possibly seeking information about directing work with new writing or devised work: take the principles demonstrated here, evaluate their purpose and apply at will with a pinch of salt. There is logic that everything presented is very effective and worthy, it is important though to bear in mind the how and why to implement the exercise and what the desired result is.  

All in all, I’d heartily recommend to anyone involved in the art of making performance. Even those not involved in a performance or directorial capacity. There’s a lot of value to be taken away from this book. It’s a read that I found had a real weight and gravity to it that re-anchored a lot of the principles that in time, one would forget or, in bad habit, lose sight of.

Framing Devices – who, what, why, how etc. to tell this story

I’ve recently seen a lot of theatre which utilises the framing device. I thought this warranted a blog on the subject, for having seen it used, on mass, I was suddenly drawn to how effective – and also troublesome – such a tool can be.

Firstly, for anyone who doesn’t know what I’m talking about when I refer to the term “framing device”…

A brilliant visiting director when I was training explained framing devices to me as such, quite literally and simply:

Imagine the story you want to tell is a great piece of art – a painting, photo etc. In order for us to see this piece of art, we stick it in a frame and hang it on the wall of the gallery. In this instance of performance, the frame is another story, situation or structure that allows the original story to be told.

For some reason, I find the framing device is deployed heavily in children’s theatre, or theatre for younger audiences. In particular, when the original tale is a well known one – for instance a popular children’s novel.

Framing devices can be great to highlight themes or messages in the original story brilliantly, giving you another situation or set of characters to mirror these things in or to allow the original tale to be in some way didactic. They also, on reflection, present a number of troubles.

Firstly, from an overall perspective, it always begs to question why is this framing device telling this story. It surely has to present some kind of purpose – it simply can’t be a nice route to tell the original story. Why bother otherwise? Why not just do the original tale as is? No need to frame it. I always wonder whether companies who adapt novels and books (from page to stage as it were) utilise the framing device to put some distance between the audience’s perception and the production they see. The danger in doing such an adaptation, particularly one of a well known children’s story, is that the audience arrive at the theatre with a clear idea of what they are expecting. A framing device can allow for different artistic interpretation.

From my perspective as a specialist director/designer, the framing device always throws up a few questions in terms of staging and look for a show. Thinking as a designer (and obviously one whose concern is for puppets and performing objects), when our storytellers begin telling their story, how are they telling it? Are they using items from their surroundings to do so? If this is the case, will this carry on throughout? Our audience continually suspending their belief further and always being aware that they are being told a story via illustrative or recreated means, as opposed to, in cinematic terms, being sucked into the storybook and everything is experienced as real. While both equally valid, they come with their own set of considerations.

If we stay rooted in the world of the storyteller, it’s unlikely they will have a beautifully crafted puppet fully representing whatever they need to. In this instance the puppet belongs in the world of the object and of the surroundings of the storyteller, engineered and encouraged by our storyteller to perform. It is a representational substitute for the real thing; the object/thing will be playing the role of ______.  That is not to say that at some point the object/puppet cannot metamorphosise into a more realised being, however this an element of magic or imagination that we must earn in our storytelling. It’s peculiar to watch a show and find characters of one world suddenly producing perfectly crafted stage worthy items of purpose to tell the story of another. It begs the question whether the characters of the framing device who claim to be of one profession moonlight as a professional theatre company.

If we go to the other end of the spectrum, and the story comes to life as it were, at what point is there the magic or the culmination of such imaginative power to warrant our fully representational puppet? In this instance the puppet here is the character, it is not an object being asked to play that role. That puppet IS the thing. There aren’t as many theatrical layers of perspective in place. This too changes the performance style of how the role of the puppeteer is utilised, more often than not, in this instance, the puppeteer has no character or role. They become a presence, a shadow linked to the puppet or the most commonly seen in this context, invisible. There isn’t necessarily an awareness of puppetry being used as a technique by the storytellers.

Ultimately, framing devices if used correctly are wonderfully effective. In deploying them you add in another possible level of commentary and some interesting limitations and opportunities in how the original story can be told. However, they shouldn’t be used as a scape goat or as an easy way out/in. Using them adds in another set of questions that need answering. They, like puppetry, have a deconstructed quality to them. You can see the layers in place – which, when tackled correctly and appropriately, are easily ignored, accepted or forgotten. Used as an excuse or shoe horned into the piece, (again, like some puppetry I’ve seen) and they stick out like a sore thumb and leave the audience more doubting than delighted.

FINDING THE RIGHT THING FOR THE JOB…

I’ve become very fond of Pinterest of late. For anyone who doesn’t know what it is, I guess I would define it as online mood boarding that can be shared amongst friends and colleagues (or just kept to yourself – I know several friends of mine are secretly planning their wedding on Pinterest.)

I’ve seen it become much more prevalent amongst colleagues, using it to generate ideas and explore themes and images. It is a brilliant way to do visual image searches and collate inspiration and expand upon ideas. I’ve been using it recently just for that. I set up several boards and have been pinning to them as I see fit. I guess, if anything, it tracks my interests and provides me with a huge, already processed, visual archive of material that I can turn to when approaching work.

One of the things I have been pinning is a lot of fabric manipulation. A board I created entitled “Textures and Materials” I started purely because I work with a lot of different materials, and I’m always inspired to see things used differently or how someone else has used the material.

screen-shot-2016-10-24-at-17-00-05

A colleague, in going through this board, commented as to why I had pinned such much of this style of work. Images of neatly pleated fabrics, crazy patterns and twists encorporated into panels, samples of other materials being woven and interlocked into fabric. I took a moment to think about it, I had never really considered this before. I just liked it.

 

screen-shot-2016-10-24-at-17-01-19

I taught a class this week to a group of foundation students at a drama school. The class focused on working with objects, not necessarily puppetry specific, but a more overall approach as to using objects in performance. One of the things that I was trying to get across to my students was that to a certain extent, the object will dictate. It will hold a certain set of qualties that will mean it will like to work in a certain way. Going against this will look odd or comical. For instance you could have a sword fight with two sticks as they remain straight and long like a sword and can be used to replicate many sword-like actions. Do the same fight with two belts and it will be a very different scene. Belts may be straight, but they aren’t stiff and are affected by gravity in the different way than a stick is. They like to be floppy – in this sense, your sword fight would become an effective battle with two ineffective whip like objects.

A eureka moment!
The reason that I like fabric manipulation is because whatever has been created is sympathetic to the qualities of the material. Some things like to be folded, somethings like to be cut clean and made structural, some things can support a different material in it etc etc. Yes, in this instance, the fabric has been directly tampered with, but it is all done in a way that the material “likes” to be tampered with. It’s why it is so effective.

As a lesson, materials and objects like to work in a certain way, let them. Think of it like a job interview… Recruit the best one for the job, and never be scared to explore other possibilities.

If anyone fancies perusing my Pinterest, link is here.

screen-shot-2016-10-24-at-17-01-01