From Uncategorized

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.

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.

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

MINDFULNESS & PUPPETRY – PAYING ATTENTION TO WHAT’S THERE

Mindfulness is a term that seems to have come to the spotlight of late. The ancient meditation practice seems to have been reinvented and rebranded for the modern day individual and, to all accounts, seems more important than ever. Ruby Wax, well-known comedian and writer, after suffering from depression turned to mindfulness after sending herself back to university gaining a masters degree in the neuroscience in relation to mindfulness.

unknown-1

Since then, she has made herself the poster girl for the practice and fights the taboo in talking about mental health. In her book “Sane new world” she states that our brains are not built to handle a 21st century lifestyle and that technology has advanced faster than us, in return giving us a backlash of more ways to worry, get depressed and stress. Mindfulness can help us cope with this!

For anyone who hasn’t tried it, it’s simply remaining present in this moment, at this time, in these circumstances. Whenever I have tried it, I find there is usually an anchoring system to focus the mind to be present. Your breath, the sensation under your feet, how you are sitting, the flame of a candle. I’ve even eaten a raisin mindfully, a process which was guided under instruction and took about 35 minutes. Bizarrely after this, I’ve never eaten a raisin since as in eating it mindfully, I realised I don’t actually like them. Strange how things change when you really pay attention to them!

Without diverting off the point too much here, whatever the activity or anchor, whatever is used to quiet the mind, you don’t pass judgement. If your thoughts wander off, and they do, simply tune them back to the anchor.

So, how can this relate to puppetry?

Well when I was first taught, one of the first things we did was taking a series of puppets and discovering their inherent qualities. It felt strangely disrespectful to drag a marionette across the floor and whirl a glove puppet around. However, in doing so, you quickly learn where the puppet holds weight (and also counterbalances), how it is jointed (and therefore how it moves) and how much force it takes to do so. You learn how the puppet likes to perform. I’ve seen this process done in many different ways with other puppeteers and puppetry practitioners.

Over the past few years I’ve thought of puppetry as almost a double act. Puppeteer and puppet work together to give a performance and communicate, even though one may be in focus more than the other. In this instance knowing what your fellow performer can do is exceptionally useful. In effect the puppet provides half the performance and does most of the hard work – this is where well made puppets come into their own.

I only made this possible connection between puppetry and mindfulness recently  – through various other pieces of professional development work I am undertaking. When mindfully meditating, you focus on what is there. When road-testing a puppet you pay attention to what is there and try not to inflict (there are various schools on thought as to how much conscious handling is inflicting movement, but this is perhaps for another blog to discuss). I feel I need to experiment as to whether it is possible to puppeteer mindfully, and whether this is a valid form of thought and process, bearing in mind other approaches. I know many people who have never puppeteered before say they find the experience very meditative. Maybe it’s time to get some mindfulness practitioners, puppeteers and neuroscientists in a room together. What happens to the brain when one puppeteers?

If you have any thoughts on this, or any experience, why not get in touch. I’m on twitter at @HutchinsonMatt or on email, Matt@matt-hutchinson.com

As always, some links to further indulge your brains…

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Sane-New-World-Taming-Mind/dp/1444755757/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1473848147&sr=8-1&keywords=sane+new+world

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Mindfulness-Guide-Frazzled-Ruby-Wax/dp/024118648X/ref=pd_bxgy_14_img_2?ie=UTF8&psc=1&refRID=HPGST31D6695AXW2E4QD

And for those of you who enjoy an audiobook, I can recommend “Mindfulness in 8 Weeks” by Michael Chakalson

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Mindfulness-Eight-Weeks-revolutionary-clear/dp/0007591438/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1473848372&sr=1-1&keywords=mindfulness+in+8+weeks