Devising 'Citizen Puppet'
Blind Summit, a London-based company well known for their puppet work in productions such as 'Heart of a Dog' and 'Madame Butterfly', come to the New Diorama theatre with a first chance to see emerging work 'Citizen Puppet'. Collaborating with students from The Royal Central School of Speech and Drama’s BA Collaborative Devised Theatre and BA Acting courses, 'Citizen Puppet' explores the story of 'Jack and the Beanstalk', but with a modern twist that director Mark Down calls “verbatim puppetry”.
“Verbatim puppetry”, says Mark Down, came about from wanting “to work with moving mouths and lip-synch. We were trying to work out what a puppet with a moving mouth means…It is something to do with the act of talking. The physical act of making words.”
But what does verbatim puppetry look like in the rehearsal room? Verbatim theatre, as defined by Wikipedia, “is a form of documentary theatre in which plays are constructed from the precise words spoken by people interviewed about a particular event or topic.”
As part of the process Central students interviewed various members of the public about their thoughts on topics such as immigration. These interviews were then brought into the rehearsal room, where one of the puppet makers, Helen Foan, helped design “the puppets to be as adaptable as possible. At the beginning of rehearsal we had a set of heads and bodies for the actors to play with. As the characters developed during the devising process I worked on skin colour, hair, make-up, costume and altered a few body designs to suit the people we were creating.”
As the rehearsal process developed, multiple techniques were experimented with, including ‘recorded delivery’, a verbatim theatre technique that saw the actors try to match the puppets’ mouth movements to the voices in the pre-recorded interviews. While ultimately dropped, this method helped them find the puppets’ characters. The puppets were then interviewed, in character, by other actors to help further develop both the script, the story and the characters themselves.
All this rehearsal work took place around a key element of 'Citizen Puppet', that of using 'Jack and the Beanstalk' as a central theme. Mark Down wanted “to tell a verbatim fairy tale, using verbatim as a modern version of oral tradition.” The title 'Citizen Puppet' also implies a desire to work in a social awareness angle: “We wanted to tell a story about the banking crisis – about how it came to be and how we are all involved. The idea was to tell the story of Jack and the Beanstalk from the point of view of the village. The beanstalk represents growth.”
A big part of 'Citizen Puppet' is Blind Summit’s collaboration with Central students, which is part of a tradition going back several years when they worked with course leader Catherine Alexander and her students on a production of 'The Call of the Wild'. “The students at Central are very good devisers,” explains Mark, “physically trained actors (who) throw themselves into challenges. They are perfect collaborators at this…experimental stage of development.”
'Citizen Puppet' plays at the New Diorama, London until 14 March 2015.