Listening to the material – a conversation with Rene Baker
Rene Baker's ‘laboratories for experimentation’ make the most of her desire to bring object play and puppetry to artists, performers, costume makers and anyone else who is curious to work with objects, puppets and materials. Her focus is ‘listening to the materials’ or ‘letting the materials speak’. In effect, the materials run things as much as she does – they’re “co-collaborators in the creative space”.
Working with the Puppet Centre, the Centre for Research in Opera and Music Theatre and the Attenborough Centre for the Creative Arts, Rene Baker is currently running a series of workshops all over the UK. Here, she discusses the ways in which materials, puppets and objects are central to these hands-on sessions.
Where did the idea for your ‘listening to the material’ workshops come from?
Bringing objects, materials or puppets to life is about finding life, and the meaning that the objects themselves create. It’s about allowing objects to move and talk, and to find their own way of performing. The focus becomes on the object itself. We try not to force the objects to be something, we just listen to them and see what emerges.
One of your upcoming workshops is called ‘The Sound-Scope of Objects’. How do you work with sound in your sessions?
There are so many aspects of sound work in combination with objects – it’s so easy to be literal, so the workshops are about exploring that fine balance. We can ask ourselves whether we’re letting the emotional experience of the object come from the object image, or the music or sound. By working with the objects, we need to figure out what gives the most illustration – whether it’s the object, the material or the sound, and where the partnerships are.
Experimenting with sound can be about how you combine noises, and achieve a balance without overdoing the music. So it can be interesting to explore how the objects make their own sounds, like the crackling of fire, for example. When you combine image and sound and text you also discover your own rhythm, and sometimes there’s a visual rhythm too – the rhythm of something moving.
Do you find there is a difference in the way people approach objects, depending on whether they’re performers, artists, set designers or costume designers?
Everybody knows how to play a game, everybody knows how to hold an object – and holding an object can reveal a lot about it. It doesn’t matter if people who come to the workshop have a lot or a little experience. It’s not about the people’s backgrounds, it’s about their experience of working with the objects.
Costume makers might demonstrate how the material moves as a costume, and scenographers might play with the objects as scenery, visual artists might go for the poetry and performers might pick up on the actions, but that’s not always the case. It varies.
There’s no question that it is the objects that lead the workshop, not the people. Whether I’m working with artists, performers, costume makers or set designers, it seems they forget what their roles are and focus on the object.
Do you find there is a big difference between working with objects and puppets?
A puppet is a character, or any object that becomes independently alive. It has a will. It might be as simple or as complex as a piece of paper. So, a piece of paper could even stand in for somebody in a symbolic sense. It could come to life as that character.
An object can become a significant object, such as Prospero’s staff or Ibsen’s guns. The piece of paper might become a meaningful object, such as a symbolic or a metaphorical object. When you tear up the paper, you tear up the meaning, not just the paper.
How did you come to work in object manipulation and puppetry?
I trained as a puppeteer at Little Angel Theatre in 1990 and then went on to work at Norwich Puppet Theatre on their shows until 1998. I then taught at the Central School of Speech and Drama for seven years, before moving to Spain. Working in puppetry is a very international experience. The puppetry community is like a family. Everywhere you go they are very welcoming. It’s like having cousins all around the world.