Interview with Certain Dark Things
In a darkened upstairs corner of a theatre in Waterloo, I finish one meeting with an emerging company just as the duo behind Certain Dark Things arrive (now abbreviated to CDT). How can I tell they are the puppeteers I'm waiting for? Because they are both sporting a matching stylish look in all-black; of course.
This interview in the shadows is tinged with the knowledge that this company only today have received a rejection for their first ACE Grants for the Arts application. Despite the harsh reality that comes with no funding, positivity undeniably still beams from Sarah and Stephen (the co-artistic directors) as they introduce me to their currently nameless puppet.
CDT's Making process: What comes first the puppet or the show?
Sarah: "I did a puppet making workshop with Mervyn (Millar) and we were able to create any kind of puppet we wanted. He showed us pictures of puppets that other people had made and I found myself completely inspired by the idea that someone could have a job that was just creating little creatures."
This is where the idea came from for their main character in Melancholy: an inventor (played by Stephen), who at the loss of his wife decides to begin his biggest creation yet and recreates himself a companion. But where Sarah has this clear visual skill, Stephen explains that he really works off musical inspiration. With a smile on his face, he explains to me that he was joking around with Bramble the tiny teddy bear one day, with a soundtrack in the background by She and Him. Stephen admits that he found himself quite emotively pulled simply by focusing on the bear and offering subtle movements evoked by the music. Music was the real catch for Stephen, and he's now hooked on puppetry and still surprises himself that 'an object and an actor can connect so strongly through music.'
Stephen: "I remember this teacher training us in this acting technique that focused on movement with elements of Meisner. Because I'm not a dancer I was interested in how this free movement and instinctive responses could be incorporated into the character of the inventor, especially when all you have to respond to is the puppet on stage."
How do you currently fund your work and artists?
Stephen: Sarah funds it!
The biggest challenge this team faced with Melancholy was financing the animation elements embedded throughout this piece. Sarah explains that they approached a particular artist because they loved her style, but that her fee was just more than they could afford. Determined to keep the animation she loved, Sarah compromised and adapted her idea to create as little work for the animator as possible whilst still keeping it an integral element.
Sarah: "You do something because you love doing it, but you need sustenance in some way. You can't eat your art I guess."
Financial backing in the arts gives you the stability to be committed to that project. If you're funded, you get the full potential of what the work is and your artists are able to give 100%. At the moment, however, the CDT team are working every day to be able to rehearse every evening, but the love for what they do is still clearly written over their faces.
Stephen: "London is the most unforgiving city and it demands that we live here in essence. We need to be here to stay part of the community and be with like-minded people."
What has inspired Certain Dark Things in the past year?
"The original Tim Burton films" they both say almost in sync. After never hearing this classification they elaborate, referring to movies like, Vincent, The Nightmare Before Christmas and Edward Scissorhands. Sarah also adds Edward Gorey to the list, an illustrator who draws for strange and absurd children's fiction amongst other writings. We also speak about companies like Kill the Beast (especially the show 'He had Hairy Hands'), Les Enfants Terribles and The Tiger Lillies all of whom have a similar aesthetic presence to Certain Dark Things, so the inspiration is quite clear. Just before we move on Stephen sounds out aural inspiration in music artists to, particularly Sleeping at Last & She and Him both of whom I had never heard of, but are certainly worth a listen.
Who would you not be CDT without? Who has supported you?
Certain Dark Things are a self-funded company, and rely strongly on the in-kind support they've received this year from various theatres, companies and organisations.
Sarah: "The opportunities I've been offered have been amazing. Mervyn taught me how to build puppets and puppeteer with more skill. Every time I came back from a session I was more inspired."
CDT were lucky to receive a place on the Arts Depot Artist Residency Programme in 2015, with in-kind support to hold rehearsals in their space and fund their artists for an R&D period with Melancholy. They have also been mentored by Tangled Feet throughout 2015, Sarah says that they helped "sort out problems that we didn't know we could come into contact with." Stephen added that "to have someone like Tangled Feet, to help us with all the admin side of things, how to approach budgeting or do a pitch it was so valuable."
They also wanted to thank Arts Ed Drama School for the in-kind rehearsal space, the Little Angel Theatre and the Brighton Spiegeltent who took a risk in offering them an opportunity to showcase their work. There's a great respect here for the venues and festivals who simply cannot program work that they have not seen, but a clear frustration with the Catch 22 situation of having work to show but needing a platform to show it in order to prove yourself as a company. The nights that the Little Angel Theatre offer (Firsts and Hatch) was an incredibly helpful for Certain Dark Things, but perhaps there is more room to offer similar opportunities on a larger scale with more support?
What would you say to graduates who are looking to set up their own company?
Stephen: "I would say rely on your strong links with the people you've studied with and the people you've learnt from. The people that you've studied with are your closest allies and ultimately want you to do well."
The work that Certain Dark Things make is incredibly versatile, it involves a range of arts and highly skilled individuals from different creative back grounds. On the surface I guess, they are lucky to have passionate artists who accept expenses for their enthusiasm. So a little while later I'm left in the Waterloo shadows, thinking about how sustainable it can really be to build a company based on graduates who rely on other graduates. It also sadly occurs to me that we might not entirely have a choice in the matter.
Is there anything that we, as individuals within the puppetry community, can do to help these early career companies? Is there something you can recommend for Certain Dark Things?