Silent speech – an interview with Rachael Savage
Rachael, you founded Vamos Theatre in 2006 – what led you to specialise in full face mask work, particularly as a method of communicating human stories?
Full mask theatre (when it’s done right!) is emotive and personal, and what makes it unique is the way it needs the direct input of the audience to be successful. The audience has to work to interpret what’s going on as it’s not given to them in text, only in physical movement, sound and design.
As they watch, each audience member creates their own story internally, providing the narrative for themselves and, as they share (and create) the thoughts of the characters on stage, it encourages an emotional connection, whether positive or negative. So telling human stories in full mask is particularly powerful and effective.
My career so far has seen 21 years of national and international work focusing on physical theatre and mask. One of the theatre companies I worked for as an actor was Trestle Theatre, which was really the first specialist full mask theatre company in the UK. Later on I became their education director and it gave me a huge amount of experience in the genre.
What inspired Vamos Theatre to create ‘Finding Joy’?
‘Finding Joy’ has been the most difficult, challenging and most wonderful show to research and write. The Courtyard Theatre Hereford expressed an interest in working with us on a co-production about the lives of older people and memory loss. We knew we had to find a story which would engage on a personal level without being sentimental, too bleak or unreal. We had to find a way of connecting the loss with the finding; the “looking beyond the dementia to the person”, as described by one wonderful nurse.
I contacted Penny Greenland, founder and artistic director of the movement play specialists, JABADAO. She’s been caring for her mother, Audrey, who’s lived with dementia for the last eight years. Penny shared with me the ways in which JABADAO work to connect with older people, to bring joy to their lives and to their carers. And then she told me her family’s extraordinary story when, for 18 months, her son Rowan cared for his grandmother Audrey.
Rowan is a young man; bright, funny, rebellious. As a youth, he was poorly judged within his village and often found himself in trouble. But Rowan is incredible with Audrey; he is a natural carer. He delights in her world, listens to her, laughs, dances and plays with her and accepts her utterly as she is. Audrey adores this. She may not know who he is, even who she is herself, but she flourishes in this playful, respectful world. Rowan, Penny and all those helping to care for Audrey, find joy in her. This is not to say that they’re not exhausted, challenged or occasionally at their wits’ end. They have truly terrible days, but they all believe in acceptance and play.
I’ve talked to many people who have very different experiences; some far less positive, often heartbreaking. The important thing to remember in watching ‘Finding Joy’ is that it’s a piece of theatre inspired by one particular story of a real family, about a young man who discovers extraordinary caring instincts. Through the show we hope to encourage people to think differently about people with memory loss, to remember empathy and not to forget the person beyond the dementia.
Can tell us about the design process for ‘Finding Joy’ and how Vamos creates a visual look for its characters?
Our mask maker is the brilliant Russell Dean, who’s the founder of Strangeface, a half-mask theatre company based in Kent. Once our show’s characters have been developed, Russell and I work together to interpret their physical look, based on the research, the writing and the character development already devised in the first week of rehearsals.
Set and costume design is created organically in a very similar way with our associate artist Carl Davies, who creates the costumes (in particular) in response to how the actors develop their characters in rehearsal. Without dialogue, costume is a really important and useful way of telling the audience more about a character.
But perhaps the most crucial design comes through the ever evolving and organic process between me and Vamos’s composer, Janie Armour. Music and sound are there right from the start. It’s such an important part of the way we work that even in the audition process and during initial devising, there is music to work to. I work with Janie closely right through the development of each new show.
Once the soundtrack has been completely developed, it is finalised and runs uninterrupted from the start of the show to the end, just like a film soundtrack. The actors learn to work to it, choreographing their performances to the sound like a dance.
From both the actors’ and director’s point of view, what do you believe to be the greatest challenges when working with masks onstage?
Audiences comment on how lovely it must for actors not to have to learn lines; this couldn’t be further from the truth! We develop 30-40 page scripts for all our productions. The lines are said using “silent speech” inside an actor’s head and this is called internal monologue or internal dialogue.
Internal monologue is (obviously) spoken internally and acted out at the same pace, which is a particular skill to learn and one of the more challenging aspects of full mask. When we’re working on really nailing the script, and adding tiny detail, we rehearse by speaking the internal monologue out loud, with masks off. This can feel really odd but it gives the characters different voices, paces and rhythms.
Performing in full mask takes some getting used to. Vision is limited to two small eye-holes, and you have to develop heightened spatial awareness to compensate for this reduced vision: breathing is harder because you’ve a piece of plastic on your face, along with a wig, and this can also make it very hot! But with practice it becomes much easier, and with little tricks of physical communication between the actors, it looks completely seamless.
One of the other main challenges is to have both truth and economy within mask performance: truth is crucial – there is no need for exaggerated movement in mask, it is real and honest. Economy is a great skill to learn, and is essential to mask because the audience need clarity.
‘Finding Joy’ will be performed during the London International Mime Festival in January 2014. Why is this festival important to Vamos?
Being invited to perform at the London International Mime Festival is a huge honour. We’ve always known and respected the Mime Festival as a driving force in presenting the best in contemporary, international visual theatre to the UK, and it’s both very exciting and slightly scary to be part of it!
What we are most proud of is that everyone at Vamos has worked so, so hard over the last eight years towards creating a full mask company of high standards, and worked to be as fearless as possible in making our work. It feels like a real vote of confidence to be accepted at the Mime Festival alongside some of the most distinguished names in visual theatre.