Friday, September 21, 2012

Talk Back with Erik Ehn and Forrest Gander

Last night saw the emergence of Yermedea in Leeds Theatre at Brown University in front of a focused and intent audience who kept holding their breath as the performance continued. There was deep moment of silence before the applause commenced, and many were visibly moved and thus stayed in the theatre for the talk back with playwright Erik Ehn and poet Forrest Gander.
Erik first thanked the company and the entire creative team for an "impeccable production" before situating the play within the Soulographie context. He explained that Yermedea is embedded between the plays Diamond Dick and Maria Kitizo, which are much more straight forward in terms of narrative and presenting a timeline. Yermedea in a way steps out of time entirely and is concerned with notion of waiting - the play itself is waiting.
Forrest Gander remarked that the play is very much concerned with not situating itself culturally and thus focuses in on the inward modes of experience, while he also felt that a sense of salvation in the play is most strongly produced in the emergence of community, especially though the female characters in the play.
Erik then told about his experiences in El Salvador, the place that served as immediate inspiration for Yermedea, and how his practice of theatre there was shaped by the (personal) history of the actors, who were dramatically "always Yerma or Medea, all the time", in that the hunger for life and life at the brink informed every theatrical endeavor. According to Forrest Gander, this merging of identities, including the ones of perpetrators and victims, as was especially shown by the male actors of the production, also speak of a specific ethics of seeing oneself in others.
Telling about his experiences in Africa, Erik spoke the "cataclysm of misery in close quarters without defense" that brought him to the question of how to hold on to language when all there is is misery: "How are you able to pray when language itself is traumatized?" As Forrest then remarked, the characters of the play seem to only exist in this language, which is why the use of puppets was such a wonderful idea. Erik concurred, saying that puppets carry their souls on the outside always, giving way to this language. Regarding his development of the language, Erik stressed that to write "dialogue seems pornographic in addressing this kind of problem". The play as that remains inscrutable because the themes of war and genocide are inexpressible, an issue that he could not simply fix by trying to be realistic. Forrest Gander found that in this the play also keeps us from being fluent, it keeps us being foreign and thus demands a particular attention from the audience.
Erik then concluded by saying that one his late friends had always described Erik's plays as being "like translations from a language no one has ever spoken." In that sense, he understands his writing as such to be of little relevance: eventually, the play, the production, and the audience are instances to reach through to get to something true beyond text. Thus, it is about a striving to create a space for those who usually have no space in our thoughts.

Read a review from the Brown Daily Herald here.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Opening Night

Tonight, Yermedea will open in Leeds Theatre at Brown University after three and a half weeks of intense rehearsals. The entire company and creative team are extremely eager to finally present their work to an audience. Secure your tickets here.
Tonight's opening performance will also be followed by a talkback with playwright Erik Ehn and poet and Putlitzer Prize Nominee Forrest Gander on language, literature, and theatre and how they can engage with issues like war and genocide, entering the conversation of Soulographie, an article on which is currently featured on the Brown University homepage: read it here!

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

The Driver

Brian Cross, one of the puppeteers of The Driver and his voice, was kind enough to share his thoughts on how he has come to understand this intricate role and the Yermedea experience so far:

''Our souls are never perfectly our own." -- Kenneth Gross, Puppet 
"The main through-line through which I've interpreted the Driver is the idea of "The Witness." There is something of an angel in the Bus Driver, the Virgil to the Nurse's Dante: he is the ear to the progression of her story, her guide into and out of the darkness, and through his waiting, watchful eyes we see much of the play unfold. For some reason, he provokes a sense of trust in the Nurse that she may open up to him. As the witness, then, the character of the Driver makes an ideal puppet -- puppets are patient, for they have literally all the time in the world to listen and wait for your attention. Their lives exist solely on the stage. On the other hand, there is something very trapping in a puppet. A puppet is in no rush, and if s/he has the next cue on stage, s/he can hold the audience hostage. 

In a way, therefore, the Driver is something neither living nor dead. This fact comes directly from the text of the play: before the Nurse utters a word, the Driver seems to know the dream she just dreamed and the tales she could tell. Perhaps everyday the Driver has idled with his bus and watched the Nurse pause at the drain before boarding and going about her day. The play is filled with rituals, and you get the sense in the text that the act of driving down his route sometime before sunrise has been the Driver's ritual since forever ago and will be for forever from now, that we're just catching him in the middle of one loop on an endless cycle. For this reason, too, does the Driver work nicely as a puppet -- the puppet finds his home somewhere in the liminal space between earth and beyond, between life and death. The puppet is alive yet threatens the audience with death -- it is animate, but the audience knows that at the end of the show it gets packed in a box. The silence of the puppet gives us the sense that it somehow knows more than us but doesn't like to say -- or rather, that it knows that to tell you would be to rob you of the journey of finding out. 

The Nurse and Driver may begin the play on their typical routes, waking up at the typical time and commuting on their typical bus. Yet the stasis of Yermedea, as in every play, is soon broken, and over the course of the 10 pages the Nurse, with the Driver's guidance, finally faces in the daylight the demons which haunt her only in the crooked light of night."
 submitted by Brian Cross

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

A Visit To The Puppet Workshop

All through the summer, our puppet designers Alejandra Prieto and Andrew Murdock have been working on a variety of puppets for our production, including cloth puppets, shadow puppets, and bunkaru puppets such as the Driver, pictured here. Their love for detail and their commitment to the potential life of the puppets have been inspiring to us all. The puppets themselves have developed their own personality in the rehearsal space and continue to surprise us with their presence.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Kenneth Gross: Puppet

One week into rehearsals, our actors have begun to explore the space in Leeds Theatre and the amazing set by Oona Curley to create the scenes of the densely poetic play by Erik Ehn. From the very beginning, the work with the puppets has been paramount to this creative process as the puppets themselves often demand a specific way of realizing a scene. In this sense, the puppets have become co-creators in this theatre endeavour.

One book has helped the entire creative team and the ensemble to understand the intricate and complex nature of the puppet off and on the stage and to negotiate their presence:  Puppet: An Essay on Uncanny Life by Kenneth Gross explores the various kinds of puppets, from Bunkaru to shadow play, and how they stand in communication with our world. For as Gross makes clear, the puppet is foreign and familiar at the same time. He explains wonderfully that the puppet is an object in waiting, not being dead but somehow un-dead, thereby able to connect the worlds of the living and the dead. As life is locked in, so is the memory of that life - but also of death, a memory yet to come for the living. By its mere existence, it demands of the human being, whether it is the puppeteer or the audience, to reflect on their own status within a world of objects. What follows are some passages from the book, compiled by the creative team, that were most illuminating, inspiring, and challenging.

"There is something in the puppet that ties its dramatic life more to the shapes of dreams and fantasy, the poetry of the unconscious, than to any realistic drama of human life. That is part of its uncanniness, that its motions and shadows have the looks of things we often turn away from or put off or bury." (2)

"The puppets' link to death is not simply due to their having no one to move them, to make play with them, though that is part of it. [...], in many of their earlier manifestations, and still in certain Asian traditions, in Japan or Java, puppets were brought to life precisely to provide homes for the souls of the dead; they served as a means to repair a loss of life or to keep ancestral spirits alive, to give them a way to speak to the living." (22)

"The puppet serves as an ambassador or pilgrim to human beings from the world of things. [...] It may remind us by contrast of our human tendency to turn ourselves , our thoughts, our memories, and our words into fixed, frozen, inanimate, or mechanical things - though we also lend to things imaginary and unliving an illusion of animation such as makes them powerful, and potentially destructive. We bring objects to life in a world where human beings make themselves into their own effigies. The life is provisional, always emerging, or recovered from life that has been lost." (33)

"If they echo our sense that our bodies are liable to become dead, intractable objects, such puppets also play out a fantasy of surviving so many outrageous forms of death, so much violence, dismemberment, and devouring: they remind us how inanimate objects themselves may supply what is lost or dead in us." (35)

"As in the puppet theater, a small part can suddenly become a new and more mysterious whole. We see things at once smaller and larger than themselves, in continuous oscillation of perspective, with no clear sense of what is microcosm and what macrocosm. The small and the large give birth to each other." (46f.)
"The power of a particular puppet-actor, even as it mirrors a human face or gesture, will lie in the fact that the object given life inevitably retains something of its specific gravity, its thing-ness, as an object. In its form, and in its motion, it will keep its resemblance to the artifact, tool, machine, or musical instrument. In such a case, any human expressiveness makes that thing-ness all the stranger, the more penetrating, among other things by its power to show us something of the mechanical side of human life itself, and how it conditions the movements of its manipulator. Each depends on the other." (65)

"The life of puppets does not just survive destruction; it feeds on it. [...] the domain of puppets is itself, at its most animated, a world of destroyed things. The puppet always exists in the shadow of its own destruction. being a thing made to be destroyed. [...] The puppet belongs to a family of things partial, fragmented, and broken, a family of relics, remnants, and skeletons, a world of small pieces gathered to make up an image of a larger world, parts enacting a whole, transforming our sense of the whole. The poetry of the puppet is a poetry of inadequacy, which feeds more fragile, vexed gestures of substitution, revision, replacement, [...]. The life of this theater takes form from ruin, though ruin with its own form of generosity, like a form of nature." (95)

"Here the figure of the blackened puppet, or the blackness of the puppet, suggest that the puppet's life, its pathos and power, has something to do with survival, with an earliness that is wrapped up with a sense of violence suffered, a sense of things destroyed yet strangely preserved, alive in the present." (112)

"Such a control is the instrument of the puppeteer's mastery but also that through which he registers the impulses of movement that ride up to the human hand from the puppet suspended below, the place where the manipulator must feel and put to use the weight and momentum of the puppet, translate its direction or indirection; it is where the puppet masters him." (122)

"They are made alive, animated, by the living pool of light created by the flame of the palm oil lamp, the damar, that hands suspended behind the screen, so that the shadows move even when the puppets themselves are still, fixed in a tableau." (126)

"At the same time, the shadows on the screen are the shadows of the dead, images of ancestors who remain very much alive, always an influence on the lives of the living, always bringing help or menace, objects of prayer, chant, and charm." (128)

"The demands of the puppets, the work of giving them life, exacted from the performer a more unsettled language of physical gesture, hard to read but capable of lodging long in memory." (155)

"They are like things excavated from the ground, with dirt and dust still clinging to them, thick with time, but light, light. It is a space where shadow becomes substance, where accidents become forms of intention." (159)


Please watch the video of the Balinese shadow puppet, which Kenneth Gross talks about in Puppet: the kayon, which translates to "the Tree of Life". It is the most ornately decorated and opens the floor before each shadow show. 

Check back tomorrow for a visit to our Puppet workshop!
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