Nine – I didn’t even exist yesterday

A Report on the Peepeekisis Puppet Project

October 2013

WELCOME MATTERS

“Why do you get so tired from your work?” a friend of mine was once asked by her partner. She asked him whether he felt tired after his first day in a new job. He said he was. And she told him that every day in her work was like starting a new job.   This starting over is attributable to the fact that onset of each project always brings a near unimaginable host of variables; the great unknowns and unfamiliars awaiting your arrival.

This lack of control is exacerbated by a commute to work of over 4000 miles which necessitated the abandonment of my most familiar props in my store, a whole ocean away in Devon. My anxiety is lifted immediately though by the warmth of the greeting smiles from familiar faces at Files Hill. It was just lovely to see the young people who we worked with from last year and to be greeted so warmly.

It also helped that John, the principal, was so welcoming and accommodating. We had his class for the day to work in, which was set up for Science and Maths so as guest (me) becomes host (me) it is incumbent upon me to make the space welcoming. We set up tables as making stations, lay out materials and put up a puppet stage. In the middle of the room is a circle of chairs. As we set up different people come in and out. Some of the people who came in are the people we are going to work with and they offer help. Then there are a few of their friends who they seem to want to display me to. One lad comes up and introduces himself as a chief of his people and tells me about the “ways of his people”.  By his demeanour and the tenor of his tale I decide he is joshing me so I say that I am an elder of my town in Totnes , Devon. And we chase oranges down the hill that is the main street once a year (this part is true, the annual orange race). We laugh together and shake hands.

Then Ron, our elder for the day, turns up and there is another warm greeting. All this coming and going, hosting and guesting, joshing and greeting creates the ambience for a good welcome. I feel very comfortable in this community, with these ways and in this setting.

The Karen arrived and it is great to see her again and later David arrives and it is good to meet with him after our exchange of emails across the Atlantic. In the circle we begin with prayers, a check-in from everyone and then I introduce the aim of my visit. Because of how the youth hear my accent they demand I say some words. I say the words that they want to hear from me, “groovy baby.” 

Much later in the story of my encounter with this project and in another place there is talk of consensual allies. Perhaps it’s not a phrase intended exactly as our encounter in that class unfolded but it seems an apt expression of how relationship develops across a workshop and perhaps why workshop has the potentials to not be a colonial process. Across a day we work together in a relaxed way and at each stage we welcome each other into each other’s worlds. We teach each other as our journey together unfolds. This can be intense but its hierarchies of relationship are largely organic and to do with attending to the matter at hand – the puppets, the show and performance – together.

A PLAN ON THE PRAIRIE

This is what my plan looks like in my black book of plans and lists:

Voice of Youth on Well Being

  • Personal<>Family/friends<> Community<> World<
  1. The Challenge
  2. Find Material
  3. Story
  4. Make Puppets
  5. Rehearse/Devise
  6. Perform
  7. Extra-Needs

I don’t really understand what number 7 means now as I look back from a distance at that list. I think it refers to giving attention to the various details of getting the cast to the symposium the next day.

WHAT’S GOING ON

I explain to the group why I am there and what is being asked of them, which is to present their views as youth through a puppet show one night hence at a Symposium of researchers, artists and academics at the University. They are keen so we began by brainstorming what Well Being means to them. We fill a board with answers about exercise, diet, school, the environment, friends, family and lots more pretty bog-standard answers emerge.  This serve to introduce the subject and warm up their minds to the task but, I feel, does not quite provide the platform to start work on the story as intended in The Plan. So I decide to skip straight into puppet making.

At this point it is very good that David has arrived because my main occupation is guiding the group through their puppet making. And David is able to observe what is going on between individuals whilst they are being puppet makers and bringing their own creations towards life.

Puppet making is often a rich and fertile ground for dialogue. It works like an extended form of doodling. The hands are busy, the imagination engaged and the materials are guiding some of the decision-making. The concentration on making creates a relaxed and creative ambience that facilitates some interesting dialogue. It does not feel like work. Some of what there is to talk about is that which is physically manifesting from the subconscious and through their hands of the makers, some is their chitchat but generally I think this is a rich area and as the puppeteer my ears are mostly attuned to what might carry us forward. That is why to have other observant ears attuned to that community is so useful.

The making is a time of unfettered relationship to each other, their new beings and the matter at hand; to create their show about well being.  I am scouting for the show in the happenchance of their dialogue whilst guiding and supporting the making.  Towards lunchtime puppets start getting finished and a few wonderful things are occurring simultaneously. Puppets are being born and their creators are evidently delighted. The group are gathering around each other’s creations with admiring comments. Puppets are beginning to pop up and improvise on the stage that Warren and I have planted at the front of the class and all sorts of improvised scenes and new characters are emerging all around us. This carries on right across the lunch hour with friends from outside the group being brought into or science room/puppet theatre to be shown what has been going on.

It is because of the volume of emergent material that springs from the process of bringing a puppet into being, finding out who it is and animating it that invariably persuades me that this is the best starting point for a group rather than storyboarding or scripting and then making what emerges fit that script.

SOMETHING FROM NOTHING

After Lunch the improvisation was still happening.  Those of us who are watching are quite amazed by the gusto, invention and characterisation we are witness to.  The original and unique stories that emerge in a workshop never cease to amaze. I arrive, there is a group, they make puppets and then suddenly there are twice as many characters in the room that there were when I arrived. Then the puppets come to life and begin to become who they are going to be. Then new relationships are made and stories begin to take shape. From masking tape and cereal packets come all sorts of creations that had not been imagined a few hours ago. How does this happen? I do not know but what I do know is that depends on the same sort of conditions that these new puppeteers are about to conjure up in this workshop.

After we reconvene in the circle, I summarised the elements of well being that they had alluded to earlier and highlight some of the directions that are emerging, from which I offer the idea of a games show format. This offer is greeted with muted enthusiasm.  Some like the idea and others are asking, “Can we make up our own stuff?”  The group is split and so they decide to make two shows. The two groups go into devising huddles and with a very little guidance when they get stuck, came up with two shows.

One group decide to work on a dance, which develops into a dance-off competition and resolves itself in the idea that ‘friends do not need to compete against each other”. This group need a little help with their choreography and puppet animation plus there is a bit of fishing for the right music (I come prepared with a good range of musical choice).

The other group is a motley crew of characters and intend to create a traditional tale from long long long ago.  The characters are A Russian, an Elder, a Grandson, a Clown Slave and a Cat. This group need a little bit of help because there are some dominant characters. As well as these two groups there is one lad who said he is not going to perform, which is a shame because he is a creative soul who had made a distinctive character. The story this group comes up with is about a Russian who has got lost in the unfamiliar terrain of the wild with his clown slave but is taught the meaning of respect through an encounter in the forest with a cat spirit. The tale is told by a cigarette-toting Elder to a drum-beating grandson. Their relationship is mirrored by the tale of the Russian in that it too is about establishing respect. These two shows embody many of the themes on well being from the initial brainstorm – respect, tradition, being in their environment, friendship, collaboration, story, music, dance. The shows though carry those concepts into another dimension. For one, they are made theirs andno longer about giving an adult questioner the ‘right answers’. For another it is story, not didactic, but resonant imagery that convey the stuff that has arisen in an authentic way, through making and playing, from their subconscious and imaginations. Authentic because story is a primary form of indigenous pedagogy.

SYMPOSIUM

Two things I have heard said are that god made people because god loves stories and that god laughs at those that makes plans. I have told a thin band of the stories that unfolded over that day from my own limited perspective. That day ends with a performance to some younger students of their two shows. One of the students, the one with the puppet Elder opens the shows, with traditional drumming and singing. Given that neither show even had time for a run-through, both were performed with smooth cohesion, comic improvisation and poignant messages. But, the last leg of our journey was still to come.

It seems that all, minus the one non-performer, would be coming to Regina University the next night to do a run-through before performing to the gathered symposium of researchers, artists and academics. The plan was to arrive an hour before the assembly of the symposium to fine-tune our productions. This did not happen. Neither did one of the main characters arrive. This happened to be the transformative cat. However, the refusnik performer turned up in her place and declared he would not be the cat but would be himself through his puppet character. This unplanned event diluted the story and we missed our cat puppeteer but we also gained another performer who had not even made a puppet. Fair to say, the cast did brilliantly,  given the lack of preshow preparation and these last minute.

Going back to the day before and number seven on my Plan for the Prairie, we had asked the cast if they were willing to be hot seated after the show by the participants of the symposium. Warren had chimed in, “and their puppets!’ which was a great idea. So, after they had performed the gathering poses questions to the puppets. As the audience get quickly used to the convention of asking puppets questions about well-being the symposium participants become quite specific which puppet they wanted to address. Also, the puppets became quite possessive about answering. For example, one question is posed and a puppet asserts herself, “that was my line, I’ll answer that one.” The authenticity and lack of inhibition afforded to the voices of this group of youth by a screen and a cast of puppets was joyful.  And in stark contrast to the nerves and lack of confidence to expressing themselves in public. The shows provoke laughter, thought and discussion and are a fantastic way of opening the symposium. It is hard for me to remember the specifics because I am the conduit between the audience and the cast but I do remember this. One audience member requests to ask the puppet with the blue feather in her hair a question. She asksthe puppet, “How do you feel about performing.”  The puppet’s answer is “ “I didn’t even exist until yesterday.”  Succinct, surreal and spot on!