Festive catch up from the MakeShift Shack
Hi all! and a very merry festive season to you.
It has been a FULL ON year and such a productive, encouraging one to boot. We concluded our tour of 'Owl and Pussycat' after a festival packed summer and zoomed headlong into rehearsals for 'Sofa' as well as putting together plans for next years family piece 'The Children in the Moon', both of which are already racking up some impressive dates and venues for 2018.
We have travelled the country, met some amazing people, Arts programmers, festival organisers, fellow performers and musicians. On a personal note i have learned an incredible amount from the puppet performing and making community through our associate artist status at Puppet Place in Bristol. The wonderful Bee Daws of Bee Daws Puppetry and Chris Pirie of Green Ginger and Rusty Squid among them, so thank you thank you for your skills sharing and creative input.
We have also had the wonderful mentorship of Gill Simmions and Paul Lawless of Brave Bold Drama and Frenetic Fox Theatre, aswell as the support of the lovely Paul Milton and Corin Hayes at The Everyman, Cheltenham and Maddy Kerr of Heartbreak Productions. We are blessed to have you cheering us on!
Through them we have created focus and substance in the challenging work that is 'Sofa', we can see more clearly the message and story that is manifesting from page to performance and we cannot wait to tell you more in the new year.
But today i'll keep this about the thank yous and blessings. So Thank you also to Andy Guthrie for composing an amazingly perfect piece of music for the 'clothes puppet' sequence in 'Sofa' (Come see it in spring all will be revealed!)
But most of all and always, a massive dose of gratitude to my collaborator in chief Laurence Aldridge whose talent, support, beautiful ideas and brilliant ability to keep on keeping on (which can be a struggle working next to me...) has been my rock and my foundation. You're brilliant Loz, my gratitude is deep.
Merry Winter Solstice to everyone. Next year we shall be even busier than before so the next two weeks are about rest and restoration before the new year takes us on the most hectic of hectic journeys.
'....Owl & Pussycat' over and out, 'Sofa' in full flow, lessons learnt and moving forward.
Hello. I'm sat in one of my favourite places, a beautiful secluded little valley in Wales, 'resting' after a crazy few weeks of festivals and rehearsals. Our debut production (that was never meant to be our debut production but that's the way the cookie chose to crumble) 'Fox and Rabbit's idiot's guide to the Owl and the Pussycat' has stormed to the end of a year (and a day) long tour with massive audiences at Latitude and Camp Bestival and it with fondness and no end of runcible spoons that we make space in the shack for Owl, Pussycat, Jeff the Spirit of the Bong Tree, Elvis Pigsley and Alan Featherstonhaugh (aka the turkey who lives on the hill) to retire happily amongst fellow puppets.
Within the last few weeks we have also spent our first week in rehearsal for 'Sofa' at The Everyman, Cheltenham. A tough week, i won't lie, but productive in the way it revealed the challenges we face. It was amazing fun working out the capabilities of our wonderful bespoke set hand crafted for us by Mark Phillips (The Theatrical Carpenter) in Dorset - having a sofa that literally does all the things you would've loved it to do as a child is the best thing ever! It opens up your creativity and offers possibilities within the script and movement that you hadn't seen before. The first couple of days we plodded on through (it literally felt like plodding as we'd gone straight into a week rehearsal off the back of a full on Latitude festival) we looked at initial blocking and establishing movement rules and motifs and questioning concepts in the script and how they might realise themselves on stage. This is all good in itself but when you are already physically and mentally exhausted from the weekend and you have, somewhere along the line, already put massive pressure on yourself to go into rehearsals all guns blazing and have half the script polished and blocked by the Friday ....then by Wednesday your brain is giving you a techno-colour reality check! The rest of the week is then spent in a frustrated sulk wondering where the hell the love of your craft went.
When there are only two of you in the rehearsal space you almost subconsciously tell yourself 'we had better bounce some really shit hot ideas off each other or this process is going to draaaag' , therefore setting yourself up for a fall. So, lesson 1 : Be kind to yourself and others - figure out ways to deal with 'creative blocks' by doing something completely different, anything, to distract from any frustration which may cause you to pass blame without reason (including blaming yourself). Remember the fun and play of the rehearsal process. Do not put pressure on yourself because forced pressure forces creative blocks and you end up in a totally avoidable viscous cycle.
At present we have little choice but to rely on the creativity of just the two of us. We are in that stage of building our reputation and body of work to a point in which we can open ourselves up financially to collaborating with other creatives. Yes, we have our wonderful ACE grant and we have our equally wonderful mentors and outside eyes at various points throughout the next few months but largely, overwhelmingly, MakeShift is Jacqueline Avery and Laurence Aldridge and we need to just bloody well get on with it!
So chin up, big girl pants on and into second week of rehearsals in Leamington Spa we go.
Lesson 2 : The chicken and egg paradox sucks. (And we know we are not alone)
So, by the chicken and egg paradox i mean trying to get your work seen and established before your work can be further seen and further established i.e getting people to take risks, or a chance on you is a task i would wish on no one......unless you have skin made of cast iron. The world of the Arts is a funny old badger, wanting to keep itself alive in these 'tough times' and also wanting to push boundaries and take risks, making promises of support with one hand whilst dropping you unceremoniously from a great height with the other because actually ...."your work is too risky (we haven't seen it so we won't programme it) but keep in touch because we are so very interested in your work and the subject matter is brilliant" - the poor theatre company by this point is so confused (and not just a little pissed off) about what they need to do first to get a foot on a rung or just a little bit of trust in their abilities that they want to curl up in a ball and not come out until ACE make you an NPO just because they can (but they won't....we're not Emma Rice, whom we love, but ya know....).
I'm gonna say this because well, i can, it's my blog ....The above whinge applies almost overwhelmingly to my home turf, the south of England and up until very recently this has weighed heavy on me and my paranoia. But then i realised i was so desperate to be accepted at home that i didn't see the amazing people, organisations and venues taking those risks with me and my company because they had absolute faith in my abilities, they just weren't based in Dorset. So why is the home turf of MakeShift Dorset? It never had to be. It will live wherever it thrives and when Dorset comes knocking in a few years we'll see if we can fit them into our programme!
For now we shall keep that steady and sure plod up, until we have enough funds to pay the person who'll make us the amazing promo video or the person who tirelessly books our tours and not take venue rebuffs personally.
Because guess what...we're good. and we're not going away.
There's a lot going on. Oh... and we got Arts Council Funding!
Why is it we sit and stare blankly at things when the mountain of work that needs to be done is literally wobbling under its own weight? That's exactly how i'm feeling right now, starey and overwhelmed.
Owl and Pussycat is still on the road doing it's wonderful little thing and putting smiles on faces, We rocked Elderflower Fields Festival in Sussex last month - a brilliant family festival if you ever get to go, and have been welcomed back next year with open arms. We are now beginning to form a direction for the company, with our family and festival work going down a storm and our more 'grown up' projects being recognised and awarded funding by Arts Council England, our path is beginning to show itself - making us feel starey and overwhelmed!
The idea (sort of if it works it sounds nice but you know twists and turns and stuff but here's the thought process) is that we deliver two theatre projects a year. One to family audiences and youngsters in particular, building on the excellent relationships we are making with festivals and small scale venues, taking our storytelling work directly to them, inspiring thier creative minds and recruiting the Theatre goers of the future. Which is very important you'll agree. Along side this we also work on creating pieces for an older audience, those audiences we need to keep coming to and fully engaging with live events.
So it's kind of get 'em while they're young and when they're older they'll come to you kinda logic. You see?
Did i mention we got Arts Council Funding?
'Sofa' is now warmly blanketed by some love from Arts Council and we have some fantastic partnerships and mentors on board to help us create a stand out piece of theatre that is already building up a nice little Spring tour next year, with some amazing venues booking us and our tour base now expanding to include all corners of the UK. So....i have a million things to do to make it all happen, what's the best thing to do??
Stare blankly into space. Of Course.
There is a little snippet of four weeks (in which i am currently sat staring blankly into space) before Owl and Pussycat performances and the start of full on rehearsal/making mode for 'Sofa' literally takes over the diary until September. I have to write a script, return to the drawing board as regards to the 'dementia' puppet, think/rethink/rethink again our marketing strategy, more puppets, more writing and probably a lot more staring into space. There's also a lot of traveling surrounding all of the above, and that in itself is ridiculously tiring!
But busy is good. And the way the company has taken off is beyond all expectation. This is a happy place.
And sometimes, just sometimes, a long hard blank stare into space accompanied gently with a warm cup of tea is required to bring order to the chaos.
The next blog will be brought to you directly from within the depths of said chaos, no doubt.
Mouth, music and movement or how the hell do I do this?
If you haven't met me yet, I'm Laurence and I am the Musical Director for MakeShift. My musical background is short, and largely accidental….I learnt some guitar for a theatre show, played around with it, wrote some songs and formed a band and…..well that's sort of the point...skills, bits and pieces of knowledge, have all accrued without a very definite plan and with no training. Sometimes this is an advantage...you go to different places, sometimes a failing as you get stuck in a rut without the necessary theoretical knowledge to develop ideas.
Which brings me to where we are now, and Sofa.
Today's blog is about that scariest thing….trying to write the first piece.
The music I have written to date, for my band and theatre shows is based in two traditions, often blended, folk and punk - musically simple and communal and, in a theatrical context, focused on actor-musicianship and live performance.
The early stages of discussions on Sofa made it plain that this music would be impracticable and unsuitable for what we are making. Jac’s choreographic skills would be wasted on three chord songs, and, in fact, songs are not what we needed to make. The big question became - how to start.
My writing almost always starts with my mouth. Humming a fragment of tune over and over, a few words that come to join it and the first line of a verse, a chorus, a middle 8 is born. Then perhaps another line, or a couple of guitar chords, more humming, more singing of a line again and again until a structure comes together.
After that, there is editing and development but, largely because I rely entirely on ear rather than knowledge, it all starts with mouth and voice, and melody is something I only create with voice - every instrument I play is either rhythm or chord based to support it.
I started with one idea - of making a piece with space/rhythm for movement in it. To begin with, this led to constantly trying to overdevelop each part, unsure of where to find its base, and hunting for ideas of tune and structure. Talking to Jac, she pointed out that it needed to be a platform/backdrop against which the music would be performed, rather than being the foreground.
I started thinking of creating physical, repeated motifs that linked in my head with our discussions on aspects of the piece. Focusing on movement gave me the idea of repeating, echoing sounds, reminiscent to me of the tremors my father had with Parkinson's and the slower, grander gestures he had to make. These movement thoughts became the guide for sounds, and simple chord progressions building the structure, as a fragment of tune would normally guide me towards the guitar part at the base of one of my songs.
Using simple synth programs, I could quite quickly build and trim a repeating minimalist track with simple chords structure and multiple layers. Movement ideas continued to guide me, adding snapshots of guitar and piano at the middle and end of the piece after discussions about what may be happening at that point in the play.
It was a very different and instructive experience, to substitute mouth for movement as the basis for putting together sounds. The piece now sits comfortably in my ears as a thing of itself, the rhythm part that the tune of the movement will sit on. It seems to be that most important of things, appropriate. Not a piece of great composition but a piece that will work as bedrock to the action of the piece.
The next challenge is to take this new way of writing further, and to remain flexible in approaching each piece of music the drama requires….exciting journey for a three chord shouter.
On Memory and Unmemory
In our new work we are exploring the world of memory, how it differs and shifts from person to person, experience to experience, and the factors that come into play when memory starts to disappear or work in a way we are unaccustomed to .
We have personal experiences with dementia. My Nan developed Alzheimer's when i was in my early teens and moved into our family home and Laurence's father lived with Parkinson's related dementia, cared for by Laurence and his family until the end. The decision to delve deeper into this world of memory loss was not easy or straight forward as of course we would need to revisit difficult times but after all if art reflects life then real experience of that reflection is vital to bringing truth to our work.
It is also vital to get it right, to bring the experiences of dementia to life in a way that is respectful, honest as well as challenging.We began to reach out to Dementia charities as well as Parkinson's Uk in way of support, to link up to groups and networks so we could spread the word of what we were up to and to seek volunteers who might share their stories. I also received training in early stage dementia awareness for Arts facilitators through Arts 4 Dementia in order to develop a story sharing workshop with those living with and caring for dementia in its various forms. The first of these workshops titled 'I AM - Preserving Identity the Drama and Story Sharing' Will take place in May at Bridport Arts.
So with a Sofa, our own experiences and those of volunteers from the dementia community we set about making a piece of theatre on Memory in it's many many forms, exploring all possibilities within the the visual and physical style of MakeShift.
This journey continued in Bristol in early April where we had the run of the Puppet Place rehearsal studio and puppet fabrication workshop to start exploring where we could take this story physically and where we can begin telling it through new writing.
Puppetry, through some organic happening has become a staple of the MakeShift way of telling stories - we never consciously made the decision to be a company that works with puppets but rather puppetry turned up and we are allowing it to stick around until it either makes way for new ideas or decides to plead squatters rights and becomes a permanent feature.
With this in mind it was decided that we would represent our person living with dementia as a puppet, perhaps my most challenging puppet yet - as it had to be right, had to work, had to sit in the piece comfortably and not be a gimmick for gimmicks sake. As a starting point i went to the work of Natacha Belova who's style of puppetry has long been of interest to me, her creations are half puppet and half puppeteer as performer, a hybrid of human and humanoid creation which become animated with so much emotion and life. This is where the puppet for 'Sofa' was born.
Bringing the puppet into the rehearsal space was a great way of opening up dialogue between story and physicality, exploring ways to create scenes through movement and spoken word, and how all aspects we hope to include - puppet, story, live performers, sofa (represented in the rehearsal space above by three chairs) can work together as a cohesive whole.
To recap: We are creating a piece of theatre exploring the role of memory. The main piece of set is a sofa which will literally hold the memories explored in the play, opening up and revealing secret compartments and allowing us to explore all the possibilities of this piece of furniture as a silent role player in the life of a family, from childhood play thing to place of solace and sometimes grief, the sofa forms the visual focal piece for this play.
We also explore non-memory by way of investigating the world of dementia, one of the characters in the play has dementia and he is represented by a puppet.
The script is developed using real stories, experiences and memories shared by members of the dementia community as well as our own experience as family members and story tellers
More of my ramblings to come as the process unravels itself one way or another. Next on the cards is further script development and a day or two spent playing with a two-seater sofa to see what we can make it do!
The next blog will be from Laurence who is writing the original music, he will be offering insight into the music making process for MakeShift.
On Place, Purpose and Creating New Work
I spent a long time sat in bank holiday traffic yesterday, four hrs to get from Bristol to Weymouth allows a lot of time for both bothering fellow drivers and thinking about the week of research and development you have just completed.
I have been wondering how to start this blog, i seem to be going through a phase of doubting and double doubting, which manifests itself in practice as turning every artistic idea i have on it's head because the original idea is far too obvious and cliche.....right?...but then do 'they' (who are 'they'?) expect me to challenge the obvious therefore i should stick to the cliche?. After far too much thought here is how i'm going to start this blog......
My name is Jackie and i am Artistic Director of The MakeShift Ensemble - which in fact is just a flashy title and actually i'm probably more suited to 'vital cog'. I set up MakeShift in late 2015 after many years touring and freelancing and teaching and generally wondering what i should be doing, because it never really felt exactly right. In 2012 my Son Rufus was born followed by my Daughter Juno in 2014, during that time i worked as writer and director for another Dorset based theatre company, which turned out to be both a huge challenge as well as a massive beacon highlighting the fact that actually it's time i did this properly and make the theatre i want to make. Makeshift was born.
It was like getting on a moving train. My name and work were already out there as were the numerous contacts and collaborations from previous work. And this is important. I believe strongly that everything we do and create is full of residue from work and experiences that have gone before and it is this, alongside the actual performers that truly informs my Ensemble work, It is not just those that are present on stage but those working relationships, explorations, experiences good or bad that are all ensemble members in their own right and are present in the current work. And the train is still moving.
We jumped on board with an adaptation of Edward Lear's The Owl and The Pussycat, still touring, engaging and bringing smiles to many faces until the end of this summer. It is a play for both young and old but most notably we have enjoyed the feedback from the older audience members, expressing their joy of being allowed back into the world of story and a safe space to admire the silliness of it all - led by an unflinching pair of clowns known affectionately as Reynard. H Fox and Rabbit. Just Rabbit. We have toured all over the Midlands and South West and look forward to playing some of the biggest festivals in the UK before we make space for the new piece - 'Sofa'.
This brings us back to the present and a week of research and development just undertaken at the wonderful Puppet Place, a fantastic hub of creativity tucked just behind the docks in Bristol.
One of the most enjoyable things about what i do is the little moments of realisation that other people are investing in this crazy or wonderful idea that just popped into your head one day and are now helping you to bring it to life and share it with others. Without question. Those that know me will recognise the little grin that appears on my face then dissapears like it was hardly there. The last grin happened backstage at The Everyman Theatre in Cheltenham when the studio technician was helping us carry all the bizarre props and set like it was the most normal thing in the world.
It also happened during this week of R&D as we explored the ways in which to bring my latest brain fart to life.
The Brain Fart
Here's where it started. I was making my kitchen sofa for the 50th time that day. My kids pulled it apart to within an inch of its life on a regular basis in their quest to adapt it to their imaginative play. And the sofa always obliged. It was endlessly happy to become a den, a boat, horse, car, bridge, thing to hide in, launch pad etc etc. My husband, Rob and i less happy to put it back together again in a quest to conjure up some sort of order. On this occasion i really started thinking how or when we, through growing up, forgot about the magic of the sofa and the many worlds it can be part of.
The thought expanded and began investigating the other roles the sofa takes on as we grow. It is no longer a play thing but a thing with a variety of meaning and memory. It is a silent thing that we invest with so much life. A good sofa can see a family grow and experience all its comings, goings, good times and bad times, quiet times and loud. It is in a sense, an ensemble player. The strong, quietly present and supportive ensemble player that just is.
It is a place full or memory, as well as quite often a lot of fluff, crumbs and loose change.
The next bit
The sofa had now come to represent Memory in my head. How do we create a piece of theatre based on memory? Whilst contemplating this it was natural for myself and my collaborator in chief, Laurence, to look into our own memory banks. After all we understand the world first and foremost from our own experience of it. We found that we landed at a mutual point which we had both encountered in our pasts, a point where the loss of memory became a big thing for someone close to us.
So here we have memory and it's opposite. And the opposite just as rich a world to explore.
I shall continue my musings at a later date. The kids have just come back from the park and the sofa is full again.
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