Beginnings are hard. I am not sure if it is any easier when it is something that you actually have done before, something in which you might not be an expert but perhaps at least an intermediate (or “semi-professional”), something that you could have even gotten into a groove doing at some point, but also something that, for whatever reason(s), you have not done in some time. Puppetry was this thing for me.
I should be more specific. Building puppets has definitely been a part of my recent history—see my post Orwell the Horse: The Continuing Saga, for example—but devising for them, creating a story and a world for them, has been markedly less so. My performance partner Grey Muldoon and I cut our teeth building puppets for productions at the Centre for Drama, Theatre and Performance Studies at the University of Toronto, but once we started telling our own stories with our own puppets, we discovered that could be an entirely different type of satisfaction layered on top of that of “making things.” In fact, we could even choose to skip the “make-all-the-things” step and just repurpose everyday objects, sometimes as temporary stand-ins to test out an idea in rehearsal—what David and Ann Powell of Puppetmongers Theatre refer to as “maquette puppets”—sometimes as fully fledged cast members in their own right. Either use can lead to particularly poignant moments if objects with personal significance are employed, which was our own twist on the technique that we learnt from Puppetmongers. This technique became a core strategy during the development of our first major production, Home and Away, which had a five-day run at the Luella Massey Studio Theatre in March 2008:
Of course, there were other productions after this, as well as workshops, but prior to Zero Hours: The Precarity Show, the “puppet theatre” piece in which I had most recently been involved was this performance art madness, Portage (Get On with Our Lives)!, which Grey and I had created for the 2014 conference of the Canadian Association for Theatre Research at Brock University:
Grey and I have had creative dry spells of our own, due to university degrees, family obligations work, what-have-you, but we always have years of friendship and collaboration to fall back on whenever we start working together on a new project. How was I to start stretching (literal and figurative) muscles that I had not used in so long while simultaneously learning to work with an entirely new group of people?
As it turned out, my new collaborators made it easier, not harder, to get back into the devising game. Interestingly, two of them—both experienced performers and theatre creators—revealed quite late in the process that they had both assumed that, since I was the Project Initiator, I would be holding the reins as something of a director-actor, and they would be expected to follow my lead. I was accustomed to devising with an equal partner in a creative space with room for disagreement and conflict. No wonder I was surprised that things started going so smoothly so quickly!
I am being somewhat facetious here, of course. I certainly do not mean to imply that my fellow devisers simply fell into line and followed orders! On the contrary, they contributed their own ideas and autobiographical stories that, along with my own, came together to form the foundation of the show. As I emphasized in my introductory speech before our performance, their anecdotes and suggestions often acted as pinpricks to let some light into the gloom that characterized my mood during the time that I was writing the project proposal and even up to our first few rehearsals together.
One lesson that I did remember from past devising projects was not to allow any one scene or idea to become overly precious in itself, as devising is actually just as much about remorselessly jettisoning ideas that are not working as it as about coming up with new ones. The project as a whole must be seen as the priority. Most ideas are worth trying out, but no matter how much work went into a given sequence or puppet or whatever else a troupe might have come up with, no matter how much of an aha moment the devisers might have experienced when one of them first explained the idea, no matter how clever or inspired the idea might have seemed initially, if it “just isn’t working,” then it has got to go.
For example, there was consensus early on that an episodic structure would make sense for Zero Hours: The Precarity Show, since we were intending to weave together various short pieces inspired by experiences from our own lives. That said, before we started experimenting with staging ideas for any of these episodes, we had already come up with a framing device: an ever more sprawling and subdivided series of cardboard apartment buildings. Each of the episodes would “spill out of” one of these buildings. There was to be yet another layer, however, in order to provide the audience (and ourselves) with some sort of rationale for the expanding shell game of cardboard boxes and tenants (represented in rehearsal by random old toys from storage containers in the Puppetmongers studio). We improvised a miscellany of reasons for buildings to be split into two, for characters to move from one building to another, and so forth:
Part of our reasoning was that we wanted to demonstrate physically the precarity of urban housing: structurally, in terms of hastily constructed apartment and condo buildings that are prone to leaks, cracks, electrical problems, and so on, and contractually, since tenants can easily be evicted or forced to endure some unwanted alteration of the space itself or of their rental agreement on a pretext. This brand of precarity is doubtlessly as important to consider as that which is related to employment. I have to admit, moreover, that we enjoyed concocting justifications—such as coercing an elderly person to move in with the rest of the elderly folks in order to make room for an immigrant family, and later, displacing other marginalized communities to free up space for more “infrastructure”—for these rapid relocations, not because (or at least, not entirely because) of the rather sardonic sense of humour that we were developing about such things but rather because we found ourselves laughing at what we recognized as familiar in these exaggerated sequences. And there was something to be said for the more visceral pleasure of the fast-paced prestidigitation of shifting the boxes and toys about. Nonetheless, it eventually became clear that there were no direct links between this burgeoning frame narrative and the more autobiographical episodes that were in fact supposed to be the meat of the production. Ironically, we had agreed that the framing device had been sufficiently developed for the time being before we turned to getting the first episode on its feet, but once this section had begun to take shape as well, we realized that the increasingly overcomplicated housing routine now struck us as unnecessary. Although it helped us to gel as a collective and to begin that daunting task of filling in the empty space of the stage, it would have come across as forced if we had included it.
Thankfully, we were still able to address some issues related to housing precarity in the third episode, in which the nameless (and genderless, as far as we were concerned) protagonist searches for an apartment that they can afford. Speaking of that intrepid aspiring tenant, both Ann and David Powell cautioned us that, even with—perhaps they meant especially with—an episodic structure, we should be sure to come up with a main character who would be at the centre of each of the episodes. This character would thereby act as a kind of through line and thus something for the audience to hang on to and empathize with. Such a character was not emerging organically out of our corrugated legerdemain, however. In short, we needed a priority check.
Cutting ourselves loose from the frame narrative proved to be as liberating as coming up with the idea in the first place proved inspiring and motivating. In rehearsal (and in life in general), it is usually a good idea to think through what you are doing. On the other hand, sometimes, you need to think through doing, even—perhaps especially—when it takes you somewhere that you did not expect. Beginnings are indeed hard, but there is also an exhilarating, even intoxicating sense of freedom when you are just starting to sketch out ideas within the blank pages of a show. Sustaining a sense of discovery as the number of pages that are still blank seems to dwindle can therefore also be difficult, even more so as a performance date, even one for a workshop production, begins to loom on the horizon. This pressure can induce a feeling of being “locked into” whatever one has been doing simply because that is what one has already been doing!
One would hope, then, that there is some kind of middle road between the rust that can set in when one has not done something in too long and the obviously very different but often equally stultifying kind of rust that can accumulate when one has been doing something in the same way for too long. I want to believe that this middle road exists and, just as importantly, that it can be found, but that may be just too idealistic, even for a union activist who practices collective creation!