February 28, 2013
Today’s post is an excerpt from my article Shifting Focus, soon to be published in British Unima’s Puppet Notebook special edition on object theatre.
And if you would like to learn how to shift focus in practice, there are still a few places left on the masterclass to be held at Norwich Puppet Theatre, 9-10 March 2013.
Shifting Focus: examining the performer’s task in a theatre of objects
Do we see a petticoat leaping onto a woman or is the woman covering herself with a petticoat? In both cases the basic action is the same – the performer throws an undergarment against herself – but it reads differently according to the level of energy in both human and object and where the impulse to move is located. Transforming the object also means transforming the performer.
Not only individual actions but the whole meaning of the play can be affected if the performer doesn’t modulate their own presence as well as the activity of the object.
In Raspall, Teatre Nu‘s stage adaptation of a story by Pere Calders about how everyday objects live in a child’s imagination, the crux of the drama depends on the actors being able to convey the difference between imaginative play and fantasy becoming reality.
In the story a boy finds an old brush that reminds him of the family dog that had been given away and he makes believe the brush is a dog, making it sniff around, bark and lick his face. His parents tease him for playing with a dirty brush and the mother throws it away as a useless object. At night, the brush comes alive as a real dog and saves the family from a burglar.
Performing this story requires clearly articulating the transformation of the brush from everyday object to having imagined life and then really coming to life.
The key factor – and the most tricky for the actor – is to manage the difference between playing with the brush as a make-believe dog in a child’s hands and animating it as a real dog in a puppeteer’s hands, i.e. to switch from moving the brush “as if” it were a dog to manipulating it “as” a dog.
The whole point of the story is missed if the actor-manipulator cannot fade out of the picture when the brush comes alive because he will still seem to be the boy playing with an object.
The performer in object theatre is responsible for guiding the audience’s attention through the different permutations in the human-object relationship.
Like focusing a camera lens to make a subject in the foreground stand out against the background, then refocusing to sharpen the background and blur the foreground or bringing the whole panorama into view, in object theatre the audience’s attention can be trained on the object, the actor or on both.
About the Shifting Focus masterclass, 9-10 March 2013:
Shifting Focus is a practical workshop for actors, directors, puppeteers and storytellers which examines the task of the visible manipulator of objects.
Participants will discover how varying levels of presence and neutrality can be used for dramatic purpose, develop techniques for guiding the spectator’s attention between the performer and object/puppet, and work with multiple puppets as a solo performer.
Performers will learn how to use their eyes, touch, body and even their feet to transform the way the audience engages with the puppet/object. Directors will learn to manage the relationship between human and object and discover how to draw attention to/from their performers within a narrative performance context.
Shifting Focus is suitable for all levels of experience; beginners will get a solid foundation for performing with objects and experienced puppeteers will learn to consciously manipulate their relationship with the puppet as well as cure any habits that they or their puppet might have picked up over time.