Speaking with shadows - Rehearsal blog day 11

Maison Foo Production Journal - Day 11 - By Séana Maggs Cooke

This morning proves to be probably the most complex of the week so far, and I follow the group (minus Matt,) into a second and darkened room; a disused treasure trove of costumes and goodies galore! Morgan and I take no time in investigating some of these treasures, (for anyone from Derby Theatre reading this, don’t worry- we didn’t touch anything!) 

The aim of the day is to explore shadows; and the pragmatics discussed includes: Gauzes, cycloramas and backdrops (more theatrical terminology to look up.) These pieces of set are apparently crucial for shadow puppetry, and production manager, Oz, points out that the company should not be ‘venue specific’ when it comes to thinking about purchasing set; this is mainly due to the fact that not every venue will have the equipment the company need to use in their show; this is clearly a dilemma faced by a touring piece of theatre. I am getting a glimpse into all the nitty-gritty aspects of pre-show production. 

Everyone plays their own part in this production meeting: Designer Kate has been busy beautifully crafting delicate cartoon images on templates, to be used during the shadow puppetry scenes; whereas Oz, seems to take on the practical and realistic role- and he’s a useful adviser when it comes to giving his artistic opinion. Beth and Kate; the Foos leading ladies know exactly of the aesthetics they want to create- today is just a case of making them work!

Even without a cyclorama, when a light is shone on Kate’s marvellous puppets, they are shadowed on the wall entrancingly; it gives us all a great sample of how the shadows will look in the final show. Beth plays with layering the puppets and then shining a light through them; the imagery starting to come from this is truly mesmerizing, almost haunting. It is amazing to see the action of shining a light through images placed on tissue paper creates such different tones, and colours of sepia and frost; it adds an almost poetic aesthetic of nostalgia- I am awed by it. I am told that these shadowed images will be brought to life and illustrated by an interjecting voice and soundtrack; they are merely exerts and accumulative elements in revealing a darker, more nightmarish theme in this play.

Everyone sits on the floor whilst Beth and Kate assess the use of semiotics created by the puppetry; During this conversation, I disappear from the room of shadows to hear a ‘bing bong’ of a tannoy in the corridor, and, rather embarrassingly, I stop to listen to the announcement and then realise it is, in fact, Matt trialling sound effects on his mac. Walking from room to room is like changing channels on a creative television network; walking from a sound teching booth into a puppetry lesson, and an integration of the arts is taking place. Matt occasionally pokes his head in the puppet room to make a few enquiries about the mechanics of shadow puppetry and I’m relieved when designer Kate admits that even she is struggling to grasp the lighting concept of shadows.

In many aspects, this process is like revisiting a physics lesson from school: the distance and positioning of the light determines the size and focus of the shadows... I’ve always found physics hard to fathom, but it is certainly curious to watch. In a briefer description, Maison Kate states, that: the rules of shadow puppetry require either; a flat source of light and/or a target scene...

After much discussion over the focus needed to create both abstract and full focus shadows, it is decided that the component of a lens is required to synthetically enhance and adjust the shadow-creating light. As usual, Oz “the man in-the-know”-in Kate’s words, appears with an OHP (Over Head Projector,), and now new capabilities have been unlocked on this shadow puppet discovery. Beth states “we’re working out the narrative we’re trying to tell”, and the image of a puppet cog is perhaps, the most symbolic images in the whole piece... it also proves to be the most difficult design to place in the narrative effectively; the lighting is too harsh to give the shadow the ambiguity of appearing abstract and still having a strong impacting message. 

The most remarkable event of this mind-sizzling morning is how unexpectedly, and in true Foo style; an idea sparks out of the blue- or, out of the dark. In no technical terms:  A light is placed on the trolley used in the ‘annoying shop assistant’ scene, and perfume bottles are placed on top of boxes; Beth  then begins to push the trolley backward and forwards through the industrial cages and the shadowy figure of what, remarkably looks like a factory with chimneys appears on the back wall. It is an unprecedented occurrence; this one image speaks volumes for what this scene needs to illustrate. I have witnessed yet another revelation in the making of this play! This is a pleasing outcome for The Foo- and rightly so; It also seems like a very fitting place to break for lunch...

After a late lunch, the rest of the afternoon is spent deciding on where the story telling of the puppetry will be placed. In order to do this, the last 1/3 of the play needs to be improvised...and this is exactly what starts to occur. Matt partakes is some quick fire improvisation, whereby he becomes a lawyer questioning a defendant: the manikin’s head- otherwise known as ‘the shoe-makers wife’. Again, the moveable set is being utilized brilliantly; the industrial shop cages are now being used as stands/ witness boxes, and I am enlightened, once again by this excellent use of re-using props.

After the improv session, the cast then settle themselves on seats and begin a political discussion about how a trial in court works. I am so used to viewing the company up on their feet, that this period of deliberating over sources and information takes time- in comparison to their usual physical experimentation of finding solutions, the sitting down feels like a form of procrastination, but also proves to be an ideal opportunity for a much needed brew break too! After Morgan manages to source some, the team soon get back in their feet to physicalize their next scene. The rest of the afternoon contains more court room improvisation which slowly combines the use of torches and shadow puppetry; all of this, is something as a theatre student, I try to absorb in great detail, mainly because Maison Foo are connoisseurs of the devising process!

Today has been another voyage of discovery; with plenty of room for trial and error.  Now that the clamorous element of puppetry has been explored in depth, the next chapter of Pendulums Bargain Emporium can be unravelled. What I am learning from The Foo is that quality and content does not by any means need to include large pyrotechnical devises to stun an audience. Maison Foo conjures up and uses highly sophisticated theatrical facets: puppetry is only one convention used to tell their story, and from what I have seen of it today, highlights and makes me realise that this Foo fairytale might not have a ‘happily ever after’.