This week I’ll be working at the Norwich Puppet Theatre on a research and development project led by Rene Baker, a British artist whose returned to the country after several years working abroad. Bringing together an eclectic mix of puppeteers, educators, and theatre makers Baker is leading the project in order to create a new retelling of the classic fairy tale “The Frog Prince.” But this week is about research, specifically about finding ways to represent concepts of otherness, prejudice, and identity through a less-representational puppetry language than is typical of children’s theatre (and so much puppetry.)
When we were talking about the piece recently she used the term “sculptural” to describe the theatrical language she’d like to use in the piece. So the task will be guiding our objects and puppets toward the extremes of literalism and abstraction. How gestural can the objects be without the meaning and intent of the moment being obscured? How can the manipulation be symbolical rather than literal without undermining the narrative? Where is the metaphorical usefulness of objects more profound (in terms of storytelling, for example) than more representational puppets? And how can the audience’s understanding of the concepts at work in the piece be informed by the relationship between the puppet and the puppeteer?
In many ways these are questions common to objects as they are used in performance art and dance, a more and more common feature of contemporary work – including my own. But this research will eventually be used to create a show for 5 and 6 year old children. How far can the work veer toward (capital P) Performance languages without losing this particular audience? The central concern of the piece – that difference is good, and blind prejudice is bad – looks like a simple task compared to inventing a child-friendly sculptural language. Or is it? Child audiences are by no means my area of expertise or experience, but I am guessing that they are perceptive to the nuances of body language, voice, colour, and rhythm as much as (if not more than?) adult audiences. And so we shall just have to look at how the objects and puppets can be as nuanced as the human beings children see and on which they model themselves.
Therefore this week’s R&D will be followed by a foray into the classroom where we’ll take some of our experiments into the classroom (which is, I’m sure, going to produce a very interesting experience for me who has not had a conversation with a child in many many many moons.)
At the heart of the piece are not dramaturgical questions/concerns, but conceptual ones – how do we show the difference between the frog and the Princess without making his difference disgusting (slimy, bug eating, bug-eyed fellow that he is.) And is the purpose to show that “we are all the same” or that difference is not just to be tolerated but celebrated? And how do we discuss identity in the shadow of the parent figure – here the King that makes the Princess fulfill her promises to the frog. How can he be useful in starting a dialogue between children and their parent-figures?
So we’re not just looking at the how of this project but the what? How can we discuss ideas of race and difference in this day and age in a performance language that is more current, less literal, and more artistic than what we expect of children’s theatre?
But first, play, experimentation, and debate. The easiest and best part of the process! And you can keep up with the project on Rene’s blog for her Frog Prince.