Friday 28 March 2014

Legend of the True Cross workshop with Peter Schumann

There was a certain degree of luck of finding myself in the Zuidplein Theatre Auditorium ready in time to start a workshop with Peter Schumann of Bread and Puppet Theatre. The session started at 5. The plane landed in Amsterdam at 3, the train to Rotterdam left at 4, the underground ran on time, and I arrived with 5 minutes to spare. If any of those elements had slipped then I would have been a no-show.  The Bread and Puppet Theater is a politically radical puppet theater, active since the 1960s, and was opening the ICAF conference with two pieces of work. The first was a piece premiered 50 years ago, and the second was developed in the last year. Their style is about sophisticated storytelling with simple puppets. Their puppets are rough and ready, but somehow develop a soul in their animation.  The first piece was based on a traditional Japanese story, about a body in a river. Taller than life puppets moved gracefully across the stage, gently telling a timeless story. The second, The Legend of the True Cross, was about the last twig that came out of paradise that grew over ages to become the wood of the cross.  The final moments of this second piece had a space in it at the end, left deliberately in order to find a local group of participants to fill it. 

This was what my smooth running travel schedule had allowed me to be part of.  A group of about 30 ICAF delegates made up the willing participants, and in the next couple of hours we built something to go in the space. Led by Peter Schumann with his supporting cast of puppeteers, our group became a single entity, and was 'operated'. It was an interesting process, very physical, with a sudden breaking down of personal barriers...30 new friends whose names I didn't know, but who were standing very close!  The overall performance was about an hour, and our group were part of the final moments. Elements started to unfold, from a cast of 30 hidden in plain site in the auditorium, we moved on stage for a stylised battle scene. No sides, no goodies or baddies, but everyone dies in the end.  What was a mystery to us was the story that took us there. 

To that end, we were back to being audience again, all be it audience in a black suit and tie. A small clue was given by one of the performers when he told the audience that the second piece was an hour long. That was all we knew.  Our cue was the small tap of a hammer on a nail, as the True Cross was used for the first time. We all stood up, one on the end of every row of seats, looming suddenly over the audience. Simple physical gestures were communicated up and down the line as we moved together. Gradually, we made our way onto the stage. Again, simple clear cues, the crash of a symbol, the line of a song, meant our single unit of 30 moved together, slowly, with clear and deliberate movements. This time, there was a sense of understanding, not just because we were performing in front of a live audience, but because we too had been told the story, and now knew how we were part of it.  This was a simple shared moment with the rest of the 30. 

What did it do for me as a participant? It opened up another company's process for a moment that gave me an insight into the 50 years of artistry that Bread and Puppet Theater have developed. It took me out of my comfort zone, and demanded a leap of faith in the process, because there was a moment in there that meant, without context, we were just puppets.

Alison, City Arts

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