Monday, July 9, 2012

Working with Freehold on King Lear by Annett Mateo

When Robin and I first chatted about using puppets in King Lear I was thrilled both to be working with Freehold Theatre and to be doing puppets for Shakespeare! I have certainly done this before; I am one of the originators of Drunk Puppet Nite, an adult puppet cabaret. In many other cultures puppetry is a much more broadly accepted form of art as opposed to our culture that views it primarily as a children’s medium. This is a very exciting time for puppetry as that perception is just starting to change here, this production is just one example of that. However most of my work is still for children’s theater, specifically the Seattle Children’s Theatre which is wonderful because I get to do many fun and fantastic things. So the challenge of making puppets for Shakespeare for adults I was really excited about.

Robin had some clear ideas about how she wanted to incorporate puppets: the Fool and Gloucester were to be puppets for sure. We also tried out an idea of making puppets of some of the Knights that ransack the dinner scene. She had a workshop in January and working with some crude prototypes we were able to refine what we wanted the final puppets to be like. Out of that workshop also came her desire for a number of additional puppets that got dubbed ‘the 99%’. These puppets were to represent the disadvantaged under Lear’s rule and generally be other bodies during the performance.

The Fool (pictured in photo at top), though it is in somewhat standard courtly fool garb is most unusual aesthetically. The most striking example of this is that it has no feet! I am not sure how this particular design decision came about but it gives the Fool a strange somewhat otherworldly appearance. Robin had found a wonderful picture of an ancient carved puppet and we emulated that in the creation of the Fool’s head including reproducing the tone of the dark carved wood. The face is so full of character and fits the role well. Choosing to make the Fool a puppet was brilliant as Fools have traditionally been rather strange people.

The Gloucester character as a puppet was a daring choice as the role is so significant to the story line. It works quite well and lends an extra dramatic air to the part after he has his eyes, literally in this case, gouged out. This puppet was extra challenging as it has to have so much functionality built into it and still look more or less person-like. It is also a challenging puppet to operate because it has to do so much.

One of the ideas to come out of the workshop was to have the hoard of Knights (a hoard in this particular case is actually six) throw paper. The actors were creative in making this happen with the prototypes but in order to make it easier for them during performances I came up with the idea of making their hands small slingshots! It worked great: paper balls end up all over!

I came up with the idea of using large forks, spoons and other utensils for the hands of the 99% when Robin mentioned that she wanted to start the show with them interacting with the audience, begging or just chatting with them. This gives the audience investment in the show as they can relate to these ‘folks’ who were just among them and are now part of the story. Puppets work really well in this capacity of engaging marginalized societies, such as the very young, the elderly or the incarcerated for instance. Puppets are at the same time sub-human and super-human. They are not as threatening as live people but can also do things that people can’t do such as loose eyes during the course of a performance, or fly or become talking animals. This is especially the case for people who have trouble relating socially; puppets are the essence of a person without all the possibly confusing or conflicting nuances of displayed emotion. They are basically generic people which we can create to be very specific for a performance, a wonderful tool for theatre.

Working with Freehold on King Lear has been a great experience; a chance to work with a Theatre I have not worked with before and doing puppets different from my usual style. I will be thrilled to see how traditional audiences respond to Robin’s wonderful interpretation of this story.

Photo at top: Dan Morris, photographer.
KING LEAR has public free performances (donations warmly accepted) on July 12, 13, 14 at 8:00 pm and July 15th at 4:00 pm at Seattle University's Lee Center for the Arts. Reserve your free ticket(s) here:
Tickets will also be available at the door (and if a show is sold out, we will have a waiting list at the door).

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