On the w/ b 4th of August puppeteer Sarah Wright and I lead a development week for a proposed new puppet production of Edward Lear’s “The Dong with a Luminous Nose”. This took place at the Kneehigh Barns in Cornwall. Three more puppeteers: Liz walker, Rachel Leonard and Oliver Smart and composer Ben Sutcliffe made up the rest of the creative team. It was a very interesting and stimulating week and provided much food for thought. In the following words I will try to describe the run up to the week and give an account of the week itself.
Out of the many and varied nonsense works created by Edward Lear, “The Dong with the Luminous Nose” has always stood out from the rest and held a special fascination for me. A short poem: it deals with “The Dong” an eccentric figure who stalks the storm-ravaged night, in an unknown landscape with a huge wickerwork nose strapped to his face – its bulbous end filled with burning coals. By the light thus given out, The Dong illuminates his way, as he searches for his lost love: the “Jumbly Girl”. But she has sailed away, back to her own land. As a result, not only is he making himself look ridiculous (the locals think he has finally lost his head) but his endless searching can serve no purpose. Tragically, he repeats his endeavor nightly and according to the poem, he is can still be seen, every night, persisting in his fruitless search
Aspects of the poem seem to have more in common with the dark nonsense works of Daniil Kharms than that of, say, Lewis Carroll. The device Lear uses of the “luminous nose “acting as a visible symbol of The Dong’s insanity is inspired, and you only need to know a bit about the man who wrote it, for the poem to read like a cry from the heart, safely categorized as “nonsense”. Thirty years earlier, and half way around the world, Edgar Allen Poe had written “The Raven” and it is striking how much these two ostensibly different pieces of work have in common: both in their language and in their content – to the extent that the later work almost reads like a parody of its predecessor. The fact that Poe’s stories and poems return again and again to the same insistent themes – of not quite dying: of death not quite being the end, of sleep being mistaken for death – stems just as directly from his own troubled psyche as the “Dong” does from Edward Lear’s terrible isolation.
I have toyed with the idea of adapting the poem before. Previous abandoned attempts were too elaborate, too impractical, or unachievable or simply beyond my ability – and far too reliant on words: a perennial problem in puppet theatre, where it is often difficult to strike the right balance between image and text. I wanted to work on a wordless or a near wordless version of “The Dong with a Luminous Nose” and this development week was an early stage of the process.
Deciding to tell the story visually is one of the reasons why, this time around, the project seems on much more solid ground – Sarah Wright agreeing to come on board as a collaborator is another. Sarah is a second generation puppeteer with the art-form in her blood – she is a great practitioner and enabler with a deep understanding of her craft. We are both of the same minds when it comes to working on puppet-led pieces and I think that our skills ranges will complement each other as the project progresses. It was she who suggested the location for the development week and led the way in picking the rest of the team – and she who got Lina Frank on board. Lina is a freelance theatre producer and was of great assistance in securing a grant from Arts Council England, to finance the project
There was a lot preparation to do for the upcoming week. In addition to the (perceived) Poe/Lear connection, there were other themes, trains of thought and observations from everyday life that were becoming relevant. Writing some of this stuff down -including things I’d learnt about Lear’s life and art, and some of my more personal memories of living in Hackney, helped me consolidate these disparate threads and see more clearly why they were becoming important to the project. I included images and comments about the history of telegraphic messaging, art and design linked to The Festival of Britain, the “constellation” paintings of Joan Miro and the giant figures on Rapa Nui (Easter Island). Themes of the outsider and closed communities were becoming significant, as was the notion that, however outlandish or seemingly “monstrous” people might become in their later lives: we all start out as babies.
The next step was to write a rough provisional storyline bringing these themes together; one of the main reasons for doing this at this point in the process – and not waiting till later – was to test out the feasibility of telling our story without words.
Finally we needed the appropriate puppets. These were made specifically for the project; some were fairly resolved though unpainted and others were very much prototypes. I made five different versions of the main character each with different specifications, and thirty or so individual prototype shapes to be explored for their potential but more on these later.
A development “week” is in reality 5 eight-hour sessions. Sarah and I agreed that to get the most out of this period we needed to be selective in our aims. We had a rough storyline, fixed enough to serve our purposes but open to questioning. Rather than spending the limited time we had with such a good team dissecting this further, we chose to spend the week exploring our chosen storytelling means. Our intention was that the results of these explorations would feed and inform the next stage in the story’s genesis.
Elements of the story worth mentioning at this stage are:
The main character: “The Dong” or “Edward” as we have called him. To begin with he is a young boy. He sits on the seashore, watching the horizon for any sign of his family: who have gone off and left him by mistake. He is vulnerable but willful, and his stubborn refusal to accept offers of help or friendship from the wider community means that he will, in time, become increasingly isolated. His watching will become a daily vigil that he won’t be able to give up.
Edward in later life – now a gangly youth; an eccentric lonely figure, whose quirky character has been formed from the slow uneventful years and the drip-drip of daily disappointments. His lack of contact with others has left him emotionally unequipped for dealing with meaningful relationships. His strict routines are what keep him grounded – the Jumblies’ whirlwind departure and arrival have a destabilizing effect
The closed community – A group of “islanders” who have lived amongst these barren rocks for generations and have learnt to adapt and to just get on with their lives – they have made overtures to the boy, have extended the hand of friendship only to be rebuffed.
A jumbled mass of shapes – The Dong with a luminous Nose is a sort of sequel to one of Lear’s best known poems: “The Jumblies”. In this earlier poem, The Jumblies are a bunch of carefree little people who set out to sea in a sieve, embarking on take a sort of Grand Tour: island hopping and picking up souvenirs. They arrive in a whirlwind and are gone before the locals know what has hit them. “The Dong…” deals with the aftermath of one of their visits; we are told that the main character has been smitten by the Jumbly girl’s charms and now she has gone, he can’t get her out of his head. (Interestingly, the proto-surrealist Alfred Jarry, in his novelette “The Exploits and Opinions of Doctor Faustroll, Pataphysician” used his “science of the nearly possible” to demonstrate the “science” behind going to sea in a sieve).
The Raven from Poe’s poem – In our adaption, he is the boy’s first true friend and later on a source of reproach
A chair – a simple kitchen chair. One of the islanders provides this for the boy to stand on to reach a telephone that is ringing
A telephone box – This classic red telephone box, stands on the rocky shore looking out to sea. In the rough storyline, it is clear, that the islanders expect the boy to answer the phone when it rings. It is not made explicit why
We wanted to:
Explore Edward’s movement- style – Explore to what degree we could capture the nuances of his moods and thoughts. The people in Edward Lear’s illustrations strike incongruous poses, often on their tip-toes with arms flung out. We wanted to look at ways that these drawings might inform our choreography and open up Edward’s range of expression.
Question ways in which we might show the passage of time – on a group of rocks that, because of their nature, will remain the same
Explore the world of the Jumblies -In the original poem’s illustrations they are depicted as little people. But our interpretation is based on what their name suggests to us: a jumbled mass of disparate shapes. Shapes that assume different identities according to the way they are arranged and how the mood takes them.
In the final piece, we want the storytelling to be clear. During the development week, it would be important that we kept an eye on this. In the absence of dialogue, we would want to find images, which taken on their own, would speak volumes – sometimes to the extent that if a photograph were taken, we would still know what was happening, just from the still picture.
The day before the others arrived; Sarah and I met to discuss our approach for the week and construct some rudimentary bits of set; to create a sort of terrain. The final set design will probably represent a rocky shoreline – the idea being that throughout the show this solid mass of rocks would remain a constant. Time has little or no effect on stones, but people who make their homes among them get old and die and the objects people make and own show signs of wear and tear. Children become adults and their physical relationship to their environment alters. Our initial story begins with Edward as a young boy. The broken terrain of jutting rocks is a bit of an obstacle course to him. It calls for tactical negotiation. He must push himself up on his elbows here; slide down carefully on his backside there. Later we meet the older, lanky Edward and the rocky shoreline presents fewer problems. He takes pleasure in his ability to stride from rock to rock with little apparent effort – he is familiar with every nuance, every nook and cranny. Sarah and I blocked out a rough playboard to help explore this physical relationship between character and environment, and then we moved on to discuss the project in broader terms. We discussed the rough storyline: did it need paring down? Did it need to be clearer? Sarah suggested that sometimes an audience just needs to know that something is important to a given character in a story, and that they don’t always need to know why this might be the case. She used as an example a scene from a production by Liz Walker’s company Invisible Thread. The production was “Fish, Clay, Perspex” and in the scene in question a man had a fish on his head. For the scene to work, the audience needed to know that it was important to the man that, whatever he did, he didn’t let the fish fall – the audience didn’t need to know why it was so important: just that it was.
Almost another character in the show is a kitchen chair. Edward acquires it early on and he forms quite an attachment to it. Chairs are a recurrent motif in Lear’s drawings. Illustrations to his limericks often include a spindly chair with some outlandish character balancing precariously upon it. In terms of our narrative, Edward’s chair has many functions; not least as another indicator of time passing. To begin with it is freshly painted and clean. But the boy treats it roughly. It is left outdoors, exposed to extreme changes in temperature and to heavy rain. It is pummeled by wind and dried out by the salt air. The passage of time between Edward’s childhood and his adolescence might be indicated the heavy toll that time inflicts on this object. Left on the beach – isolated in a spotlight on an otherwise dark stage – we might replace it with a series of increasingly decrepit versions of itself. Its paint might begin to crack then fall off; its surfaces take on the grey, deeply-lined complexion of driftwood. Legs might loosen and split and then mended with bailing twine. The resulting chair would be a pale sorry shadow of its former self. Meanwhile Edward will have grown from a small boy to a lanky youth. He will sit on it differently. And will still be sitting on it for hours, looking out to sea.
We had some small puppet-size chairs near at hand, but not being readily able to find them Sarah sat Edward on a full size kitchen chair, and then commented on how vulnerable he looked. This little incident opened our eyes to the possibility of playing around more, with the chair’s relative size to other things and with its own proportions.
On our first morning with the puppeteers we focused mostly on little Edward’s movements and the “logic” that underpins them. Short cuts worked for things like sitting down and standing up. Slight weightlessness at moments of rapt attention worked well. It was very interesting to see how playing with weight and momentum could be used to communicate the boy’s inner thoughts. We played around with his relationship to the chair, which seemed increasingly to become more playful and more important. We started the afternoon, with a read-through of the rough storyline. Then rest of the day was spent exploring choreographic ideas using another version of Edward: this time a puppet designed to be operated by 3 people. This is Edward the gawky youth; the puppet’s long limbs and curved body have a much greater range of expressive movement, so it is much easier for him to strike the extreme poses in Lear’s pictures. We examined how his focus on objects near at hand might result in his body going through strange contortions. Then, directly referring to selected pictures, we arranged Edward into these poses and used them as jumping off points, in order to see what happens next.
What emerged was a sense that (for want of a better phrase) the “extreme movements” lost some of their power if sustained too long. After a break, we spent a session looking at a more naturalistic palette of movement. The puppet at once seemed more contemplative: more melancholy. The extreme postures began to return, but now they were more satisfying to watch.
We used a rough mock-up puppet of the raven that Edward will get to know to explore how we might imply a feeling of empathy between them through movement and soundtrack alone. Ben accompanied these explorations with improvisations on the piano and from this short session he was able to compose a “Dong and Raven” theme and record a sample of how it might be used in a soundtrack. We looked at impossible feats of balance with Edward’s more uplifting moods giving him a sensation of being lighter than air – his limbs all askew- a single tip toe his only connection with the back of a chair that is itself balanced on one foot. The chair itself seemed caught up in Edward’s mood of reckless abandonment until, the moment having passed, it became weighted down once more by the boy’s introspection.
A sort of rule was emerging: that Edward’s movements should become more extreme, his posture more preposterous (i.e. more like Lear’s drawings) the more he is taken out of himself and taking pleasure in external things E.g. in the good times he has with the raven and the Jumblies. The premise that his moods and physicality are connected in a kind of continuum of extremes, with one end represented by a version of naturalism and the other by strange impossible postures and a disregard for gravity, seemed to hold promise. We can slide up and down this scale at will. For example, the young Edward puppet sitting on the beach becomes weightless when he thinks he has spotted something out to sea – his hope lifts him up, but he lands on his feet to enable to run to the shoreline. We developed variations on Edward’s vigil, exploring how we might play puppet and chair off each other in order to enhance his point of focus. We had already noticed that if we replaced his normal chair for a bigger one, then the image of Edward seated seemed to heighten his vulnerability. This discovery suggested the possibility that more games could be played with the scale of the chair. One that came to mind was that the seat and the back of the chair keep their original size but its legs are long – the chair becomes a watch tower. This chair-as-watch-tower image shed light on an earlier notion we discussed, that the telephone box might be mounted high up- again like a watch tower. My worries here were that, though this was a nice image, it might cause practical difficulties when it came to puppeteering Edward’s coming and goings around it. This “Logic”: that objects can change or be presented to the audience differently according to the mood of a scene could then work for us – the telephone box could appear higher up when we want it to be – we could reposition it throughout the play.
We dedicated the second day to exploring the world of the Jumblies. We had 30 or so separate pre-fabricated shapes, a whole mixed bag: some 3D, some flat, some with internal movement, and others not.
In our first session, Rachel, Liz, Oli and Sarah worked to a selection of pre-recorded music, each belonging to very different sound worlds – these included excerpts from Steve Reich, Michele Legrand, Tom Waits, Radio Tarifa and the sound of a needle stuck in the groove of a vinyl record. We spread the selection of Jumbly bits around the perimeter of the performance space. The proposal was that puppeteers would each begin with a selected shape and improvise: bringing these together in various combinations – the arrangements might be quite abstract, or figurative elements might creep in. At any time they could replace their shape with another from those spread around them. It was impressive to watch the puppeteers improvise as a team – it was clear that they were all attuned to the process and there were moments when they seemed to be working with one mind. Images and movement ideas arose out of these improvisations that it would have been impossible to predict by any other method.
The whole thing was fairly hypnotic to watch, and the question arose as how we might capture some of that spontaneity within the structure of a show. There was a quality in the puppeteers’ improvisation that we could be in danger of losing when working out a strict piece of choreography. The flip side to this is: that what is interesting in the context of a development-week improvisation might not hold its appeal in the context of a show. Clearly we would need to find the right balance between shifts of mood, hitting the right level of playfulness and storytelling needs
The Jumbly fragments used here were very much intended as prototypes. Beginning to think it through at the making stage, I tried to come up with a variety of mostly abstract shapes that would work as a kind of kit; a selection box, to be dipped into opportunistically and with an eye on making combinations that would evoke very different associations. A few weeks earlier, I had started the process of finding what these shapes might be through doing drawings and I got some idea sheets together. The initial intention was to use these as rough designs for the mock-ups. However, it quickly became apparent that it was too soon in the process to do this and it was best to make decisions in stages. So I partly let the materials dictate what they were and kept the drawings at the back of my mind. They weren’t quite right anyway and it felt best to keep an open mind. Our final goal is to produce a set of shapes that lend themselves to being used for a wide range of interpretations. In the development week we were on the lookout for ways of building on the potential we could see. There were all sorts of things going on there and some very different associations were emerging. At the final stage we will be will be hoping to make the most of the potential for making snap changes from one “image” to the next. We will want to make the most of possible contrasts: between gently rounded biomorphic shapes and rigid geometry, flat or 3-dimensional, spikey, springy, articulated – with mechanical movement built in or with free flowing uninterrupted fluidity – and what of their surfaces? – we might look at the bold blotches, stripes and striking colour changes in tropical fish, flat plains of colour, the brilliant Rorschach blots on butterflies’ wings, the seeping cankerous quality of lichen on wet stone, the delicate markings of bird’s feathers, the repeat patterns of tiled floors, the bold colour contrasts of targets, warning signs, heraldry, modern design and hand painted pots. What do these combinations of contrasting, shape, movement quality, colour and patterning suggest?
Sometimes they might suggest the weird plant landscape world glimpsed through a microscope when peering at fungal growths, bacteria or jelly-like amoeba or, similarly the primitive life forms at the bottom of the ocean. This viewpoint on an infinitesimally small or a primitive world might morph into an image of hens pecking for food, of mice scuttling or into something reminiscent of the inside of a clock; clownish cartoon characters might loom up only to dissolve and fall like autumn leaves and resolve once more into cubist constructions or simply into rhythmic dancing shapes.
Questions like these were percolating through as we delved deeper into the Jumbly world. Ben accompanied a second exploration with theses shapes on the fiddle, the piano and the Hammer Dulcimer. We discussed possible approaches to the soundtrack and listened to a track by John Zorn as a possible reference
On the morning of the third day we explored an idea that grew out the increasing feeling that Edward’s chair might act as a kind of barometer that indicates his state of mind. The chair, alone on the shoreline is joined another chair and they play games together. It was an interesting exercise in object theatre. Questions arose such as what kind of games do chairs play? Do chairs play at being other kinds of chairs? How do they move? They spun round and round on a single leg, they tumbled and stacked – at times their movements were synchronized and at others they were not. Cooperative games showed that the chairs were happy in each other’s company. Edward walked into the scene and appeared not to notice them. This seemed to imply either that this whole incident was in his mind’s eye or conversely that he was too absorbed in his own worries to even register their unusual behavior. When Edward began to sit down in a place where his chair should have been, but was not: the chair rushed to resume its duty.
In the afternoon we did some more work with the Jumblies. Up till now we had focused on them in isolation – now we wanted to look at their interaction with Edward. By this point, Ben had put together a sample soundtrack; a sort of Jumbly theme largely made up of odd distorted vocals, and disjointed changing rhythms. This description makes it sound unmusical, but this was not the case and it captured really well the spirit of the Jumbly world we were trying to create. We used a rod puppet version of Edward operated by one person, which gave us the advantage of freeing up more puppeteers to work with the Jumbly shapes, we explored how he might interact with them. We looked at movement qualities transferring from human figure to the abstract shapes and vice-versa. We played games with momentum. We then swapped the rod puppet Edward for the one designed to be operated by three puppeteers. Different opportunities were thrown up by this new arrangement. Edward’s expressive range was much greater, but having more people employed on keeping him alive meant there were fewer available to operate the Jumblies. The proposition has always been that the storyline and puppet sequences should grow out of the medium of puppetry: out of what they do well and out of where there is the greatest opportunity for expression. This session was useful in clarifying something we already knew: that to be able to make the most of possibilities open to us, the story boarding of this section must be strategically tailored to take these different needs into account. We replaced the Edward puppet again; this time for the first prototype version, which ironically is the most finished looking at this stage. We removed its legs and played with integrating him more fully into the Jumblie shapes. We had him wandering spellbound amongst the shapes, his focus shifting as he took it all in. We tried to choreograph a little sequence.
Coming back from a break we turned to yet another version of the Edward puppet; this one wearing the luminous nose and designed to be operated by two people. It had no legs, but after playing around with it for a while, we again found that his range of expression would be increased if he had some. We attached a spare pair, which looked a bit weird visually but gave us something to animate and an idea of the movement qualities we could achieve. It now became clear that having three people round this puppet reduced the possibility of moving him quickly through space, which would be important if we wanted to show him prowling round the island. So we decided to cut off the arm controls and wire the arms into a fixed position. This butchery completed we decided to finish for the day and try him in this new configuration in the morning. Before we left, Ben played us a sample of a theme he had written for Edward: “The Dong Theme” this was great and over the next days we used it a lot.
On the morning of the fourth day, further changes were in store for the puppet we had altered on the previous afternoon. One of the threads running through the storyline has to do with Edward’s transformation from an innocent child who has no real issues – a kind of blank page – into the bizarre figure he has become towards the end of the show. He has somehow gone down the wrong path on his way to adulthood and has reached a strange place both mentally and physically. We questioned this and played around with how he might change his body shape. We added a large foam rubber ball as a pelvis which both increased his range of movement and heightened his strange physicality. This tale is inspired by a “nonsense” poem and pieces described as nonsense are often filled with notions that might be summed up by the term “logical but impossible” i.e. what is presented might not match reality, but having its own internal logic it makes a sort of sense. Animation films are filled with these logical impossibilities, as is Alfred Jarry’s pseudo-science of Pataphysics. Edward will be literally changed by his experiences. He will have been swept up in the chaotic whirlwind of the Jumbly world and been physically transformed. In their chopping and changing he will have been chopped-and-changed too. Odd bits of Edward might turn up in in different places and different combinations. But having been separated out, jumbled up, and put back together again, the implication must be that he will never be quite right again. The chopping and changing that this would involve, should work in our favour and help us to shift the balance: three puppeteers might be needed on Edward, then two, then none, then one and so on…
In the afternoon we turned to the question of how we might represent the islanders. The initial document set out possible reference material, such as Easter Island men, window brackets or corbels on the Victorian houses where I live and sculpture from the art movement known as The Geometry of Fear. These sources all suggest a solid rough-hewn look as if the Islanders had been carved from their environment. But, in the show we are proposing, we will only have four puppeteers and quite often we would have three employed on Edward alone. This is just one example of the many design conundrums that working in puppet theatre can throw up. The question of who-will-be-doing-what-and-where during a given show will always influence puppet making and design decisions and this will certainly be true of the islanders. As the rough storyline stands, they will much of the time be seen as figures in the distance going about their daily lives.
Watch a group of figures in the distance and it is interesting to note how much information we can glean from their movements. We might only be able to see them as black dots with no discernable features, but we can probably tell something about what is going on by the way they move as a group, how they interrelate: how they move apart or come together. The changing space between them might be the only information available to interpret such a given scene. We tried to capture something of this by using simple rectangles, of varying proportions, in place of people. We considered various implied narratives that might emerge from simply playing the spaces between these simple shapes. This was not a session spent jiggling geometric shapes in order to give them some sort of personality, but a simple exercise in reducing our storytelling means to a bare minimum.
On the final day we recapped what we had already done; exploring some of the set-ups from earlier in the week in order that Brett Harvey a local film maker could record material for a short film intended to be a sort of snapshot of the week’s activities. At the same time, photographer Steve Tanner took photographs. The results in both cases were great and we intend to include them in some sort of presentation package designed drum up further interest in the project.
When we came to film Edward with his the luminous nose attached, it was the first time we had the nose part fully assembled. The nose is about a metre long. Structurally it consists of a carbon fibre arm ending in a hollow polystyrene sphere. It was all quite light and manageable until I put the lights in. Maybe it was because I was feeling suitably guilty for asking the puppeteers to work with the added weight, but a new scenario up came to mind in which Edward has first donned the monstrous appendage. He can’t stand up straight and it is like he is learning to walk again; learning to stand upright and control this huge nose.
It was a very useful week.
– Peter O’Rourke