Over the period of a year leading up to the rehearsals for The Firebird we have been engaged in a series of creative firebird workshops. This is a method of creation used by Handspring Puppet Company in the development of War Horse with the National Theatre in London. It is a very effective way of developing a final product drawn from the cast and refined over time.
There are several intentions to the workshops we have run for The Firebird.
The first two were about testing out the concept and fleshing out its detail. This was done by involving the cast and creative team in the creative process and building, in broad brushstrokes some of the dynamics we expect to see at play in the production. The cast was engaged in discussions, brainstorms and debates on the key points of the concept. We also explored the relationships of the characters through improvised performance sequences.
In parallel we were testing out the puppet concept by using mock-up puppets and place-holder materials.
Because puppets are laborious to construct we need to be certain of what we need before building the final product. Once the concept and form was settled the actual puppets for the show went into production. In the most recent workshop we used the time with the cast to test out the functioning of complex puppets and their controls.
Although puppetry and dance are both visual languages, there is an essential difference between the form of puppetry we are used to working with where the puppet draws its life and stage presence from detailed naturalistic movements (like the flick of a tail) and contemporary dance which is an essentially abstract expressive form. Over the course of the three workshops we have been shifting the emphasis of the puppetry style to find a harmonised language of expression.
Throughout the series of workshops we have been cross-training the performers as some of them come from a stronger dance background and others are principally puppeteers. In the end, they need to all hold their own in both art forms, often simultaneously.
Finally and very importantly, we have been developing amongst the creative team strongly bonded relationships. As we go through improvisation and exploration processes, unencumbered buy the pressures of a rehearsal timeline, we have been able to find deep and meaningful resonances with what each individual has to offer to the production.