It’s best to work with what I know: Work Forum

Let’s let this be a place where we can start to respond to the material.

Having just begun to listen and read along, something I haven’t actually done with the material in a long time, I am gratefully reminded of the sad limits of conceptual thinking when set beside the magic of the verse (and the music, of course).

A few random observations. The task of the production with such material is to situate the audience’s attentiveness so that they can really listen to the words. The magic of the event is in hearing the verse, in the way the fanciful play of words conjures a larger realm. The stuff of the everyday is pulled into this transformative process. We want to hold a child’s attention and let the images, the play of thoughts and images and notions, blossom.

I can’t see the songs as ever being just background for something else. They are too rich, too dense. You can’t afford to miss anything. All stage craft and performance issues need to back up the songs. I don’t think we want the audience’s attention distracted with a question of “what just happened?”

The decision: do we create a presentation world with some kind of story frame, some reason for people to be gathered together doing the songs in some fashion; or a neutral container we fill with each song and we don’t assume a need to find framing movtivating impulses? Of course it doesn’t have to be either/or. That’s just one of the tensions we have to negotiate as we go.

From the titles of the songs on, I kept thinking about the songs as responses to a playful challenge, almost as if a child proposed each title and then expected the singers to rise to the challenge and invent. The songs as the result of a kind of high order imaginative game played by the children. Are the singing adults participants in the game or figures from some other realm conjured by the imaginative forces?

With this idea of each song being a deliberate challenge, I could see other elements (puppets, dance, scenic, etc) offering a kind of “musical” underscoring for each song, trying to tap into feelings and latent ideas. But I also thought, and I didn’t think I would find myself thinking this, all the stagecraft, all action, could attempt to quite literally meet the challenge of portraying the content of the songs. Two levels of playful challenge at work: the challenge of “composing” each song and then the challenge of rendering the imaginative improvisations in some kind of palpable form. I guess I’m thinking it’s more honest to imagine children attempting both things. Or children laying down the challenge to the “adult” of making something up (tell me a story) and then playfully taking the next step of trying to “make it real.”

But I don’t want to clog things up with too much conceptualizing…

I do think, however, that it might be inspirational to look into forms of late 18th century domestic children’s amusements. I wonder if the industrial clouds Blake saw on the horizon could be found reflected in a change in the kinds of toys and distractions available to children. But I’m not saying it’s necessarily a bad thing. Just wondering about what kind of “stuff to play with” might have existed. How did children and adults gather for amusement? The notion of “the poet” as a kind of convention for imaginative elaboration, a familiar narrative frame. “Father, could we go to Wm. Blake’s Inn this afternoon while Uncle Tim is visiting?” “Perhaps, child.” “I would like Mr. Blake to bake something in the kitchen?” “What?” “William Blake bakes a thundercloud pudding.” “Ah, hurumph, a thundercloud pudding, eh…alright, let’s see…hmmm…wait, don’t start clapping yet, I need to think…” “Come on, Uncle Tim, a thundercloud pudding, a thundercloud pudding, William Blake bakes a thundercloud pudding!” And so poor Uncle Tim would extemporize to the clapping rhythms of the children a rhyming verse fantasy in which the magical poet, Mr. Blake, would bake a thundercloud pudding, while the other children would playful respond to his words with the stuff around them, often successfully finding a way to portray it, and often collagpsing in laughter over the impossibility of “stoking the stove with stars plucked from Mars…”

7 thoughts on “It’s best to work with what I know: Work Forum

  1. “But I don’t want to clog things up with too much conceptualizing.


    I think research into children’s entertainment would be a grand idea. It might give us ideas about visual approaches.

    re: the titles of the songs. It’s interesting what you said about regarding them as verbal “challenges.” I have always, from the first note I wrote in 1983, conceived of the eventual performance including the title of each poem being spoken. I think we need to have Brechtian signs as well.

  2. I wonder if I’m wasting time stating the obvious, but after our rehearsal last night I had some thoughts. These are just observations and possibilities inspired by our work; we can use or ignore as the need arises:

    –Innocent and Experienced: What if our production pointed up the contrast by juxtaposing the presence of children at the Inn with other residents who are clearly “of an age” and have seen their share of life?

    –That’s a way to point up one goal our the work. We want, I think, to show “eternity in an hour.” So we enact a harmonious relationship between youth and age.

    –What if the Inn was in many ways a boarding house where many permanent eccentric guests are peacefully living through their golden years? The children are there as visitors and many stay as staff helping Wm. Blake run the place; the children also are living extensions of the spirits of the older residents; they bring to life the reveries and visions and dreams of the residents, often coaxing the residents into giving a place for such dreams and visions. The Inn is a utopian vision of youth and age united by the gift for imagination.

  3. Don’t worry. I’m not advocating an Ibsenesque realism or some grounding in sub-text. I’m just wondering what such thoughts might do to influence staging and other creative decisions. For instance, as I warm to these thoughts I am seeing Blake’s leading a walk on the Milky Way as this grand fanciful outing, a picnic trip under the stars with our elderly guests decked out in all sorts of outlandish outing attire (including, of course, a big fur coat, snow shoes, and at least one pith helmet) and all carrying lanterns, the children there with puppets and in costumes evoking angels and animals and other fanciful notions. Or what if the man in the marmalade hat is a fellow in a chair on wheels who keeps his legs wrapped in a blanket and wears this organge knit cap. The children tie ropes to his chair and he pulls along other wheeled vehicles and maybe skating children. His imaginative alter ego is this ridiculously long-legged fellow (a youth) who capers about the stage weilding a duster like a saber and dances at the drop of a hat. Just notions.

  4. So now that we are at the workshop stage, my mind runs this way:

    –let’s put in place a developmental process that we can pick up and put down and undertake at any time ( at our set meeting time as well as when ideas strike us)

    –something comfortable and casual that doesn’t grind to a halt because certain folks are not there on a particular day

    –we have no idea who is interested in working regularly; it might just be Dale and myself at this point; which is fine

    –it doesn’t necessarily have to be about performance work at this point: we have to generate images and progressions of ideas; we can be storyboarding sequences and design ideas; we need to explore some basic stage craft

    –Even before we begin working on our specific audition sections, I think we should decide on some of the “physics” which will in part determine our “metaphysics.” What basic stage craft elements do we want to work for us throughout the piece. Such things will influence how we design elements, build “scenery,” and realize stage action. Simple basic stuff: what structural skeleton will be there for us on stage? We know we want things flying, so how do we set that up, and do we build our own system or rely on the existing space (PAC?)? How we fly will help determine what we fly? Do we want up and down AND side to side? Pendular swinging? Etc.

    –We can see a certain creative process which will serve us. A description of a sequence and its elements leading to a number of renderings (scenic, costume, puppet, other elements of spectacle, mechanistic stuff) which then guides construction. Basic realization through design. How we assemble our first notions leading to this process is where we are wide open: conversation, free-associating, doodling, repeating words until an idea appears, compiling, juxtaposing, singing and playing with the songs. Everyone will have unique ways of working. No need to have some initial uncomfortable moment where we all stand around and look at one another.

    –I find myself wanting to see each song as a set piece which works through some single concept or image or notion or conceit which sparks its stage realization. For me its what fires a spark for the audience and pulls all elements together. It should feel in retrospect like it couldn’t have been done any other way. And these conceits don’t always come literally from the words of the song or even from the overall narrative sense of a Wm. Blake’s Inn. Sometimes listening to the music can just produce some feelings or images. Sometimes the poetry can spark a series of associations. For instance: “Ah William, we’re weary of weather…” What I feel and see as I listen to the setting of this piece has very little to do with what action is depicted. I see two ladies in a rowboat or punt on a ridiculously beautiful summer’s day, shading themselves with parasols, dangling their fingers into the water, singing drowsily to William, who is perhaps doing the actual rowing or handling the punt pole, of what is essentially a feigned boredom with it all. Life is so good it’s downright wearying. This image is the conceit that situates the song. Now while this is going on in the boat, all manner of things could be happening elsewhere. We might actually see and hear a chorus of children dressed like sunflowers. There might be a room or there might not. Would such a conceit make us feel as if it couldn’t be done any other way? I don’t know… But this is the kind of thinking I am going to be doing. Such an idea can them be examined and appropriated or discarded or broken up into pieces. The hope is that at some point, everyone in the room will be able to stop and say, “Yes, I think we’ve gotten on to something, let’s realize some images and actions.” And we have to attempt this with each song and well as with our general questions about the stage world.

    –how something is “played” may wind up being very specifically negotiated by the singers based on creative work we have already done

    –I’m wooing my kids to help because they can actually draw

  5. Things to look into:

    The work of George Speaight and his histories of English puppetry and toy theatres. West Georgia has some volumes.

    The evolution of the Inn, architecturally and culturally is another concern. I was watching my Brazilian import copy of Orson Welles’ film Chimes at Midnight (aka Falstaff) and was reminded of something that might be useful for us. In the film, the Inn at which Falstaff and company have set up house is quite spacious, almost like the interior of a barn, the second floor is essentially a gallery which walks around all four walls (it reminds you in many ways of an Elizabethan theatre–and I’m remembering some tidbit from my student days in which there was relationship between the nature of the “Inns at Court” space and the construction of theatre spaces). Essentially, it implies that if we want to get architectual with an Inn interior, we could do so in what Peter Brook might call a “Rough” theatrical sense. For some reason prior to watching the Welles film, I was thinking of the Inn in more cozy and domestic way, like a boarding house or hostel, more insular and private. The Inn in the film was more intrinsically public in its energy, essentially a ready-made space for action and presentation. Options, options.

  6. Oh Boy! This one actually has me a little excited. Of course it arrives just as I am to clean house, so I will be brief.

    Concept (not to be literalized to the point of silliness): The Inn is on its own island in the middle of a circular “body of water.” But this disk on the ground can take projections, so it’s not always a body of water. The Inn could sit in the midst of water, air (clouds), fire (flames or stars), earth, or other useful substances. Visitors could be ferried over or float through clouds.

    The island (Albion?) on which the Inn sits would rotate. The Inn would be of a slightly small scale as if it is at a slight distance. Each turn of the island could offer up new winks and peeks from the windows and views from partial or disapearing walls. Various processional activity on the disk, circling the island (boats, parades, outings, a sense of a roundabout–a merry-go-round for us yanks–at times).

    Light on a rear cyc could highlight the reflections on the floor disk or provide contrast or take projected images, or simply provide a relief surface for items in the air.

    I like this idea because of the potential for a “music of the spheres” orbital energy, the sense of the Inn as in its own place and dimension, and we can see the journey to it and away from it. I like being able to evoke the four elements as a travelling space. The structure of the Inn itself could facilitate a kind of playful appearing and disappearing of characters, puppets, etc. And a belfry of sorts to access hot air balloons flying by or to reach out for stars, etc.

  7. For the sake of completeness, another thought about how to undertake this.

    We build the performance around the work of a central performance group. Assemble players and then make production decisions based on how these players want to tackle the material. More a sense of the players establishing a strong relationship with the audience, more playerly and less imagistic, I guess, though though there’s no reason why it couldn’t be both.

    Thoughts on puppets. The Inn itself could be a puppet theatre. Or if we go in a more Bunraku direction, it might be interesting if the puppet operators were also the featured singers…

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