Surrealist theatre and design

The other day I went to see a play entitled ‘Bells and Spells’ by Victoria Thierree Chaplin with Aurelia Thierree and Jaime Martinez where walls move, lamp shades come to life, waistcoats turn into horses’ heads and a lady could sleep on top of the washing line.

This was the first time for ages where the design of the production was the key focus on the piece and we were transported into a magical world of mystery and surrealism. It was like looking at one Dali painting morph into the other.

Here is a link to some of the production so you can see the ingenuity of the work. I am going to focus on 4 elements of the production that you may want to use in your own work:

  1. Illusion of climbing the washing and sleeping on top of the washing line. How did they do it? For this they hung the white washing in front of a huge black screen that had complicated ladders and platforms for the cast to climb and stand on. The actress appeared to be floating on the top of the washing line (holding a fake leg, so that she appeared to be lying down) while she stood on a high platform behind the line. The man handing out the washing then climbed the white sheets to sit on top with her, up a ladder concealed behind the sheets.
  2. Glove puppet to transform a lamp shade into a serpent with sharp teeth. How did they do it? The actress breathed life into the lampshade head and used it as a glove puppet with a long sleeve to conceal her arm and focusing completely on the movement of the head. The head interacted with her and very quickly there was the suspension of disbelief. For an introduction to how to give life to inanimate objects refer to the exercises related to ‘The Peach Child’ and this video on Bunraku techniques.
  3. Surrealism of a painting coming to life. How did they do it? There was a huge painting depicting battle which was brought onto the stage like a free-standing backdrop. Slits had been made in the painting (made of plastic sheeting) so that hands, weapons, heads and bodies could be pushed through the gaps to add life and action to the image. Hands reached out for help, fabric blood gushes from open wounds and riders on horseback wielded swords. Great fun to play around with.
  4. String puppet work to bring armchairs and jackets to life. How did they do it? A row of chairs had jackets draped over them and lights were put on the tops of the backs of the chairs to look like heads. Trousers were hung from the seat of the chair and the trouser legs draped on the floors. Strings were then attached to the jacket cuffs, bottom of the trouser legs and to the tops of the bulbs. The actress/puppeteer could then pull all their strings to bring them to life so it looked like they pointing, kicking, reaching out, glancing to the side etc. Very complicated and beautifully disconcerting.

If you are looking for work to play with Surrealist ideas, puppets and design then I suggest that you look at Jean Cocteau’s ‘The Eiffel Tower Wedding Party’ and ‘The Peach Child’ by Anna Furse, which has lots of tips for actors about puppetry included after the play text. The latter was published in ‘New Connections 2018: Plays for Young People NT’.

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