26 August, 2009

Interview with Liza Lorwin from Peter and Wendy

Image: Peter and Wendy. Photo: Scott Suchman

We spoke to Liza Lorwin, producer and adapter of Mabou Mines' Peter and Wendy, playing from 2-5 September at the Royal Lyceum Theatre.

What was the path that led you into puppet theatre and what were your first experiences in the industry?

There were so many paths, and when I look back at them they seem to wind a lot, but they do all land somewhere in the vicinity of puppets.

I should begin with the most direct - my first experience working with puppetry, which was an extraordinary gift. In the mid 80’s, I produced Lee Breuer’s The Warrior Ant (which Julie Archer designed lighting for). Lee invited Yoshida Tamamatsu, a master puppeteer from the National Puppet Theater of Japan, to develop a bunraku segment. He came to New York, bringing colleagues and puppets – a princess and a little boy, both exquisitely carved and painted, in silk kimonos and with human hair wigs – we couldn’t believe they weren’t in a museum. We hired translators, and took crash cultural lessons and all of us smiled and bowed and exchanged gifts and in general lived in a state of almost childish excitement – which turned out to be very productive. Tamamatsu was surprisingly open-minded about mingling ancient technique and new contexts – he performed to samba music, and let the little boy, with ant antennae tied to his head, ride on the back of an oversized worm-puppet, carved, like a Muppet, from foam. He seemed to enjoy himself. I was awestruck by his performance. We all were. We had a close-up vision of puppetry at its most riveting, and tucked away in our minds was a wish to work more with some version of that – to see it again.

Still, I think of Peter and Wendy as theatre, rather than puppet theatre. We did not set out to create a work specifically for puppets. Mabou Mines’ approach has always been to look for theatrical metaphors – a visual image, a style of music, an animal species... - that will resonate with an initial idea, to open it out beyond itself. Here, Julie Archer had a design idea - oversized paper pop-up books as set pieces. Barrie’s novel was instantly resonant with that. It’s so much about childhood imagination, but from the perspective of adult memory. It is essentially wistful. I had first read it as an adolescent, and it sent me into a stupor of free-floating yearning –so many opportunities for impossible desires! In any event, there is a sense that pure unfettered joy is fleeting once you grow up, and Barrie puts the cut-off age for the at two: “two,” he says, “is the beginning of the end.” It felt right to match this with the fragility of paper and with images that would appear and disappear by a simple opening and closing – no “stage magic.”

And this path led to puppets, an apt analogy for the volatile, often ruthless, always ephemeral nature of childhood imagination. They’re inherently stylized, out of normal scale and free of gravity; we experience them at a threshold place where reality and fantasy flow together. We chose to keep the puppeteers always visible, because we want the audience not so much to get lost in imagination as to watch the process of imagining.

Also I especially wanted to keep the wild lyric flow of the novel’s narrative passages. This was another path to puppetry – Lee had matched the sparse performance of puppets with dense language in previous work, including The Warrior Ant. The Asian forms we’ve adapted in Peter and Wendy have a strong narrative base. In bunraku, the narrators sit on the side and sing the story and the puppets enact scenes. In Indonesian wayang kulit, a single puppeteer performs all the characters’ voices and the narration. In Peter and Wendy, we’ve drawn from these traditions, combined and reworked them with western theater styles. The Narrator is herself the central character, and also acts the voices of all the characters, often interacting with puppets, but not always. So you’re at once inside and outside the experience of narration. We want to convey that slightly disturbing elation of being almost, though not quite wholly, absorbed in reading.

So along with the pop-up books (only alluded to in the final set), the use of live Celtic music, and a kind of minimalist Edwardian visual palette, the puppetry is part of the theatrical language of Peter and Wendy. It brings its own independent meaning, and heightens the emotional immediacy of the language and ideas.

Then too, the puppetry itself became a path – a path to other paths. For instance, working with them as “dolls” led to the decision to keep the Neverland within the space of the nursery. The puppets let us range widely in scale and angle and degree of realism, while still remaining in one room. So, perhaps not many paths to puppetry, but one path that keeps branching, where puppets have been a starting point as well as a destination.

Do you think that the way puppet theatre is received by audiences has changed since you become involved and if so, in what way?

In some ways yes. In the U.S., we’ve come late to puppets in theater for adults. Mabou Mines first used bunraku-inspired puppets in the 1970s in Lee Breuer’s Shaggy Dog Animation. It was seen by a fairly small and specialized audience. Since then, The Jim Henson Foundation has given tremendous support to this kind of work, especially through the International Festival of Puppet Theater which they produced in New York throughout the 1990s. It was hugely influential and now puppets in theater are almost mainstream. We don’t have to do quite so much work to get adults into the theater, or to warn parents not to expect a kid-friendly show, just because there’s a puppet in it. However, when a puppet does take the stage, especially when they do something very ordinary – for instance, scratch themself - that intense sense of wonder is unmistakable, often a gasp, even from the most puppet-sophisticated audience.

Do European audiences differ to those in the U.S.?

It’s been a long time since I’ve been with a production in Europe, though other members of the company have been more recently. In both Europe and the U.S. I’ve found audience differences to be quite local – country by country, state by state, neighborhood by neighborhood. In Dublin, I remember the audience was very quiet, and then so warm at curtain. At first it was disconcerting, having recently been in Berkeley California, where there was always loud laughter. For me, it’s one of the interesting things about traveling with a production, watching the performers adjust to audience response, and seeing how that transforms the work as a whole.

How do you feel about bringing the performance back to J. M. Barrie’s Scottish homeland?

Tremendously excited – and nervous. It feels a little like performing for Barrie’s family. We fell in love with the Scottish sensibility in the novel – the rhythm of the language, the dark humor, the raw emotion combined with a kind of toughness in being so exposed. We looked to traditional Scottish music to support those rhythms, and intensify that feeling. Johnny Cunningham’s score really winds throughout the piece, and Karen Kandel tuned her performance to its rhythms. This score and Barrie’s words are the truly Scottish elements. Then there are our own interpretations and pastiches - the delighted perceptions of fans. For instance, when Karen uses Scots inflected accents, they are meant to be the type of voice you might make up when reading aloud, a flight of fancy. Still, it was wonderful to be able to turn to Johnny for guidance. And a story.

Have you been to the Edinburgh International Festival before? If so, what did you find most memorable about your experience of the Festival?

I have been in Edinburgh during the festival, in 1981, when William Burdett-Coutts presented Lee’s Sister Suzie Cinema and work-in-progress Gospel at Colonus at the Assembly Rooms for the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. I produced those pieces, and Julie was the designer. Most memorable was the extraordinary energy that filled Edinburgh, the sheer numbers of people all thinking about theater. I have a vivid image of a red carpet flung down George Street, though that seems improbable - I must have made it up. Lee was at the Edinburgh International Festival in 2007 with Mabou Mines’ Dollhouse, and I know he was astonished and moved to receive a Herald Archangel. Also, when I asked him this question he answered without hesitation – “when the sun came out.”

Why do you think people should come and see Peter and Wendy at the Edinburgh International Festival?

It is an extraordinary chance for this piece that owes so much to Scotland to finally be there to draw on the energy of the people and the place. There is live music played by musicians who are, each one, renowned traditional performers in their own right. The live sound effects score, akin to early radio, add bells and whistles, literally (also amplified alka-seltzer fizz). Karen Kandel gives voice to well over a dozen puppet characters, while also giving a full human performance that is heart wrenching. The puppeteers’ artistry is astonishing - often with three puppeteers on a single puppet, their precise choreography of movement is itself a pleasure to watch. The puppets breathe, because Tamamatsu taught us that is more important than anything else a puppet might do. The design is both an instrument of the story-telling and visually beautiful. Barrie’s language is gorgeous, and full of wistful longing. In an early review it was noted, to Johnny Cunningham’s great delight, that “grown men were heard to cry.” It is also often quite funny.

We mean to stay faithful to the original, which we love, while reweaving, re-contextualizing, pruning according to our personal sensibilities. Barrie’s masterpiece is certainly rich enough to bear many interpretations, and ours may serve to de-familiarize the now iconic story, to let its lesser known aspects be seen fresh. Built collaboratively, it is a mingling of many voices, many personalities. There’s a good chance an audience will find at least one to relate to.

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