Ink Black Water

I can get carried away when describing what I see happening on the stage inside my head. I’m used to the concerned and slightly confused faces I sometimes get and I’m excited by the intrigued and engaged faces I get. What I’m getting when I describe Ink Black Water are the extremes: utter smile-and-back-away or pure wonder. The next question is always the same: How? And my answer is to whip out a notebook or grab a napkin and draw diagrams that no one understands. Except me, of course – I have faith in myself.

Ink Black Water is the collaboration between Sanjin Muftic and me for the iQonga platform at Out the Box (for more on my involvement click HERE). I’ll be building on the techniques we first explored with Under the Stars, Above the Tree in 2008 and then developed with Crowsong earlier this year. Just your typical light table, multiple projector and lamp with shadows and ink set up; also some interesting new experiments with different fluids and a couple of unlikely mechanisms. But all that is slightly lower on the priority list than the fish puppets – and the crows, can’t forget the crows. These are carved out of foam, meaning that my flat requires constant sweeping – the tiny scraps of foam are more tenacious explorers and spreaders than the 17th century Spaniards.

The piece is a dream; of floods, of deserts, of birds, beasts and fish; of crumbling cities and shaking ground. It’s about loss and longing – maybe not for the thing itself, but for the traces of it, the memories you should have. Sanjin and I decided to approach it visually (similarly to how Jason and I worked out Crowsong) and so I’ve been creating storyboards to capture the action – omitting the manipulators at this point, and also the multimedia – mostly because I’m a bit overwhelmed to create that detailed a storyboard (it’s a bugger to draw text layered over cracks and silhouettes of towering heaps of books behind a school of fish playing with a submerged performer).

Most exciting for me though is the chance to work with an old collaborator, the incredible Brydon Bolton. He did the music for my master’s final production (together with Niklas Zimmer) and for Under the Stars. It’s been way too long since then. His compositions are awesome, dark and layered, perfect for the surreal dreamscape.

I’m really excited and damn nervous that my work will be seen up on the Little Theatre’s stage. It seems like a step down from the Artscape Opera House where we did projections for the Flying Dutchman in January, but this piece is much, much more personal.

Ink Black Water is on at the Out the Box festival as part of the iQonga line up on the 10th September 2011. Bookings are open on Computicket.

How to get a head

Yes, out of all the possible titles I opted for the most obvious pun. Guilty as charged – etcetera, etcetera.

In my slim defense I have been somewhat sort of almost high on the rich aromas of liquid latex and cough syrup; the earthy smell of clay is just layer of the crafty bouquet of my flat right now. What have I been caught up in that my flat should be put through such punishment?

iQonga. Which probably just deepens the mystery, since very few people seem to actually know what iQonga is. In brief it means ‘platform’ in Xhosa, and that’s the goal of the project curated by Handspring’s Jason Potgieter, to give artists working with puppets and in visual theatre a platform to show off their style. Six or so companies and individuals each get to produce a 10 minute piece, once off, with some money and support from Handspring.

I’m lucky because I get to work on two. And I didn’t even get my proposal accepted. Kim Kerfoot (that mysterious cipher of a theatre-maker who produces work all too rarely) and Sanjin Muftic (my Bosnian buddy and long time conspirator) both wanted a slice of the Keevy. So now I’m designing and building for Kim and fully collaborating with Sanjin.

Kim’s piece is called Guillotine and is about [SPOILERS!] a Guillotine. The biggest challenge of this project is the severed heads. Which are also puppets. After a good chat with Janni Younge about the process I dove into a bucket of rapidly hardening plaster of paris. I would be working with materials that were new to me and with clay, which I haven’t seriously played with in years. I’ll put the whole process into a tutorial (including where to buy the good stuff cheap) and post it after iQonga, I promise.

The clay was like coming home to Sunday lunch. I didn’t even know how much I’d missed it. I first made about 10 ‘sketches’ in plasticine and then Kim picked the characters he wanted. I sculpted them full size in clay and cast plaster molds. I messed up a couple of times and ruined one bucket before I nailed the process. I like working alone and at my own pace. I’m a slow learner, but a tenacious one.

So then the latex went in. It smells disgusting. Like ammonia. Like week-old urine.

But when I peeled the dry faces out of the molds I was stunned. I knew it was meant to be an amazing material – I just sort of assumed I’d have to have a few duds before I got the hang of it. It is such an easy material to use, as long as the clay and the plaster have been done right.

They need to painted and dressed, but I’m feeling pretty pleased right now.

Guillotine is on at the Out the Box festial as part of the iQonga line up on the 10th September 2011

Crowsong: the Thank You list.

On the 16th and 17th of March we took over Theatre in the district with a theatre experiment called Crowsong. Here’s who I’d like to thank for making it possible.

Caffeine: Jason Potgieter frightens me. He’s a force of nature that sweeps up medium sized trees and Korean cars and rearranges furniture. So when Jason says you have spare time to put on a show, you have spare time. Or you make it. Because otherwise you’ll have missed out on something that’ll change the way you think.

So we met and bounced ideas and sat in bars with inappropriately large sheets of paper and koki pens. We doodled and shmoodled and made a script with stick figures and arrows. I was the builder of devices and Jason was the dynamo – arriving at the theatre in the district after a full day at Handspring but bringing the sound and fury with a dash a of significance.

The story started out as ideas about mad puppeteer-alchemists. Jason gave me a stack of photocopies of kabbala mysticism, medieval mythology and astrological charts. I gave him China Miéville’s Kraken. Together we scavenged lamps and clamps and cables and tables and all kinds of goodies to make magic with. We came up with the story an ordinary man who loses his lover. And tries to bring her back. So he seeks out the services of specialists.

Freaky specialists.

So we needed an actor to join us.

Gumtree: James MacGregor has been around the block too often for one so young. So he must be talented, surely? Doesn’t really matter, we told ourselves, the part is easy.

Turns out we were wrong. The part is difficult. And James isn’t talented. Talented is what your five year old nephew is when he builds a sand castle higher than him. What do you call him when he installs working elevators and a suspension bridge? What ever word you decide on, that’s Jimmy. He hurled himself at this for no money. The lights? He did ’em. The music? He did… Well, he found and edited it while Jason and I were quibbling over pleats.

I have seldom been so impressed with an actor on so many levels. He’s committed, passionate, funny, talented (or whatever) and he manages it despite being forced to live life as a ginger and looking a bit like Matt Damon. If you have the right light.

Happy Crate: The Theatre in the District is cool in that way that only not caring about being cool is cool. Do you follow? It cares about art and community. Brian and Trish Notcutt have made an amazing space to work. With almost no money we were able to rehearse and perform and transform a real theatre into our mad lab. We hung brown paper all over it and strung up cardboard crows.

Bosnia and Ethiopia: Sanjin rocks. Nothing surprises him. He comes home to find wheels being fitted on to the coffee table and doesn’t even blink. The flat is covered with torn paper, sawdust and offcuts of plastic. The painful shriek of a file on wood destroys his quiet enjoyment of the world cup. But he bats not an eyelash. He leant us the camera and projector gratis despite the danger of oil, ink and noodles. And lets not for get who first thought up live drawing…

He also filmed the show. Here’s a clip he posted on Youtube and the CT Live blog:

Genetics: To furnish the space with crates and rope and stools and bits and pieces required more theft than expected. Fortunately our parents rarely press charges. But that’s a minor part of why I have to thank the folks. I would not be able to make my own theatre without them, without their support. And I know how rare that support is for people. Thank you.

Corner Store: Dillon and Beren, they came in, ate some chicken and drank some coke and called it even for lifting, rigging, pushing buttons, taking donations, getting people seated and striking the set. Well, we’re not even. I owe you guys some grunt work. You know where to find me.

The final thank you is for everyone who came to watch or sent support to 3 crazy theatremakers. Especially to all those who spread the love on facebook, their blogs and face to face. And a super big one to Jesse Kramer for bringing along her magic camera. I’ll sign off with one of her shots. You can get a hold of her on her website.

The Flying Dutchman is coming in for Landing

A week from today about 2000 people are going to take their seats in the Artscape Opera house. The stage will be shrouded by an unlit scrim. It’ll all be very mysterious. The Cape Philharmonic Orchestra will be doing their last minute checks and tuning their strings and making that really interesting low level cacophony that gets made before you her some serious music. The lights will dim, the conductor, Kamal Khan will take his place before the musicians and then it’ll start. The Flying Dutchman by Richard Wagner. 20 seconds in and an invisible brush will pass across the scrim, creating a living illustration of the ocean.

I’m really glad we still have a week to go.

It’s probably almost a year ago that Lara first approached me for the Dutchman; Sanjin and I had done the multimedia for her previous opera with the Wagner Society, Rossini’s La Scala di Seta in 2009, and were very excited for another. It’s been 2 years since then and our techniques have developed considerably as well as our understanding of each other as artists. What can we do this time around? I took lead on design – first gathering samples and inspiration for the style and then working through the beats of the story and music with Lara to storyboard the footage. I worked with ink and brush to evoke my main design focus, a painted world. The sea is vital to the story so I wanted everything, from the clouds to the rocks to have a sense of flow and life to them.

The biggest contrast between Sanjin and I is in the realm of technology – he knows cameras and computers upstairs and downstairs while I am always trying to find a chunky, unpredictable analogue solution. But these 2 approaches complement each other well. I went about planning to capture footage in weird ways and he figured out how to make it look good. We ended up getting a glass drawing table built and then buying a fish tank for our effects. 2 weekends were spent dripping, smearing, brushing, stirring, pouring, seeping, folding, tearing, soaking, splattering ink, water, paper and glitter in a studio.

A lot of beautiful effects were found and filed but less than a quarter of the recorded footage will be used for the opera, the rest will be filed away for future reference on another project. The next phase was to create the drawings that would actually feature in the video – this was me sitting at a table with ink and brush churning out waves, masts, shorelines and brush strokes for animating.

The big delay, and the reason I’m glad there’s still sometime before we put on the show, was filming the principals. Gary Simpson and Nkosazana Dimande only arrived in South Africa this month, and we could only get them into a studio 10 days ago. That’s a tight schedule for any kind of video work. The last couple of nights have been late ones with Sanjin and me staying up way past our bedtimes and drinking coke ‘til our kidneys complained.

But it looks rad. Sanjin has been cooking with the editing and has really started to master After Effects (and my Photoshop skills have come in handy once or twice too). A couple more all nighters and then Tuesday night is the final dress rehearsal. We have 1 absurdly short section that we’re still really wrestling with. Absurdly short. 10 seconds. We wanted this to be the best thing we’ve ever done.

And I think it will be.