August Grab Bag

#5 The website Bookriot has excited muppet arms for both books and Muppets!

#5 The website Bookriot has excited muppet arms for both books and Muppets!

A roundup of articles, links and videos that we highlighted on Twitter this month. 

1. The first book on puppetry I ever bought was by John Wright of The Little Angel Theatre in Islington, London. His wife Lyndie still carves puppets for them and this article about her is just lovely. If you go to London, try to see a show there.

2. As we continue to work on Malevolent Creatures, this website looks intriguing and will hopefully help out our research.

3. At the Edinburgh Fringe Festival this year, the show The Pure, the Dead and the Brilliant took a look at the upcoming Scottish independence referendum through the eyes of four Scottish fairies, including Selkie. Read a review here.

4. Yet another amazing interview with one of the giants of contemporary illustration and a special hero of ours, Shaun Tan.

5. And because really, most things should end with the Muppets, here is Bookriot with a roundup of literary-related Muppet antics. Enjoy!

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Dramaturg’s Desk

Ana Cackley is a rising senior at the University of Virginia. She is an English and Drama major and served as dramaturg for the initial workshop of MALEVOLENT CREATURES this summer. Here are some of her thoughts on being in the rehearsal room for the piece. 

Ana researching on her ever-present laptop.

Ana researching on her ever-present laptop.

When I got asked to be the dramaturg for Wits End Puppets’ devised piece Malevolent Creatures, I was both thrilled and terrified. I’d never worked as a dramaturg before, let alone on a devised piece of theater. I had absolutely no idea what to expect. The only thing I really had to go on was that it was then called “The Fairy Project” — and fairies are a subject that I can and will research happily for any length of time. The sheer creativity of the project — a theater piece devised around the ways that humans interact with fairies, or mythological creatures — grabbed me instantly, along with the excitement and eagerness of the other researchers in the beginning stages of development.

Ana getting attacked by one of the rehearsal puppets.

Ana getting attacked by one of the rehearsal puppets.

After we had done the research on various creatures and chosen the three that we would be focusing on for the first workshop, I thought that my role in the show was done. I didn’t expect to be needed at rehearsals, or have things to contribute. I was surprised and excited to learn that there was a lot more for me to do and work on. Rehearsals were some of the most fun parts of my week, as I took notes, looked things up, and gave opinions on the work that was being developed in front of me. The happiness and sense of play among the actors was inspiring and fun to watch, particularly once the rehearsal puppets began to be used and things got a little crazy. The willingness to explore that I saw in rehearsals only made me want to find out more and more about such weird and interesting characters, and research obscure details like what Orkney seals smell like, and the weather in Lincolnshire during the 18th century.

With the help of Google, anyone can be their own dramaturg. But most of us don’t get to trawl through the Internet endlessly about such a fascinating topic, and with such amazing people to support and add to the process. Working on Malevolent Creatures was always an interesting, funny, and occasionally terrifying experience. I’m really grateful that I got to fill a somewhat arcane position for such a new and exciting a piece. I’m literally counting down the days until we get to do it again.

An Interview with Amelia Gossman

This week Wit’s End Artistic Director Cecilia Cackley interviewed artist Amelia Gossman about her experience working as an illustrator on Malevolent Creatures, our upcoming project based on British and Celtic folklore.  

Cecilia Cackley: When did you first learn about the character of Black Annis (aka Black Agnes)? What drew you to her?

Black Annis, artwork by Amelia Gossman

Black Annis, artwork by Amelia Gossman

Amelia Gossman:  As a kid, I was really into folklore and faeries. My best friend and I would look at Brain Froud books when we were eight and run around the woods looking for and trying to lure the creatures we read about. I believe in his book, “Good Faeries/ Bad Faeries” he gives a brief description of her. For my senior thesis in college, I wrote an analysis of Welsh/English folklore and I learned more about her in depth. I chose to write about her because bot only is her back story is really interesting, the added creepiness of cannibalism makes her, for me, one of the scariest creatures. And being scary is intriguing.

CC:  I know you did a project on her in art school. Can you describe it and talk a little about what it entailed?

AG:  I mentioned that I wrote about her for my senior thesis. My minor at MICA was Creative Writing, and for our final project we were given the freedom of writing about whatever topic we wanted. The analysis covered the origin of certain folktales and how those stories related to the current culture (i.e. faeries had kings, queens, and knights much like the British monarchy). I spent the entire school year gathering information from various sources and condensing that information in an organized way. A big challenge was targeting ONE area, so I stuck to the British Isles. It was just too much to include all the creatures I wanted to (that meant no Minotaurs, fauns, or kappas, just to name a few!)

Amy getting set with the rehearsal puppet of Black Annis. Photo by Patricia Germann.

Amy getting set with the rehearsal puppet of Black Annis. Photo by Patricia Germann.

CC:  What was the most interesting thing you learned about Black Annis in your research?

AG:  Here’s an excerpt of the paper [that I wrote] that focused on her!

The Scots also believe in Wicked Wichts of the Unseelie Court. These bogies were fearsome and inflicted many ills upon both man and beast. They were much more malevolent than the mischievous house spirits. Devilish monsters like Black Agnes would prey upon children. A hag of the Dane Hills near Leicester, England is a blue-faced crone with long claws and yellow fangs, sometimes taking the shape of a cat-demon. She is said to live inside of a cave she personally clawed out from the rocks. She eats the children who stray into the Dane Hills after dark, skinning them and devouring them, later scattering their bones around the hills and hanging their skins from the trees to dry. If children are in short supply, she snatches lambs from the pasture or even babies from the open windows of houses. 

I think her connection to cats was incredibly interesting. It’s not mentioned in the paper, but I remember reading about how a nearby town, lead by its mayor, would drag a dead cat through out the woods near her cave – I think as a warning to her. That’s a great example of folklore being incredibly ensconced in a town’s culture! I should’ve added that!

CC:  Did you approach the illustration for us differently than for your school project?

AG:  Definitely – while I had done research on her, I was able to add some of my own personal ideas to the illustration. I chose to add scarring to her mouth, her large hands and long body, and her ominous clothing – including a crown of bones. I liked having that freedom.

CC:  What was it like seeing the rehearsal puppet based on your illustration?

AG:  Amazing!! She had such a spooky presence because she was so large. I think I had an idea that the show would be almost Punch and Judy scale, and that she might be a little marionette, but I was thrilled to see that she was enormous!

CC:  Was there anything unexpected or surprising about what you saw in the rehearsals for Malevolent Creatures?

AG:  The integration of the audience and the performance was really cool, something I haven’t seen before. I don’t want to give too much away, but I liked thinking I would see a traditional show and being surprised by unexpected visitors. The performers are so talented and the puppets came to life, even though they weren’t finished. It was great!

Carol and Amy demonstrating with the Black Annis rehearsal puppet. Photo by Patricia Germann.

Carol and Amy demonstrating with the Black Annis rehearsal puppet. Photo by Patricia Germann.

CC:  Are there any other folklore characters you think you’d like to illustrate or write about?

AG:  Oh gosh, where do I begin?? I’ve used a lot of creatures in my work in the past (especially fauns, but those are Greek rather than English!). However I would love to illustrate more selkies, will-o-the-wisps, and kelpies.

The Wit’s End project Malevolent Creatures is currently in development for Fall 2015.  Get the latest updates by joining our mailing list or connecting with us on Facebook and Twitter.

Workshop Photos

Puppets are not for the faint of heart. Photo by Patricia Germann.

Puppets are not for the faint of heart. Photo by Patricia Germann.

We had a fantastic two showings of Malevolent Creatures a few weeks ago. If you were unable to join us, here are some photos of the puppets and the process. Check back soon for more information about the next development stage of this show!

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Puppets Like Football Too!

Rehearsal puppet put together and strung on a control!

Rehearsal puppet put together and strung on a control!

I created this rehearsal puppet for Malevolent Creatures about a month ago, with no idea that he would become such a fun tool for improvisation. Throughout our rehearsals, whenever there was a break, someone would pick him up, give him a funny voice and start a conversation. Eventually we decided that (outside of the world of the play) he was French. And since the World Cup is in full swing, it was inevitable that the puppet would get pulled into our many arguments about who was going to win the day’s games. Clearly, puppets love football just as much as people. Here is a short video of our puppet explaining his views, as performed by Elizabeth Dapo.

Not-So-Malevolent Rehearsals

Since we are devising this show rather than working from an existing script, rehearsals are a mix of discussion, improvisation and lots and lots of laughter.  A reminder that our work-in-progress showings are June 26/27 at 7pm at GALA Hispanic Theatre! Tickets are free and you can reserve your spot here. A few photos of the team in action:

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Improvising a set with items in the room.

Carol reacts to a rehearsal puppet.

Carol reacts to a rehearsal puppet.

Sometimes you think better when everyone is on the floor.

Sometimes you think better when everyone is on the floor.

Rehearsal puppet in pieces.

Rehearsal puppet in pieces.

Rehearsal puppet put together and strung on a control!

Rehearsal puppet put together and strung on a control!

Malevolent Creatures Research

mythThere have been two main categories of research for Malevolent Creatures. First is the folklore itself: stories, traditions, rituals and beliefs from the British Isles that center around fairies and other supernatural creatures. The second is how those beliefs fit together, how they have changed over the years and the various theories about where they came from and the meanings behind them.

One of my favorite pieces of reading has been Karen Armstrong’s book A Short History of Myth, which traces the evolution of mythology from the Paleolithic period to the present day. In considering the place of mythology in our world Armstrong writes that “The imagination is the faculty that produces religion and mythology…the imagination is also the faculty that has enabled scientists to bring new knowledge to light.” She also points out that “…like science and technology, mythology…is not about opting out of this world but about enabling us to live more intensely within it.”

MCResearchThat intensity is evident in nearly all of the individual stories and beliefs we discovered and is one of the reasons they have been retold and appropriated over and over; by poets, by scholars and by writers of literature for all ages. I am personally very interested in how fairy stories have been rewritten by authors of young adult and children’s literature and one of the pleasures of this research process for me is that it has given me an excuse to re-read some old favorite children’s books that incorporate British and Celtic myth. If you are interested in British folklore but maybe don’t feel like getting into the heavy academic side of things, I recommend these titles as both fun and worthwhile.

The Weirdstone of Brisingamen by Alan Garner

The Dark is Rising (series) by Susan Cooper

The Moorchild by Eloise Jarvis McGraw

The Hounds of the Morrigan by Pat O’Shea