A breakthrough on performing The Table in Porto last week. After 370 performances...
So the problem: performing the feet is very painful. We've had four people play the role and everyone has been defeated by it. "De-feeted". I don't mean that they weren't brilliant, they were. The feet made the show, and the feet make the show. The feet are the show. The show came from improvisations where the feet did things, and the head remarked on them. But it was such a hard role to repeat. It always seemed to be random whether they had a good show or not. It was always a mountain to climb.
Each of the four approached it differently. Nick always improvised. He created the role through improvisation and the only way to do it was to continue improvising. Irena studied. A natural perfectionist she knew the role inside out and she threw herself in. Laura, who is a dancer, came at it with a solid method. She broke it down bit by bit. Fi is an actor: she needed to know her motivation. But still they would do a great show one day, and then the next day, doing the same thing, we would have a horrible show.
Part of the problem was that we didn't have a final script for the first 350 shows so we were always improvising. The show was a random series of tricks, loosely structured around a puppet having an existential crisis on a table. The problem with this is that you are always chasing yesterday's improvisation. It was hard for all of us, but worse for the feet. For the feet sometimes even a good show didn't feel good. And a bad show was truly horrible.
Physically it is challenging to be bent over throughout the show, but actually that is not the problem. Mentally it is challenging to channel your whole performance through two feet and never have any words, but that isn't the problem either. The problem seems to be almost spiritual. The problem we came to realise was that the feet person is invisible to the audience. They literally are not seen a lot of the time. We had scripted moments where they revealed themselves, but then they vanished into the puppet again. The better they did their job the less you saw them. And yet the show is all about the relation between the people and the puppet.
Then one day in Stanford there was a revelation. About 5 minutes into the show the puppet stands on the corner of the table. He is very still and quiet for a moment. In the middle of this silence a lady in the front row whispered to her neighbour, in a voice loud enough for us all to hear: "I feel sorry for that poor girl's back!" The truth was the audience wasn't enjoying her pain either.
So we had to address this. We realised that the problem wasn't the role itself it was because of the length of time. No one minds doing the feet for ten minutes. Doing the feet is really fun for 10 minutes, even 20 minutes. But a whole show, that was depressing. And it was unfair. And it felt unfair to watch it. The head and the bum are standing beside the puppet, in full view of the audience, able to see the puppet, the table, the audience, everything. The bum even comes off the puppet for a while and goes offstage.
So we tried things. We tried swapping roles for a bit in the show but that didn't work. We tried acknowledging the feet to the audience and discussing the challenge but that didn't work. We tried adding breaks for the feet to stretch, have a rest, say "hello" to the audience, get a glass of water. And that sort of worked. The audience quite liked it but still the puppeteer wasn't actually refreshed. They didn't really have a break.
And then last week we had a break through. Our current feet puppeteer, Fi, came off the feet, stretched and said, "OWWWW!" Then she walked out to the audience and said, "We've put this bit in because it's really painful doing the feet..." She added, "I love it, but it's painful..."
And it worked. The audience relaxed. Fi relaxed. She did actually stretch. She did actually have a break. And she came back on the feet refreshed. Because she had told them the truth. Or at least a version of the truth.