The Highs and Lows of performing The Table
Last night we did The Table in Zaragoza and it went really well. The audience loved it. The theatre was lovely. It was a natural space for the show. Our volunteer Marta was charming and funny and a really good sport. She came straight up on stage and said, "I don't speak any English" and then got on the puppet and everyone loved her. And afterwards the audience were very enthusiastic and full of praise, especially for Fi (Fiona Clift) who does the feet. And then we went down to our dressing room and Fi burst into tears. She'd had a horrible show. She was furious, desperate, confused, defeated.
And she's not the first. Nick who created the role of the feet, and both the other two actors who have played the role, Irena (Stratieva) and Laura (Caldow) have been angry and upset after we did what the audience thought was a perfectly good show. I've performed the show over 400 times now and I still enjoy performing it. And I still don't know how to make it easier for the person on the feet.
Why? What's so hard about the feet? Well the feet get all the shit in this show. And all the praise. But the praise doesn't cancel out the shit, it just goes alongside. In fact in some ways the praise might even make it worse because you feel like you are going mad. What happens is that when the puppet is not in sync, when we haven't got it together as a puppet team, the puppet leads from the voice and the bum follows the voice and the feet get dragged along underneath. And it is horrible.
The Table comes from the feet really. It was devised by improvising in front of audiences and that took the form mostly of Nick did something extraordinary, sometimes very odd, with the feet, or Sean with the bum, and then the head (me) commented on what they had just done. So the head of the puppet began to comment on what the other parts of his body had just done. And then of course there was a long slow process of editing and ordering these improvisations into a story.
The thing that is so powerful about this is that the words really come from the body, as they do in life, not the other way round. Very often in theatre and even more often in puppetry, the performance relies on the words and the physical decisions "decorate" them. But in this case the script, the story, all the words, literally came from, and were sometimes even about, the actions of the body. Thoughts began in the body and formed into words in the mouth.
We have tried to "script" this. Writing "lines" for the bum and the feet that are movements and cues - so that we have a learnable action script. To some extent this has worked, especially as the script of The Table got finished and relied less on improvisation. So for example we have "and evening of puppetry on a table - STAMP STAMP", and we have "an evening of epic biblical puppetry - STAMP STAMP - on a table." And that definitely works as a save, but it doesn't help with the "acting" - the loose relaxed feeling when you cruise the show "in character". And the timing that comes with that. In the end the idea that an action can cue a spoken line, or a the other way around, is too subtle. It totally makes sense, as all cuing does, but although the movement and the line are separate they still are part of the same character. The same breath. So the feet have to be the feet of the the thoughts of the character, and the thoughts have to be the thoughts of the feet. And that relies on imagination. And that relies on relaxation.
So what happened yesterday? We don't really know. Something got out of whack and we ended up leading from the voice. At the beginning of The Table we come out and stand behind the table and look at the audience, and it's a bit weird and a bit unnerving but it is fun and often a few people laugh. And last night it wasn't fun. It wasn't real. It wasn't relaxed. We weren't listening to the audience, or to each other. There was a latecomer and we didn't react to them, and then we did react to them but we weren't together, and then it was too late. And then we were out of sync with each other. And we couldn't get it together. And and and... Maybe that was it.
Another thing happened - the audience was very quiet at the beginning and Fi panicked a bit and started to rush things and I pulled her back and the audience laughed so it was ok for the show, but it wasn't good for how we felt as a team. And I was going to fast for the subtitles at another point. And Tom added in a breath that was not "in character". All of these things mattered but also didn't matter at all.
The show went really well. People loved it. Everyone wanted to take their photo with Moses. The next night was full. We got a five star review in the local press. And we've been here literally hundreds of times before. And the tears are all worth it.
Or are they?