Thursday, 2 July 2015

Wandering Dramaturgy: Sarah Nichols & the Modern Troubadours @ Edfringe

The Fringe1. What inspired this production: did you begin with an idea or a script or an object?
Sarah Nichols: This production started with an idea. I started the Modern Troubadours in 2012-13, as part of my Master's project. I'm a classically-trained musician (harpist), but I was trying to find a different direction, and then I discovered storytelling. I started combining storytelling and music, with the idea of connecting people, understanding each other's cultures and celebrating cultural diversity. 

I then asked percussionist Aldo Aranda and flutist Gaelle Dohen to
join me, and we created a show of folktales from around the world, combined with music. We performed in various places and produced a CD with these stories. 

We wanted to go further and create a full production, but we were not yet sure what the theme would be.

In November 2013, Aldo and I celebrated our first "Dia de los Muertos" (Day of the Dead) together - the Dia de los Muertos is a Mexican celebration that takes place every year on the 1st and 2nd November. Friends and family gather to honour those who have passed. It is a positive affirmation of the cycle of life and death, where people can reconnect with the spirits of their loved ones. They use song, dance, food, colourful decorations and stories to celebrate. Traditions vary according to region, but the celebration unites them.

This year was particularly special for Aldo, because his grandfather had passed away only a few months before, and he was unable to attend the funeral and be with his family in Mexico. So Aldo and I built our own little altar (like they do in Mexico), with flowers, candles, food and drinks. Aldo put up a photo of his grandfather, and told me stories about him. He also told me stories about the "Dia de los Muertos" celebrations in Mexico. And I told him stories about my father who passed away many years ago. 

We were both deeply moved by that day, and over the following weeks, we talked about it a lot. That's when the idea for the show started. We both felt the need to create a show around the Day of the Dead theme. 

From then on, we dove into research about the Mexican celebration, the origins, and also folktales from other cultures related to death, and eventually started building the show.

Why bring your work to the Edinburgh Fringe?The Edinburgh Fringe has been a dream of mine ever since starting storytelling shows. I only wanted to go once I felt ready, and felt like we had a strong show. After our premiere at the Korzo Theatre in The Hague, I definitely felt ready and wanted to take the chance.

What can the audience expect to see and feel - or even think - of your production?
Our show is quite different from the usual, since it mixes many different art forms - storytelling, music (classical, folk and contemporary), theatre and dance. Despite being inspired by Mexican culture, it also has a very international aspect to it. Being an international team, with origins from Wales, Zimbabwe, France, Mexico, New York, Costa Rica and Philippines, the mix and appreciation for different cultures is undoubtedly at the heart of our shows.

Some people may be afraid or weary at first since the show deals with the subject of death, however I think they'll feel differently after the show. I want them to be moved by it and more open to talking about death. In the show, we tell various folktales around that topic, and we also get very personal, since I also share with the audience my own story about the loss of a loved one. 

Death tends to be a taboo subject, and yet, loosing a loved one is something most of us have experienced. In Mexico, death is celebrated and made into something beautiful, which makes it easier to cope with. This is the idea we want to share with everyone.

The Dramaturgy Questions

How would you explain the relevance - or otherwise - of dramaturgy within your work?
Dramaturgy has always been an interesting debate in our group. I mainly do storytelling, and the musicians need specific cues to know when to perform the music. However, since the text is not completely scripted and works more with improvisation, it can sometimes be very difficult for them to follow and to know where their cues are. So we had to find a way to script the text, but keeping its natural storytelling element. 

What particular traditions and influences would you acknowledge on your work - have any particular artists, or genres inspired you and do you see yourself within their tradition?
Obviously, storytelling has been a key influence in our work. I discovered the art of performance storytelling only a few years ago, and since then have been to many performances. It has been very interesting seeing how every storyteller has their own style and very different from each other. I learn something every time I watch a performance, and it helps shape my own style, which is constantly evolving.

Our classical music training has also been a major influence, especially when it comes to discipline, drive and search for perfection. 

I have seen some performances which use both storytelling and music. However, I find that the music (and musicians) often take on a background role and isn't so much involved in the stories. In our group, this is very different. We are all trained musicians and we are creating the show together as a team, so the music has en essential role in our shows and becomes just as important as the stories. The storyteller (myself) and the other musicians are all on the same level and we often interact with each other during the show.

Do you have a particular process of making that you could describe - where it begins, how you develop it, and whether there is any collaboration in the process?
Our whole show has been a collaborative process. We start by finding folk stories we like, and then discuss how we want to portray it, and what role the music will take. We try to build each story in a different way. We discuss how we want the music to be, what style and what role it will take. We then also discuss how to be on stage and how to interact with each other and the audience.
As the storyteller, I also work on my own, to figure out how I want to tell the story.

At first it's a lot of brainstorming, and slowly we shape it and try to perform it to see what works and what doesn't. We're very precise with our cues. Everyone has to know the story very well, and know exactly when they play - sometimes their cue is a particular word, or sometimes a moment in the story. We tend to be very precise, however we also leave lots of room for improvisation to keep the spontaneity.

What do you feel the role of the audience is, in terms of making the meaning of your work?
The audience has an extremely important role in our show. It is only when we perform in front of an audience that the show really comes to life. As a storyteller, I react to the audience, I try to sense their mood and go with the energy in the room. Sometimes, the most unexpected things can happen, and it's what makes performing the show so exciting. We interact a lot with the audience, making them part of the show, inviting them to contribute to the story or give a reaction. Thanks to the audience, every performance is different.

An original music-theatre-storytelling show with folktales from around the world, inspired by the Mexican festivity Day of the Dead

Fiesta de los Muertos is an original music-theatre-storytelling show, with harp, flute, percussion, singing and dance. The show is inspired by the Mexican festivity Day of the Dead, and explores the meaning and intricacies of life and death in different cultures, through folktales from around the world.

The performance takes you on a mythical journey, discovering the ancient Aztec traditions and their Queen of the underworld, meeting two old men who argue about who is right, a Russian soldier who tries to outsmart Death, a beautiful woman whose extreme jealousy drives her to madness, and a young girl whose dream helps her surpass her sorrow.

During the Mexican Day of the Dead, friends and family gather to honour those who have passed. It is a positive affirmation of the cycle of life and death, where people can reconnect with the spirits of their loved ones. Join us in celebrating the Mexican year in the UK, and discover this beautiful and profound festivity.

The Modern Troubadours has a very international team, based in the Netherlands, with origins from Wales, Zimbabwe, France, Mexico, New York, Costa Rica and Philippines. The mix and appreciation for different cultures is at the heart of their shows. Since 2013, they have performed in Nepal, Romania, Festival Des Mots Des Maux in France, HIFA Festival in Zimbabwe, South Africa, and in the Netherlands at venues like Korzo Theater, De Nieuwe Regentes, Leidse Hofjes Concerten, and collaborating with former dancers of the Nederlands Dans Theater (NDT). The members of the Modern Troubadours are highly trained musicians and have individually performed at major festivals such as Festival d’Avignon and Arhus Festival, and worked with artists such as Jan Fabre, Asko-Schoenberg ensemble, Heiner Goebbels and Placido Domingo.

Fiesta de los Muertos is also part of the Death on the Fringe festival, a series of shows and events looking at death and dying which takes place during the Edinburgh Festival Fringe each year. It is part of the ongoing charity-led campaign, Good Life, Good Death, Good Grief, which works to promote more openness about death, dying and bereavement. The campaign’s aim is to make people aware of ways to live with death, dying and bereavement and help them feel better equipped to support each other through those difficult times.

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