Wednesday, 8 June 2016

Finding Dramaturgy: Rachael Savage @ Edfringe 2016

The funny and fearless international sell-out production from Vamos Theatre

Joy is 83 today: she’s feisty, loves to dance, and is losing her memory. Her grandson Danny is rebellious, bright and always getting into trouble. When Danny decides to look after Joy, they discover a shared playfulness and mutual affection. But is that enough to take on the challenges ahead?
Vamos Theatre’s wordless world brings this story of lost memories and discovered love vividly to life, in the production that established Vamos Theatre as the UK’s leading full mask theatre company.
Finding Joy opened at London International Mime Festival 2014 and premiered internationally at Jyväskylä Festival, Finland in 2015.
The show is suitable for 12 years and upwards.
Vamos Theatre – Finding Joy
Assembly Festival – Rainy Hall
4-14 August

What was the inspiration for this performance?
It all began five years ago, The Hereford Courtyard approached Vamos Theatre to collaboration on a production (brilliant, a huge honour)… about dementia. After months and months of research I wondered if I’d made a huge mistake. All the stories, novels, films, news articles, documentaries were negative, depressing and all ended in death. I don’t know that anyone here has an alternative ending to their life?! I’m not for one minute saying that dementia is a joyful subject, I know it’s not. With my piece of theatre I wanted to celebrate a life, not dwelling on the loosing of a person, but the journey to keep trying to find the person and find joy and happiness with that person.

So then I contacted an old family friend, an inspirational dancer called
Penny Greenland. As Artistic Director of JABDAO, Penny has worked for the last 30 years as a movement and dance specialist with both early years and older years, especially those with dementia. She had also been caring for her mother for 7 years, who was also living with dementia.

So I got on a train and went to Suffolk, to visit Penny and her then 90 year old mother, Audrey.

Audrey used to be a headteacher, very strict, very conservative, very different to Penny and her unconventional ways. Audrey slept most of the time I was there, curled up in the foetal position. She’d open her eyes and say how tired she was, and then fall back to sleep again.

Penny and I talked for hours and hours. At one point she said; “Watch this.” Penny went to her record player and put on an LP - some ghastly piece of rousing, dramatic classical music.  The music started; a flute. Audrey’s fingers dance for seconds of the introduction. The introduction finished and the piece started and Audrey jumped to her feet. They danced. Penny mirrored Audrey. Audrey was leading. They went backwards, forwards, round, entwined. I had tears streaming down my face, having never experienced such a detailed and joyful “conversation” without words.  

So then I really start asking Penny questions and she told me about her son, Rowan.
Rowan was at a loose end.  With no career path beckoning, and no idea of what would come next, he saw his mum struggling to support his grandmother and knew he could be useful. For the next two years he applied his youthful, unorthodox methods to the task on a daily basis.  Together they played games, went out with the lads, stayed in to watch football. He was a natural carer and looked after her with an inspiring freshness and positivity and always with total respect for her changing reality.
Finding Joy takes their story as its central tenet and, through it, aims to show an alternative approach to dementia care.

How did you go about gathering the team for it?
It takes a lot of time to train an actor in mask theatre as it’s such a specialised skill, so Vamos works with a pool of experienced mask actors, as well as looking out for emerging new talent. We run professional mask acting course all over the country and through these events often find performers with great potential as mask actors. Our ambition is to build an ensemble of performers who are as passionate about mask theatre as we are.

How did you become interested in making performance?
My interest comes from a combination of things: current issues, historical events, and personal stories. We do a lot of researching, and often find that the best theatre can be found in the stories of 'ordinary' people: almost everyone has an experience that can inspire good theatre making.  We have also been approached by venues who are interested in particular themes, and if we think the subject is fruitful, we enter into a co-production.

Was your process typical of the way that you make a performance?
Yes; the first stage is research. This involves spending a lot of time with either the person the story is based on, or historians, or professional specialists depending on the issues that we tackle. We watch films, read novels, and follow news articles. From this material, we create a 'script' (including characters, scenes and detail), which is then constantly developed during the rehearsal process.

What do you hope that the audience will experience?
Full mask is a powerful and emotive theatre genre. Because there are no spoken words, we find that the audience engages more fully with the action and thus often forms a stronger, deeper, emotional attachment to what is happening on the stage. It's a perfect form in which to explore the social history that inspires Vamos's work.

It has received eight 5 star press reviews, and audience feedback has been hugely positive in praise of its humour, poignancy, warmth, and the skills of its mask work, original soundtrack and design. As the Hereford Times puts it, ‘If you’ve never seen full mask theatre, there could be no better introduction than Vamos – their ability to explore profound themes with the lightest of touches is magical...the irresistible mix of humour and heartbreak makes them a must-see.’

What strategies did you consider towards shaping this audience experience?
Our work is so often emotional and deeply moving. As part of the roller coaster I think that it’s crucial to use humour as well as the most imaginative and surprising theatrical techniques. I believe that theatre needs to challenge, surprise, delight and emotionally connect with audience members, in order to make sure that the piece stays with them for days afterwards.

Do you see your work within any particular tradition?
Yes, very much so.  A Vamos Theatre full mask show is wordless, telling its story through physical communication, supported by strong visual design and an original soundtrack. Vamos makes accessible, humorous, human, and fearless work which showcases the best in full mask practice, and strives to increase the popularity of a genre which is under represented in the UK.

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