Read about the early years and Dark Clown in the Total Theatre interview here.
Also there is a beautiful initiative begun by Sorcha Ra, who organises and creates interactive experiences using circus performers! On her own 50th birthday, Sorcha decided to begin a blog celebrating female and female -identifying performing artists.
Sorcha Ra's 50 over 50 blog series, celebrating female performing artists, of whom I am one - and you can read that interview here.
There's also an old blog post I wrote in 2011. I wanted to write a blog called 'Disappearing Act' but the title was already in use. When I returned to performing after a number of years away - I realised how standard it was to have slick video trailers for one's work. In my cupboards still lurk early, decaying VHS footage which I keep meaning to destroy, in the spirit of Michael Landy. That body of work is literally disappearing, de-pixellating, possibly reduced to a grey snowstorm already - I cannot bring myself to look. So I imagined writing it all out. I got as far as a single post. Some of the material I speak about in the two interviews above but there is more detail here.
'a bunch of accidents'
Saturday, 4 June 2011
a bunch of accidents
Randomly, my boyfriend's parents suggested we join them in a trip to Europe. We felt a holiday was out of the question, but if we gave up our rented flat and sold our cars and loaned out our fridge ... we could go for a year to get experience in the form of courses or performing experience.
We hatched a plan to travel Europe (the second time, for me), then to go to Italy to do a course in Italian in Perugia, then settle in London and see what might happen.
Before getting to Italy, we made an appointment with an agent that my boyfriend's family had put us in touch with. He recommended that if we wanted to work in theatre, then we better get started straight away and Perugia never happened. (Sadly, Perugia became famous for a tragic murder, but that is another story).
I remember being counselled by this same man to dye my eyebrows and to learn how to speak RP. I remember being affronted at the first part of the advice and never really getting to grips with how to choose a good headshot. I made a number of ghastly mistakes with my Spotlight shots. Plus, the idea of one photo being a single descriptor somehow horrified me (of course now that’s no longer the case).
I did take lessons in RP with a woman somewhere in Chelsea. She had me working on a speech that had this sentence in it - 'We shall have champagne, buckets and buckets of it.' I was annoyed that it had to be buckits. This is England. It's spelt 'buck-ets'. She taught me to say pockits as well and of course dahnce, not dance with a short a. I worked at it and spoke it. One day I asked someone 'is that a plahstic hahnd bahg?'
There was an Australian actor in London who had been in a theatre production called 'Precious Moments from the Family Album' in Brisbane, and who had had a job in the tv series Tenko. He mentioned Ayckbourne to me one day and I had to stop him and check what her was saying, because I was hearing 'egg warmers'. 'I'm probably a bit too plummy now,' my friend said, in a voice that sounded made out of good ruby port.
One day on the Kings Road, I ran in to a woman called Pauline Walsh who had been in the cast of the ensemble production of Jack Hibberd’s ensemble play ‘Captain Midnight V.C'. and who had been touring with Hull Truck for a number of years. She said somehow a lot of loud singing had been required and it had ruined her voice. She said, 'You're interested in Mime, aren't you?' and I said 'Am I?' ‘Have you heard of Desmond Jones?’.
I later guessed she must have seen me performing ‘Act Without Words’ or heard about me being in it.
First thing I did was a weekend workshop with this man Desmond Jones. I learned how to articulate my body. You can make a movement head followed by chest or chest followed by head. I had a small but profound epiphany when I remembered a moment in the La Boite production of ‘Tales From The Vienna Woods’. If I turned to the other character 'in a certain kind of way' it felt right, and if I missed that, then I felt disappointed, that I had lacked creating something in that scene. I realized that turning to him chest, head carried a more emotional sensation I preferred. This, I felt, was useful and important information. This was the first whisper of how body and movement and meaning might intersect in a way that interested and excited me.
On my first weekend Mime course, we learned to walk on the spot in two different ways, we learned how to pick up a suitcase, a glass, a heavy glass, a light glass and how to throw a glass away. Desmond would say fascinating things like 'Time replaces space and weight.' And was fond of joking: 'out to lunge, back in ten minutes'. We learned how to appear to be riding a bicycle. Agony. I could hardly walk. I was working harder physically than I had ever done before in my life. My boyfriend had booked for us to go the famous Ronnie Scott’s. As is usual in Jazz world, the main act (Georgie Fame and the Blue Flames) started incredibly late. Delighted though I was to be at such a landmark venue, my eyes were closing. And my legs, even seated, were very, very sore.
Desmond championed a small booklet called The Canadian Airforce Exercises. I took this up with gusto. Every day I followed the programme. I started working myself to medium, then maximum fitness for my age, then over the years, I started to increase to the peak for younger and younger ages. Lisa Lyons the female body builder had been photographed by Robert Mapplethorpe. I longed for gender-stereotype-defying biceps like hers.
I joined the regular evening classes. I loved the camaraderie of the after course drinks at The World's End Pub as much as I lamented the impossibility of getting a nice cold glass of white wine, or nice cold gin and tonic, or nice cold anything. I met a woman, New Zealand by birth, called Tessa Schneideman and a lovely young man called Robert Clayton.
Concurrent with these new studies, I auditioned for and got a job with a company called Mouth And Trousers. The show was ‘The Death of Harlequin’, and that was my first performance at Jacksons Lane. I also played Madame for the same company in ‘The Maids’ in the York and Albany Pub Theatre at the top of Parkway in Camden. One performance I accidentally laughed too soon resulting in the other actresses having to rush the plot to the interval. Humiliation and shame.
Desmond Jones decided to start a school. Tessa, Rob, Zena Dilke, William Dashwood, Claudia Prietzel, Denise Stoklos, Linda Coggin, Franki Anderson, Rebecca someone, a punky Australian girl, a Dutch boy called Elijah and a chap called Jon something and I were among the first class of the 3 month school. I was living in Marylebone and would walk to school every day along the Marylebone Road past Baker street and Madame Tussauds to the then BTA (British Theatre Association) in Fitzroy Square. There was a theatre space. We the class would stand on the raised stage area, if I remember rightly looking down at Desmond on the auditorium bit. Every morning on that walk I would do may hand and finger isolations: finger ripples and isolations and then the Decroux-ian hand shapes - palette, trident, coquille, salamander, marguerite. Then learning how to do the sequence in canon, each hand doing a different shape on each beat.
A boy at school one day said to me, 'I feel sorry for you. You seem to be very ambitious and it will be hard for you as a girl to get anywhere.' This was not really news. My brother had already told me that 'Girls can't do anything' but there was a women's movement going on somewhere and perhaps that would change the rules at some point. Or at least I thought I might have a bit of a go at making a slight fuss about the state of things. The main thing I remember was that I felt slightly pleased that this chap felt I was ambitious. I had always largely held the impression that I was a lazy, ignorant coward without anything resembling a plan.
Desmond held a 'graduation' showing. I did a solo piece called 'A la Carte' about a woman dining in a restaurant, moving from nervy constraint to voracious indulgence to cannibalism of her waiter (well, a biting of his arm). There was to be a printed programme and I felt, well, if this is the start of public performances in this country, I better start as I intend to carry on and I changed my name from my unpronounceable, unspell-able surname to a name from my mother's side of the family.
I was invited at some point to join Desmond's troupe. Desmond had his own performing troupe called Silents. Silents included Tim Dry, Mollie Guilfoyle, Barbie Wilde, Ian Cameron, Robert Williams and another chap called Dennis. And now me. I was incorporated into the group piece and I think I even got to perform my solo piece. We performed at the London International Mime Festival at the Battersea Arts Centre (now BAC).
Tessa asked me and another student whether we'd like to keep on working at Mime. I said yes and we would meet in my basement flat in Marylebone and practicing together. One day I said (rather grandly, it seems to me now) that I didn't want to carry on just doing this unless we were working toward something, like a show. Tessa took the ball immediately and booked the York and Albany. We graduated to rehearsing in her home in Brixton. Tessa had been a fine artist and we rehearsed in her top room, once her studio. She was a very good painter. She exhibited at exhibitions in the RA and the ICA. She said she gave it up for mime because it was less lonely. She was 10 years older than me. Denise Stoklos was a Brazilian woman who went on to make many solo shows and also star in a Brazilian soap opera for a number of years.
As a group, Three Women, we decided we didn't want to do 'mimey mime', I guess by this I meant student pieces I had seen where the effort for an audience to follow someone opening a window or picking up a suitcase didn’t seem matched by a pay-off in terms of emotion. And I also realised that I experienced a low level irritation in the phrase 'everyman' (with no disrespect to the work of the great mime Marcel Marceau – whose work was often described as representing that).
We thought 'what might ‘everywoman’ be like?'. Our very first piece at school had been a piece about putting on makeup and clothes and feeling disappointed and then trapped by the result. The silent scream which ended the piece was a pervasive mime cliché, but hey. We created pieces about issues on eating disorders, motherhood, the proscribed roles for women, corporate business culture and sexual violence.
In Mouthpiece, we stood and sucked each other's thumbs and created a larghe body with two of us hidden under a black lycra shift. Tessa constructed a giant cherry-topped bun that swallowed one of us. We were rule-breaking mimes, with props, sound effects, sometimes words and music.
Tessa suggested we create a piece that showed just our feet. We worked from instinct as much as anything else. I realised that I had learned a lot from years of watching Warner Brothers and Disney cartoons. Efforts and dynamics and beats to create stories and understandable emotions. Causality - action and reaction. Footnote showed a host of fleeting encounters or passages of different characters: bare feet trying to strike up some kind of intimacy, air kissing fancy-shoe-wearing women, a mother with a train of shoes dragging behind her like a ball and chain – Claudia Prietzel's puppetry training inspired this prop idea, a coat-wearing flasher and a skipping little girl who foils him with a kick.
We made an abstract work inspired by dreams using the corporeal techniques we had learned during an intensive training period with Theatre du Mouvement.
Brabarella was not a take on Barbarella but the story of Cinderella told in lingerie. Separate from their made-for function, bras are incredibly interesting and versatile objects. A diaphanous front-opening bra made a set of flappable wings for the Fairy Godmother. Cindy's ball gown was cascading tiers of B cups and if you've never seen a strapless bra be first a mouse's ears and then a moment later horse's blinkers then you have not lived. Claudia made a dazzling prince with black corselets as sleeves. And of course, Cindy left a set of cups behind rather than a shoe.
The closing piece was called Circus. Housewives (wearing aprons over our constant black unitards) performed an entire circus using household implements. An eggbeater became a unicycle. A dustpan-brush for the bearded lady, brooms for a stilt-walking act, saucepan lids as cymbals for a hoover-hose snake charmer. Tea-strainer goggles, oven 'riding' gloves and a shower cap for a daredevil motorcyclist with a jaffle-iron as the handle bar of the bike. An old fashioned hair dryer hood and hose for the elephant. A magic sword act with panda teddy, colander and skewers. And a disappearing act that used a sheet, a peg and an audience member (once it was the then very famous musician Joe Jackson). It was clowning before we learned how to clown.
...and to think I used to wonder what happened to my serious acting career.
Later Desmond created an Advanced Course and the school venue was in Shepherds Bush where we shared the hall with a dog training class (not at the same time, luckily). Our leg warmers (yes, this was the 80's) would get rather furry.
Theatre du Movement came to the UK and we studied with them in a beautiful church hall in Belsize Park one glorious spring. Their work was amazingly expressive, dynamic and their anatomical knowledge was brilliant.
Theatre du Movement mixed Yves Marc's sporting training with Claire Heggen's dance training. They incorporated African dance, animality, isolation work, impulses that travelled through space and intersected with martial arts (kicks, falls, pushes and presses) and exquisite articulation through isolation (at last that Martha Graham contraction with an emotional or narrative possibility!) and shifting flow. We studied undulation. We worked with voice and breath.
Desmond's class instructions were - in our day and in my memory - mainly 'yes' or 'no', and often; ‘more tension!' (Desmond was keen that mime not show up to be 'effete'). One class, as we were practicing 'clay man', I used a Theatre du Mouvement undulation. 'That's it Peta!' Des exclaimed.
I owe honour to all my teachers. While Theatre du Movement brought more finesse in technique and a greater range of dynamics and a more fluid style, Desmond Jones was amazing for inspiring us to make work right from the go-get. We met an advanced student of Theatre du Mouvement with far superior technique to us who was contemplating years more training before setting foot on stage.
Although my Australian accent was for the most part modified, I lacked the right mindset and knowledge. Would I ever know how to convincingly play a gritty girl from Birmingham?, I asked myself. It seemed to me that British theatre was still largely about location location location and social station, social station, social station. I had no context here. But also, there was my excitement for absurd theatre and its non-specific worlds. Mime, and creating one’s own work (we didn’t have the word ‘devising’ back then) was a gift, an imaginative medium and a workable path. I would never have got started in theatre making in this country if not for the opportunity that Desmond Jones and Tessa Schneideman (and that random meeting with Pauline Walsh) gave me - the ability to create work from nothing. Work that could also tour to Europe without translation.
The three women who originally rehearsed in Tessa's top room were Tessa, me and Denise Stoklos. Denise is a fabulously talented woman but there was a difference of opinion around working methods. Denise preferred a more improvisatory approach to things. Tessa had taken advice with someone in the business and was told that it might be best to get a clear coherence in the company before we did our very first run. It was a hard choice for us and not pleasant for Denise. Tessa suggested asking Claudia Prietzel to become our third woman. Together we had a better work rhythm and a shared sense of both commitment and humour. Robert Clayton became our technician. We were to work and tour together for three amazing years.
I had arrived in England to maybe take a year out and get some extra experience in Theatre. Once Three women was touring I was able to give up my waitressing job. I was earning a living doing what I loved. What a privilege.