Tom Morris is best known for being the director of War Horse, a show that stampeded its way to critical and popular glory on Broadway. He has just returned to this side of the Atlantic with his company, the Bristol Old Vic, to make their US debut with a new production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Spoleto Festival in Charleston, South Carolina. As he did with War Horse, Morris joined forces with his co-creators, puppeteers from South Africa’s Handspring Puppet Company, Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones.
Both in this interview, and when I watched and heard him in Charleston speak in conversation with the CBS correspondent Martha Teichner, I was struck by his thoughtfulness and also his sense of openness and respect regarding the experiment that was this production.
I think there are two things in parallel. With War Horse, the contract with the audience was actually incredibly straight-forward and simple. Everyone on stage was working to try to get everyone in the audience to believe in the horse all the way through. And everything that the puppeteers were doing was to refresh that invitation and to keep the horse alive.
But I was aware at that point, and subsequently talking to Adrian that his imagination was full of a wild variety of images and ideas. And actually, Basil Jones who works along side him also was full of questions about what puppetry actually is and what puppetry can be. Given that I wanted to work again with them on something else, it seemed interesting to work with the bits we hadn’t engaged with on War Horse. Now, I would never have done that if I hadn’t felt there was a match with any play that we might be doing at Bristol.
There’s a theatre director whose early work in London inspired me, a guy called Von Henning, who now works in Germany. He said that in all his shows he was trying to give the impression as when you are in a railway station and you are on a train and a train begins to move, and you don’t know whether the other train is moving or you are. You know that feeling…
In Buraku the limbs are connected therefore with some kind of palpable tension between them. And he said, “I don’t know.” And we agreed we’d try it. So, we had a bunch of tools and everyone got a tool and, in groups, again the actors tried to bring to life a figure. Up to that point, the plan for Puck had been entirely different, although the plan had included a shape-changing element with more than one puppeteer. But because of what was happening our Puck, which we’d started to call “Tool Man” and was so good at changing shape, Puck was born. Incidentally, as we keep working on the show, we will keep finding new shapes for Puck to take. I said to the actors at Spoleto, “I think we need to work on a hummingbird.” And they said, “Oh can’t we stop working on this!” But anyway… they probably will come up with a hummingbird at some point.
Puck felt like a very exciting language to explore. Even in the rehearsal room, we were asking ourselves, “Is this too hard to read?” But it isn’t hard to read for an audience when Puck arrives. The anchor point is the same in Spoleto as it was in Bristol, and it’s when Puck turns into a little dog. Oberon has just had his argument with Titania, that’s when perhaps parts of the audience that hasn’t yet accepted him tend to accept him.
I guess it’s for the actors to say what they learn or not, but there’s a process of training in the rehearsal room which is entirely about listening. It’s about developing an instinctive feel about ensemble. And that involves, at a technical level, working the periphery of your vision, as if you were doing a physical workout by taking your attention to the very edges of what you can see. It’s very hard work to wake up those bits of your perception that we tend to neglect. And also, once you’ve done that, it involves developing a kind of contact within the group, that Temple Grandin would say that that is connecting with the mammal part of our brains, which is the part of the brain that allows a herd of bison to charge coherently. And we’ve all got it, we’re mammals. And I believe that the development of that kind of awareness is incredibly useful for any ensemble doing any play. But we’ve discovered and evolved it by doing this sort of work, which you can’t manage without it when working with puppets. You can’t remember, for instance, where your plank has to go in isolation of others. You always need to be playing the contact with the group.
But the way the lovers have and relate to their puppets is another. I couldn’t predict before the show opened because in this kind of work, where what goes on stage is avowedly incomplete, you have to respect the audience’s creative response to it. You simply can’t predict which of those experiments are going to work best – or not going to work for at least some portion of the audience. There is no doubt that the most challenging one in both Bristol and the States is the group making up “the lover puppets” and that double identity for the lovers. In fact, I have tweaked that bit from when the show first opened.
And of course there are big benefits as well. There is something extraordinary for instance – God bless him when David Emmings, in the Spoleto talk, did that little improvised demonstration with the bottle.
But, to speak to what you were finding, in a scene where you have a human interacting with a puppet it is tough. It’s because of the way your brain works in the audience, and you are given Brechtian prompts to not suspend your disbelief but actually disbelieve. Again, different audience members may overcome it at different points in that first scene. But it is a tougher theatrical language, so the work we did on it was to simplify the scene from its more complicated form when we first devised it and opened it in Bristol. The audience that would stay with it would be rewarded more to start with, but there was some sort of platform for variations of that language as the show progresses. One of the points for me in the collaboration with artists that I have been lucky enough to collaborate with in this show is that I can’t predict A) what they’re going to come up with and B) if one allows the production to be experimental what the audience will make of it.
The Bristol Old Vic/Handspring Puppet production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream will be performed during The Kennedy Center’s International Theatre Festival which takes place March 10 – 30, 2014.