We’re bringing back our #PhysicalStoryTellers series to gain some insight into the people involved in this year’s Mime Festival.
“We were fishing around for ideas for a new show when my wife casually said in passing, ‘You should just make a show about how crap you are as men.’ And that instantly struck a chord. We decided we wanted to make a show about our experiences as men, but loosely incorporating the stories of Pinocchio and Frankenstein as well. Because, if you were going to make a new man – what would you make him like? And what would you leave out? And what would you put in? With Frankenstein, they were looking for perfection in a human being, so we used that as a starting block. And then we went off on a massive tangent and other things started to appear, like potato chips and Tupperware.
There are three different strands kind of interweaving into each other. There’s my story, there’s Adam’s story, and there’s our story together, because we’ve worked together for over nine years now. One of the big things we explored was fathers. Adam is a father to two boys and I’ve got two girls, so we had this whole thing about being a father and having a father.
It’s not Coulrophobia II by a long shot. That show was pretty much a barrel of laughs the whole way along, so you barely had time to breathe. This one is much more of a personal journey. It’s introspective and has a lot more emotional content, which is rare for me. Adam’s emotions are close to the surface and he’s a very emotional person, whereas I really have to root around to find out what’s going on for me. And that’s something that’s featured in the show. We’re still clowning, but not in the sense of the red noses and big shoes like last time. It’s much more subtle than that.
And it has a lot of Action Men in it! Which were huge favourites of mine as a kid. I would put on epic long plays involving Action Man and force my family to watch them. I think my whole discovery of storytelling and puppetry are solely a response to Action Man. He was the originator of my imagination opening to how you could bring inanimate objects to life and give them a full story. I also spent a lot of time watching my dad repair Action Men because I would break them a lot and he would meticulously repair them. I can honestly say that fed directly into my puppet-making because I watched how limbs and joints were put together and when I first started building puppets, I used very similar principles to the elasticated limbs and ball-and-socket joints. So there’s actually a direct correlation between Action Man and who I am and what I do now.”
Dik Downey, one half of Opposable Thumb with Adam Blake.
Main photo: Dik Downey
“I can’t remember the exact first time I encountered Merce Cunningham’s work. I feel like I’ve always watched it, or at least during my performing career – so for at least 30 years. It has always felt very intuitive to me. I know a lot of people have spoken about it being difficult. But I’ve never seen that side of it, or never seen it as a provocation. To me, it always made a lot of sense. And I find it very calming. This is one of the things I’ve said to the people at the Merce Cunningham Trust: If I am stressed in life or if I have creative doubts about what I do, I probably turn to Merce and watch a bit of Merce’s dance, and it calms me. I’m not a religious man but art can have a cathartic effect on you, and Merce’s choreography has that on me.
I think it’s the right balance between order and chaos. And an unpredictability about what comes next that you can just watch. So yeah, I’ve loved his work for 30 years, but over the last two years I’ve really started to dig deep. I kept finding treasures and surprises. It’s such an extraordinarily rich body of work that he left and I think that it has fed so many people in so many different ways. I’m kind of flabbergasted by the consistency of the material over so many years.
When we started, I had two works by Merce that were my point of departure. But I think in Life we now reference about 30 pieces. We’ve approached it almost like we were in a sweet shop, with the different pieces triggering the material in different directions. So sometimes we’ll just use the arms on top of a juggling pattern, or sometimes we’ll use a geometrical formation, or sometimes we’ll use a rhythm. Or sometimes we’ll take a rhythm in the feet and then add arms over the top. And then recently, I’ve been getting into playing some of Merce’s stuff backwards and learning, for example, the feet backwards. Or I did some collages where I would randomise Merce’s pieces, taking the torsos from one and the feet of another, and then seeing what that does.
Merce was very private about his composing. He might say ‘I threw the coins this many times and it came out like this,’ but there is something about the pieces that is so personal. There’s something more than the randomisation which is very intriguing.”
– Sean Gandini talking about Merce Cunningham, the inspiration for Gandini Juggling’s new show Life.