Winter at Bumblehill

Into the woods

Well, creative projects have a way of taking longer than expected...or at least they do for me...so I'm still finishing the last bits of the Secret Something, which seem to be taking longer than all the rest of it combined. In the meantime, here are pictures of some of the other things going lately at Bumblehill....

After a long. sluggish stretch recovering from the flu that laid us low in December and part of January, Howard and I have both hit the ground running, trying to make up for lost time -- with Tilly, in her official capacity as Bumblehill Muse, cheering us on. The hound is always relieved when I'm out of bed, roaming the woods and hills with her again, which she considers an essential part of the creative process. And she's not wrong.

Frosty path

We've had a lot of frosty mornings this winter, but no proper snow again this year. Some days, mist rolls down from the moor...

Village in the mist

....and other days are bright and clear, lulling us with the hope (probably illusory) that spring is near.

Winter sky

On the best days, when the sun comes out, it's almost warm enough to work outside-- and after weeks house-bound with flu, it's worth chilly toes and fingers to be back among the trees.

Woods

Working in the woods

Working in the woods 2

The hills, staturated with rain, look like a watercolor painting before it dries -- the colors bright yet delicately rendered, slightly blurred together. Water pools among the bracken, swells the streams, and turns pathways to mud. I have new wellies (William Morris wellies!), so my feet are warm and dry, but Tilly comes home bedraggled and then sits and grooms herself like a cat.

Winter hills

Boggy ground

Winter rains

William Morris wellies

In the studio, Tilly naps as I quietly tap-tap-tap at the computer keys...

Napping Tilly

...but just beyond the hedge, in Howard's studio, there is a bustle of activity.

Puppets

Commedia dell'Arte mask

Howard and his partner (playright Peter Oswald) are launching a new company, Columbina Theatre, devoted to mask and verse drama. Their first piece, Egil, based on an old Icelandic saga, has already begun to tour -- and now they're at work on the second: a Commedia dell'Arte inspired romp called Sorry About the Poetry.

Costumes hanging on the wall in the two-room cabin that is Howard's office and theatre studio

Looking out the door of Howard's theatre studio

Jenny, my mother-in-law, pops by to do costume fittings (she's a theatrical costume designer by profession)...

Jenny Gayton adjusts Howard's costume

...and then the space is turned into a photo set to shoot publicity images for the shows.

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With the launch of the new company, plus Howard's on-going work with Hedgespoken Travelling Theatre, and teaching gigs, it's been a very busy winter (despite the flu) -- yet he's still pushing on with his solo project: the creation of a Punch & Judy show. Last summer I posted pictures when he began work on the puppet booth's frame: a complicated business, for the booth must be sturdy but also collapsible, and light to carry. Now the frame is built...

Tilly, Howard, and Mr Punch

...the mechanics of it are working. The booth will be easy to put up and take down again.

Tilly & Mr. Punch

The next step is to cover the frame with the traditional fabric of red-and-white candy stripes. This is where having a theatre seamstress in the family is invaluable, once again. Jenny sources the fabric, then comes over to drape and measure with Howard, working out the best way to constuct the tenting and attach it to the frame. In the photo below, we begin to see what the booth will look like when the striped covering is finished.

PJ4

As all this goes on, I'm beavering away on my secret project (trying not to get distracted by the goings-on next door). I do apologize for the time it's taking, and very much hope you'll find it worth the wait!

Mr. Punch


Just over the moor...

Hedgespoken

Dear Readers,

If you're in driving distance of Dartmoor, Hedgespoken (the traveling mythic arts project created by our good friends Rima Staines & Tom Hirons) is currently parked at beautiful Dartington Hall. There are magical things happening on their stage all this week -- including Egil, Peter Oswald and Howard's show, based on Icelandic poetry and myth. (Review here.) I won't be there myself, as I'm down with a bad flu, but if you can go, please don't miss the Hedgespoken Winter Showcase. Every part of it is a thing of wonder.


Viking Slam Poetry....

Flyer-front

Due to being under the weather with flu this past week I've been remiss in letting you know that my husband, Howard Gayton, and his theatre partner, Peter Oswald. have a performance at the Bike Shed Theatre in Exeter this week. If you're anywhere near Exeter, please come! The show is tomorrow (Monday) night, at 7:30, and it would be lovely to see some of you from the Mythic Arts community there.

For Mythic Arts fans, Egil is right up our alley for it's based on an old Icelandic saga of a Viking warrior and poet. Written & performed by Peter, with music & direction by Howard, the show is unlike anything you'll ever have seen before -- for it seems to me that they are basically inventing a new genre in this and other works that they have on the boil. Peter calls it "poetry performance." I'll let him explain:

"At the moment," he says, "live poetry falls into a few recognised categories. There is ‘page poetry,’ which is read by a poet from a book to an audience. This is contrasted with ‘stage poetry,’ also known as ‘performance poetry,’ which is learned by heart and performed. Performance poetry usually has a relation to rap or hip hop -- fast, rhyming, political, personal and urban. Then there is storytelling, which sometimes takes the form of poetry, rhyming or unrhyming, sometimes with musical accompaniment. All these come into the category of ‘spoken word,’ except perhaps the page poetry.

Bikeshed Theatre

"There are many other modes, no doubt," Peter continues, "but these are a few I know about. Generally speaking, in order to be recognised as a serious poet, you have to be a 'page poet’ and do deadpan expressionless readings from a book. (There are exceptions, like my wife, Alice.) Doing a performance last year with a page poet, there was a moment when I was describing what I was going to do and he looked at me in genuine dismay and said, ‘You’re not an actor are you?’  Peter OswaldSimilarly, recently in Plymouth, as part of the Literature Festival, I did a performance of a few of my sonnets, followed by a performance -- with actions, different voices, even a small dance -- of my poem Helen. Afterwards, the organiser, delighted but genuinely baffled, asked me, ‘So...do you have a background in theatre???’

"A combination that’s not readily understood is a poet who is an actor performing stories that are poems. This is what I call 'poetry performance.' Prior to this, I’ve pursued it on my own -- but now, working with Howard, the category is stepping over the line between poetry and theatre. This is the real difference between poetry performance and performance poetry. Performance poetry has no real crossover with theatre; it’s more related to standup. But poetry performance, as Howard and I practice it, has deep roots in theatre.

"We think of Homer’s works as the highest poetry, and yet they are stories designed to be performed with music. If you do that nowadays you are a storyteller, not a poet. This confusion is caused by the dominance of one kind of book poetry. We are challenging this with Egil."

Howard Gayton


Listen. Listen.

Sonnets

Sonnets of Various Sizes by Peter Oswald

Devon oaks in the making

In celebration of Peter Oswald's new book Sonnets of various sizes (Shearsman, 2016), my husband Howard has filmed him delivering each poem at Aller Park, on the Dartington estate, where Peter is Artist-in-Residence. These little films are scheduled to appear once a week on the "Sonnet Feed" of Peter's website, released every Friday afternoon.

The first two sonnets are online now...and they are simply gorgeous.

As devoted as I am to the printed word, I love listening to these pieces, sinking back into that old, old oral tradition...

Peter Oswald (for those who don't know his work already) is an award-winning playwright & poet, performer & storyteller...and co-founder, with Howard, of the new Foxhole Theatre company, dedicated to exploring verse and mask drama in all its varied forms.

Peter's plays have been produced at the Globe and the National, as well as in the West End, on Broadway, and around the world. He was Writer-in-Residence at the Shakespeare's Globe from 1998 to 2005 (under the mentorship of Mark Rylance, for whom he wrote two leading roles); and at Dartington from 1997 to 1998 -- resuming the latter position in conjunction with his wife, poet Alice Oswald, in 2016-2017. Last month, Peter and Alice took part in Stories in Transit, a project organized by Marina Warner in Palermo, Italy, exploring storytelling in relation to refugees, migrants, and other displaced peoples.

The Dartington estate, Devon

In addition to his other theatre work, Peter also gives solo performances of story-poems based on sagas and folktales at theatre venues and literary festivals in UK and abroad. His delightful rendition of Three Folktales (from the Italian tradition) will be of particular interest to the Mythic Arts community...as well as the Viking saga he is currently working on with Howard. (But more about that anon.)

Here's a short taste of Three Folktales:

Oak leaves in autumn


That's the Way to Do It: Dame Judy & Mr. Punch

The Little Cabin by the Woods

At the back of our garden, up against the woods, is the two-room cabin where Howard has his office and a small theatre studio. My own studio is not far away, so I often hear a variety of sounds drifting over the hedge between us: it might be accordion or mandolin practice one moment, lines declaimed from Shakespeare the next...or the growls of gnomes...or the Hedgespoken team planning works of wild hedgerow theatre for their travelling stage. Lately, however, I'd been hearing the odd "swazzle" voice of the puppet Mr. Punch -- a sound which sent Tilly into fits of barking, until she finally figured out it was Howard at work.

His studio has been used for puppetry performances before, but right now it's a vibrant, bustling workshop as he puts a new Punch & Judy show together. Puppet heads are scattered across tables and shelves, puppet clothes hang from our washing line, and even Tilly is getting used to Mr. Punch and his colorful companions....

Puppets

Puppets on a wash line

Punch & Judy puppet heads

Tilly

I confess I was never a big fan of Punch & Judy or of slap-stick comedy in general before I met my husband -- whose life has been devoted to the European form of masked theatre known as Commedia dell'Arte, which is very slapstick, and very funny, and which won me over its mix of ridiculous pratfalls and sly, wry intelligence. Howard helped me to see the mythic roots of such comedy in Trickster tales and Dionysian revels, in the sacred anarchy of traditional carnaval and rural folk pageantry. Now I'm fascinated by lines of connection between the various forms of mask/puppet theatre and folk use of these arts in ritual form: in the Jack-in-Greens and Obby Osses of England, in the masked dances of North America's indigenous peoples, and in other folk rites and sacred traditions all across Europe and around the globe.

The ritualized slapstick violence of Punch & Judy is problematic today, however, for we tend to "read" the story in a literal fashion, interpreting the action as domestic abuse, when it is best understood metaphorically, as the unleashing of pure anarchy. Mr. Punch is a Trickster figure: a manifestation of Trickster's wicked delight in violating all social norms and constraints -- brazenly knocking down every authority figure (which is precisely why children love him). The challenge for performers today is to craft a story that conveys this same archetypal spirit of contrariness, freedom, and anarchy, without tacitly condoning violence, domestic or otherwise, in the real world.

(See Emma Windsor's recent post on the subject on the Puppet Place News blog.)

Judy, Mr. Punch and the Constable

If you'd like to know more about the history of Punch & Judy, I recommend "That's the Way to Do It!" on the Victoria & Albert Museum website, curated to honor the show's 350th anniversary in 2012 -- a date based on the first known puppet play in England to contain a version of Mr. Punch, recorded by Samuel Pepys in 1662.

Howard Gayton"He noted seeing it in Covent Garden," writes the V&A's curator,  "performed by the Italian puppet showman Pietro Gimonde from Bologna, otherwise known as Signor Bologna: 'Thence to see an Italian puppet play that is within the rayles there, which is very pretty, the best that ever I saw, and a great resort of gallants.'

"Bologna was one of many entertainers who came to England from the continent following the restoration of the monarchy in 1660. Unlike today’s Punch & Judy, performed with glove puppets in canvas booths with the audience outside, Bologna used marionettes -- puppets with rods to their heads and strings or wires to their limbs – and performed within a transportable wooden shed, and as such would have been quite a novelty. Pepys was so delighted by the show that he brought his wife to see it two weeks later, and in October 1662 Bologna was honoured with a royal command performance by Charles II at Whitehall, where a stage measuring 20ft by 18ft was set up for him in the Queen’s Guard Chamber. The king rewarded ‘Signor Bologna, alias Pollicinella’ with a gold chain and medal, a gift worth £25 then, or about £3,000 today. Other Italian puppeteers appeared in London, and on 10 November 1662 Pepys took his wife to see another show in a booth at Charing Cross performing: ’the Italian motion, much after the nature of what I showed her at Covent Garden.'

Mr. Punch puppet

"Pepys usually referred to the shows as Polichinello, a name relating to Punch’s roots in the Italian Commedia dell’Arte, where masked actors improvised comic knockabout plays around a number of stock characters, and Polichinello was the subversive, thuggish character whose Italian name Pulcinella or Pulliciniello may have developed from the word pulcino, or chicken, referring to the character’s beak-like mask and squeaky voice.

Howard Gayton & Geoff Beale, commedia dell'arte

"Punch’s characteristic voice comes from the use of a reed retained at the back of the Punchman’s or ‘professor’s’ mouth, calling for expert alternation of reed use when Punch is talking to other characters. In Britain the reed is called a swazzle, and in France a sifflet-pratique. Its A Punch & Judy voice swazzlemost common Italian name was pivetta, but also sometimes strega, or witch, and franceschina, after Franchescina, one of Punch’s wives in the Commedia dell’Arte who had a voice like a witch. Swazzles are made of thin metal today, but bone or ivory were formerly used, each equally tricky to master and easy to swallow.

"Mr. Punch made himself thoroughly at home in Britain during the 18th century. His wife was the shrewish Dame Joan who made his life a misery, and his hunched back and pot belly became more pronounced. The marionette Punch was the celebrity disrupting the action in puppet plays all around the country, in established puppet theatres and in fairground booths where puppets were a popular feature of all the great fairs and small country wakes throughout the century."

Punch & Judy by Thomas Rowlandson (1756 - 1827)

Marionette shows were expensive to operate, however, "and by the end of the 18th century glove puppet versions of the Punch show, performed in small portable booths became a familiar sight on city streets and country lanes instead."

Punch and Judy

"With Punch’s move from marionette stage to portable booth came new clothes and new companions. By 1825 we hear in Bernard Blackmantle’s The English Spy of his wife being called Judy instead of Joan: ‘old Punch with his Judy in amorous play,’ and of Punch’s having a Toby the dog, usually played by a real dog....

Punch & Judy by George Cruikshank (1792-1878)

"Punch & Judy shows were not just for children in the early 19th century. Aspects of the comedy such as the marital strife between Punch and Judy, and in Piccini’s show the relationship between Punch and his girlfriend Pretty Polly, obviously struck a chord with many adult members of the audience.  Punch was a well known celebrity with the satirical magazine named after him in London in 1841, children’s picture books published based on his shows, and images of him proliferating on all manner of household artefacts, from doorstops to baby’s rattles.

"As today, some censured the shows for Punch’s violent behaviour, but Punch & Judy found an ally in Charles Dickens, whose novels include several references to the shows. Dickens defended them as enjoyable fantasy that would not incite violence:

"'In my opinion the Street Punch is one of those extravagant reliefs from the realities of life which would lose its hold upon the people if it were made moral and instructive.' "

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About the photographs in this post, Howard says:

"In the early nineties, whilst working at Norwich Puppet Theatre, I started to carve a Punch & Judy show. Then later on, towards the end of that decade, whilst working at the Little Angel Theatre in London, I carved more of the puppets. I never finished it. Last month, I went to an excellent Punch & Judy workshop at the Little Angel, run by Prof. Glynn Edwards (aided and abetted by Clive Chandler). When I got home I rooted out my unfinished Punch & Judy set. I am now finishing it off, and working on a show."

Keep an eye on his theatre Facebook page if you'd like to see how the project develops.

Punch and Judy by Percival Arthur Wise

For more information on Punch & Judy, visit the V&A's Punch & Judy pages, Punch & Judy Online, and the Punch & Judy Fellowship. For puppetry in general, see  The Curious School of Pupptry (where Howard teaches), the Puppet Place News blog, Puppeteers UK, and  The Centre for Research on Objects & Puppets in Performance. For information on the mythic roots of comedy, see Midori Snyder's "A Chorus of Clowns and Masked Comic Theater."

Glove puppets

Cabin porch 4

TillyThe art and photographs above are identified in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the images to see them.)


A Dartmoor Beltane

Beltane 1

Since one of the underlying themes of Myth & Moor pertains to folklore in art and life, the folkloric celebration of winter's end here in Chagford seems right on topic. Last year, we held a public May Day Procession, and a  grand green time was had by all  -- but we haven't yet got enough volunteer organizers to run a public event every year, so the next one is scheduled for 2017. (If you're local, mark your calendars.)

In order to keep the thread of the ritual aspect of May Day unbroken during this inbetween year, a few of us gathered in a quieter way to call the Jack and the Obby Oss in from the wild -- marking the end of winter with pipe and drum, poetry and prayers, with mischief, mead, and merriment. Here is a taste of the day: a story in pictures, folklore come to life.

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The Obby Oss emerges from the trees, to be welcomed and smudged, or blessed, by the smoke of white sage......and then the whole gathering is smudged as the Oss enters our circle.

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The piper plays, a drumbeat sounds, and three women in green (representing the goddess of spring in her triple aspect: crone, maiden, and mother) lead a simple Beltane ceremony, addressing the human and more-than-human communities that share the land. I won't go into the ceremony itself, for mythic things are also private things in this and many other sacred traditions -- but it involves gratitude for life, re-balancing oneself with the rhythms of the natural world, music, and laughter. Always laughter -- for as the Hopi in Arizona say, no ceremony can properly begin until somebody has laughed. Joy and ribaldry are a part of life too.

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The ceremony is simply, short, and includes everyone in the gathering, from the youngest, strapped to her mother's back, to the oldest of a family in which three generations are present.  Then the Piper breaks the circle...

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...leading the way over a stream...and through a gate...

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...and up the slope of a field full of sheep. Lambs frolic on the hill, or chase their mothers bleating for drinks of milk, reminders of spring's fertility, new life, and new beginnings.

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The Obby Oss leaps and frolics too,  jaws a-clacking and bells a-jingling. The sheep and lambs give him wide berth. Sometimes he's a frightening creature, and sometimes comical and rather endearing.

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We crest the hill and turn on to a village street, the pipes leading the way. The street is quiet and only a few come to their doors to watch the Oss dance by, spreading the "luck of the May" from house to house with every jingling step. At the outskirts of the village is an old stone barn. The Horned Man stops, opens the door, and the raggle-taggle parade goes through...and out another door into a field, where the Beltane fire stands ready.

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But first, before the evening festivities begin, the ceremony must be properly closed off: with prayers,  the ritual passing of the mead, and the formal thanking of the Oss. He disappears into the trees and won't be seen again until next year.

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Beltane 15b

And then the Beltane "need fire" is lit.

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Now the merry-making begins! Shared food is spread over tables decorated with jars of flowers from the woods. Beer, wine, and homemade mead flow freely (May Eve is a drunken affair by long tradition), while friends and neighbors catch up on village news, children play on an outdoor trampoline, dogs chase balls through the grass and stormclouds threaten but never break.

Howard returns from the Otherworld where he'd been transformed into the spirit of the Oss. He is wide-eyed, exhausted and sweat-soaked, his faced still blackened by masking chalk; the transition takes time, and while he's in it, he's a creature of the In-Between.

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The willow frame worn by the Jack in the Green sits empty by the fire, crowned with leaves. Last year a frame like this, worn by our Jack, was entirely covered in greenery, then burned in the fire at the end of the event. This year, the frame acquires its greenery and flowers bit by bit. All are invited to decorate the Jack; all are invited to be the Jack. A bare winter wreath hangs on the frame, and each of us ties scrolls of paper to it with green ribbon and string, containing all the things we wish to leave behind as the old season turns into the new. The wreath will be burned at the tail end of the night, and all our old troubles with it.

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A group of drummers gathers by the fire to play for all who dare to dance the Jack. Howard is one of those drummers but he's also eager to to dance the Jack himself -- so he passes the drum, enters the frame, lifts it up (it's heavy!), and tap-dances his way around the fire like a leafy Fred Astaire.

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Jason removes his horns to have a go. He was the Jack for the public parade last year, strong enough to carry the frame with ease...

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Jason heading around the fire, Pig (he dog) behind him

...but women too are dancing this year. Here's Sarah, dancing with joy...

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And Rowan...

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And Susie...

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And even Susie's daughter. Too small to lift the frame by herself, but fiercely independent, she sits inside the Jack for a spell and then crawls out, satisfied.

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Andy, our piper, takes a turn, and when he's halfway around the fire he brings his wife, Nomi, and their child into the Jack and the three of them dance together.

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Alan Lee takes a turn around the fire...

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....and then his daughter Virginia does as well. One by one, throughout the evening, everyone who wants to dance the Jack takes part, helped into the frame by Sarah and Ruth, spurred on by the drumbeat and our cheers.

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I'm still convalescing from a serious illness, and I know I cannot lift the Jack; I content myself with watching and cheering, though I really want to dance. Howard can tell (he knows me well), so he pulls me up to take a turn. "We'll do it together," he says. "I'll be your strength."  And so I dance too.

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And now the story must end, for although the celebration carried long into the night, I didn't last much past dusk, and those starlight tales are not mine to tell.

Today, the sun is bright and it's warm at last. It finally feels like spring. Did we really drum up this glorious weather? Magic isn't as direct as that. Magic is the warmth that binds friends, neighbors, and the living earth together...and that's the luck of the May.

Beltane revellers, human and canine

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Hawthorn tree in bloom


        Drumming Winter Away
         by Jane Yolen

        Boom, da-boom
         the brrr of the year,
         the burring of skin
         stretched ear to ear.
         The grin of spring,
         the ground of spite,
         the rise of fern,
         the shortened night.

         The well-ruled month,
         the lengthened day,
         less time for sleep
         more time for play.
         The pearling buds,
         the shafts of green,
         the fuzz on trees,
         as twigs all preen.

        The waft of perfume
         in the air,
May blossoms on the hawthorn         the warp and weft
         of spring weave there.
         Boom, da-boom,
         we beat the drum
         for spring to come.
         For spring to come.

 

Beltane 34The photographs here were taken by David Wyatt, Susie Violette, Jason of England, Suzi Crockford (the hawthorn tree) and me. The poem by Jane Yolen is copyright © 2016. All rights reserved.


Beltane, Chagford 2016

It's been such a busy weekend (a least for someone recently confined to bed) that I'm resting up from the holidays and won't be back to Myth & Moor until tomorrow. But here's a preview of what's to come: photos from our May Day / Beltane celebration, which was magical and merry and deeply folkloric. More anon.

Beltane, Chagford 2016

For drumming winter awayPhotographs by David Wyatt, me, & David again.


Up the May!

Leaf Mask by Brian Froud

Happy May Day and Beltane, celebrating the turn of the Great Wheel to the greening of the year. The trees are budding, the flowers are blooming, the lambs are leaping, the frogs are spawning, the ponies are foaling on Meldon Hill, and the Jack of the Green is dancing at the crossroads to bless us with the land's fertility....

Piper & Obby Oss

May Day Procession

Last May we held a traditional May Day Procession here in Chagford, complete with Jack in the Green, Obby Oss, piper, drums, green men/women/children and a deer man or two: the requisite blending of the sacred and the rude. The next Procession is planned for 2017, and we hope it The Obby Osse dances past the hardware store, with the Jack in the Green close behindwill be even rowdier than the first -- but for the year inbetween, it's a quiet affair: just a few friends gathered in a field to maintain the rite's continuity. Perhaps Jack will come to join us all the same: toasting the land and re-affirming the bonds of our human, and more-than-human, community.

Go here for the legends and lore behind the Maying; go here for photographs from our Jack Procession last year (with a post about folk pageants and "wild time"); and go here for a video of Beltane Border Morris up on Dartmoor at sunrise this morning, dancing the day and the season in, as these good folks do every year.

Then fill your house with May flowers (hawthorn tree blossoms); hang primroses over your doors and your cows; and down a toast to the Jack of the Green, and to the wild deep within us. Up the May!  

The trees are budding

Dartmoor pony & foal by Carol Amos

Andy Letcher, May Day 2015

Frogs in the studio pond

"The month of May was come, when every lusty heart beginneth to blossom, and to bring forth fruit; for like as herbs and trees bring forth fruit and flourish in May, in likewise every lusty heart that is in any manner a lover, springeth and flourisheth in lusty deeds. For it giveth unto all lovers courage, that lusty month of May."   - Sir Thomas Malory (Le Morte D'Arthur)

Beltane Border MorrisThe Green Woman drawing above is by Brian Froud. The first photo was taken by Ashley Wengraf; the third and sixth by Ruth Olly; the pony & foal by Lillian Todd-Jones; the last photo (of Beltane Border Morris dancing on the moor early this morning) by Andy Letcher. The others are mine. Run your cursor over the images to see the picture captions.


The Hedgespoken Winter Raffle

It's the last day of the Hedgespoken Winter Raffle, and the last day to help this fine project by purchasing a raffle ticket, and/or by spreading the word. Six good reasons for supporting Hedgespoken:

1. It is an insanely cool project.
2. Everyone involved has been working insanely hard to get it off the ground.
3. Mythic Arts & Folk Arts aren't often supported by traditional Arts Funding sources, so it's up to
    those of us who love them & believe in them to support them in whatever ways we can.
4. My husband Howard is involved with making the Folk Theatre part of Hedgespoken happen, and
    it's going to be magical indeed.
5. For only £1 you might end up owning an original Rima Staines painting, or a handworked
    Smicklegrin leather mask.
6. Rima Staines & Tom Hirons are Good Folks (did you know they first met through their
    involvement with The Journal of Mythic Arts?)...so let's get this truck on the road.

For more information on the project go to the Hedgespoken website.
For updates on the project see the video above (from December), and the Hedgespoken blog.
The very beginnings of the project are here...and my gracious, how far they've come!

Hedgespoken-by-starlight-fi


Christopher LeithSuch Stuff As Dreams
Are Made On: A Tribute to Christopher Leith

by Howard Gayton
with Terri Windling

Last week, I heard the sad news that Christopher Leith, a master of puppet theatre in Britain, had died from the complications of motor neurone disease, which he developed in 2013. In addition to his many other accomplishments, Christopher was the Artistic Director at the Little Angel theatre in London, where I worked regularly in the 1990s and developed many of my own ideas about the art of puppetry due to his mentorship, and so I want to share some thoughts on the life and art of this puppet master. I'm primarily a dramatist, however, not an essayist, so in order to give readers a proper idea of Chris' remarkable work, I asked my wife, who is an essayist, to help me put this piece together.

Christopher's deep obsession with puppets went right back to his childhood. "The family didn't approve," he told Chandra Masoliver in a recent interview; "my stepfather said I was 'playing with dolls.' Retrospectively, I think I was creating a world I could control, but as I reached my teens, puppeteering changed from being a need to being a vocation." He studied theatre design at Wimbledon School of Arts in London, acting at Dartington College of Arts in Devon, and apprenticed in puppet design and manipulation under John & Lyndie Wright of London's Little Angel Theatre.

Nzua puppet by Christopher LeithIn addition to his long association with the Little Angel, Chris' work with puppets was so extensive that I can only touch on a few highlights here. He played many different roles in his work: he designed and carved puppets; he wrote, directed, and performed in numerous puppet productions; he taught and mentored younger puppeteers; and he worked in film (with Jim Henson, Lotte Reiniger, Disney Studios, and others), although theatre remained his first love. He was Resident Puppeteer for the National Theatre, and worked with many other companies, large and small, including the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Royal Opera House, English National Opera, the London Palladium and Polka Theatre. His puppets, sculptures and drawings have been exhibited at the National Theatre, the British Museum, the V&A Museum and other venues. Chris also loved music: he trained in Gregorian chant with Dr. Mary Berry, and performed regularly with the Schola Gregoriana. To learn more, go here (and scroll down the page) for a time-line of his career.

Chris Leith

Chris came into my life when I was a young puppeteer & director -- discouraged by the difficult dynamics of one of my earliest jobs in the field and considering giving up puppetry altogether. He brought me into the Little Angel team and re-ignited my love for the form. "There is a spirit in every object that has magic in it," Christopher Howard Gayton at the Little Angel Theatreliked to say. "A puppet is like a little nest where the spirits can come down, enjoy being and dance there. Puppets have no free will, a puppet comes to life when it is picked up and it dies when it is put down again...like an empty shell. Puppets exist in a state which is both alive and dead at the same moment…that’s why puppetry is the most beguiling of all the theatre arts; and the best puppeteers are the ones who let the audience dream in the strongest way."

In paying my tribute to this kind and gentle man, I'd like to describe the very first exercise he taught me, for it has stuck with me over all these years and proven to be instrumental in my personal approach to puppetry. The exercise is ridiculously simple on the surface, but has great depths of meaning and philosophy beneath:

We begin by sitting in stillness. I ask you, the student, to simply sit and look at your puppet. (Chris often used an old doll-like puppet; when I teach, I use an old bit of cloth.)

Puppets for 3 Stages of LazarusDon't touch the puppet, not yet. Centre yourself by concentrating on your breath, and then make a connection with the puppet through your eyes alone. Now use your imagination to make an energetic connection to the puppet through your lower energy centre, just below your navel -- what the Taoists call the Dan Tien. And then, when you're ready, when the moment feels right, move your hand gently to rest on the puppet. “The first moment of connection is special,” I remember Chris saying. “It is when you are giving the puppet life.”

After touching the puppet, allow the rise and fall of your breathing to transfer into it. This is what moves the puppet into motion, the sacred connection between puppet and puppeteer. “Each time you make that contact with the puppet,” Chris would remind us, “you are giving life.”

And there it is, at the heart of this simple, powerful exercise: the Creation Myth.

In the beginning, the Gods took a handful of moist clay and crafted a human form. They breathed life into it through its nostrils and gave it consciousness....

Art doesn't get much more profound than this: the creation of life. The creation of the world.

3 Stages for Lazarus, Christopher Leith

"Now," Chris would say at the end of the exercise, "center yourselves once again, and when it feels right, slowly withdraw your hand from the puppet...." For of course, the puppets we infuse with our breath and consciousness become inert again when the story is done. You’ve brought the puppet to life, allowed it to explore its world, but now that life has to be taken back. If the giving of life is a powerfully mythic moment, the ending of it is perhaps even more so. The circle has completed itself.

The power of Chris' exercise was brought home to me a couple of years ago when I used it to teach a small group of puppeteers I was working with for the first time. One of the puppeteers had suffered a miscarriage not long before, and the symbolic gesture of giving life to her puppet...and then withdrawing it...moved her deeply. I was reminded, once again, that working with puppets is not a frivolous thing, for puppets (like masks) touch our consciousness on a deep archetypal level.

Puppets by Christopher Leith (2nd photograph by Manuel Vasquez)

A willing "suspension of disbelief" is an integral part of all forms of theatre, but this is multiplied ten-fold with puppetry. Whether you are using a beautifully crafted puppet, a rough knock-about one, or simply a piece of cloth or lump of wood, the audience will see it as a real-life character if it's manipulated by a skilled puppeteer: a character conveying all the triumphs and tragedies inherent in the human condition. The Christopher Leith, 3 Stages for Lazarus rehearsal, 2015audience laughs at a puppet's foolishness, and is brought to tears by its struggles. Through the carefully crafted illusion that brings puppets to life, children are transported to a magical, mythical realm...and adults are turned into children again, submersed in the Otherworld of make believe.

Although Chris began showing symptoms of motor neurone diesease in 2013, he continued to work with puppets in whatever ways his failing strength allowed: he could no longer carve, or manipulate the puppets, but he still directed, taught, championed the art form wherever and whenever he could, and served as Patron of The Curious School of Puppetry. Guy Dartnell has been organising the effort to archive and document Chris' work. (There's a Facebook page for updates on this.) And Chris' final production, 3 Stages for Lazarus, is scheduled to debut at the Suspense Festival at the Little Angel next week.

Go here to read about the production in an article by Chandra Masoliver. And go here to see a fascinating interview filmed earlier this year by Guy Dartnell. Chris discusses puppetry, carving, his final projects, and living with motor neurone disease, interspersed with clips  from his 'Beowulf' (1971), and a glimpse of his puppetry workshop.

In the short video below (filmed four months ago), Christopher's last puppet is brought to life:

"The back of Lazarus was the last piece of carving I ever did," Chris said. "To see it coming to life in this way is magical; it’s beautiful. I started working on Lazarus in 2010, well before any signs of motor neurone disease. I heard the words ‘fixed and cannot move’ in a song; that’s how puppets are -- and are not. Lazarus is about the fragility of life."

Star Maiden puppet by Christopher Leith
Prospero:


Our revels now are ended. These our actors,

As I foretold you, were all spirits, and

Are melted into air, into thin air:

And like the baseless fabric of this vision, 

The cloud-capp'd tow'rs, the gorgeous palaces,

The solemn temples, the great globe itself,

Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,

And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,

Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff

As dreams are made on; and our little life

Is rounded with a sleep.

The Tempest Act 4, scene 1, 148–158

Chris, wherever you are now, in the circle of life and death, thank you. You'll never be forgotten.

Christopher Leith

About the author of this Guest Post: Howard Gayton is a puppeteer, a dramatist (specializing in mask theatre), and a tutor at the Curious School of Puppetry.

Picture credits: Identification of the photographs can be found in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the images to see them.) The third photo is of Howard at the Little Angel in the 1990s; all the rest are of Christopher and his puppets, and come primarily from the 3 Stages for Lazarus Facebook page, set up by Guy Dartnell to honor Chris' work, and the V&A Museum Collections site.  All rights to the quotes, photographs & videos above reserved by their creators , the V&A, and the Christopher Leith estate.