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.


"Into the Woods" series, 49: Wanderers & Wilderness

Soay, St Kilda, Outer Hebrides, Scotland

Seal

Like Robert Macfarlane (in Monday's post), Sara Maitland is fascinated by the peregrini: the early Celtic Christian monks and mystics who set out alone in small, flimsy boats, seeking solitude, nature, and God on the most remote islands of Britain.

"On island after island," she writes in A Book of Silence, "the more isolated and far-flung the better -- on St. Kilda, on the Farnes, on the Shiants, throughout the Hebrides and the northern islands, off the coast of Ireland, around Iceland and possibly even North America -- the traces of hermits can be found. This history is confused and uncertain, but originating in Ireland in the fifth century, there was a well-developed form of Christian spirituality which valued the silent eremitical vocation extremely highly.

A ''cleit'' (stone hut) on St Kilda

"In Britain, the most famous such voluntary exile was Columba, who left Ireland in the mid sixth century and crossed the Irish Sea to become first a hermit and later a missionary and founding father based on the tiny island of Iona, which is just to the west of Mull. His community later spread across Scotland and converted north-east England as well, but he was by no means unique: over the next several centuries hermits settled alone or in tiny communities all over western Scotland and further afield too....These adventures were known in Ireland as 'green martydoms' -- to distinguish them from the 'red martyrdom' of being slain, shedding blood for the faith. To leave home and travel out beyond civilization was a martyrdom (the word means 'witness'), death of the ego, a self-giving that seems absolute."

Iona by Torsten Henning

Shetland ponies on the Isle of Foula

"We do not know very much about the spiritual theology of these early hermits," Maitland continues. "Their lives are lost in legend and story, their physical markers faded or wiped out by the wildness of the places where they dwelt."

One of these hermits was St. Cuthbert, bishop of the monastery on Lindisfarne, a center of Celtic Christianity in the Farne Islands off the Northumbrian coast. A great lover of nature, he issued regulations to his monks for the special protection of Eider Ducks, which are called Cuddy Ducks ("Cuthbert's Ducks") to this day. He retired to live an austere and solitary life on Inner Farne Island in 676, and died there in 687.

Lindisfarne Abbey and St Marys by Russ Hamer

Cuddy Ducks

Sara Maitland explains that we know more about St. Cuthbert than most other Christian hermits because he was personally known and loved by Bede, author of The Ecclesiastical History of the English People. "But what interested Bede is somewhat different than what interests me," writes Maitland. "So, for example, Bede records that Cuthbert would pray all night standing up to his neck in the frigid waters of the North Sea and, indeed, when he emerged otters would come and warm him with their tongues and fur. This combination of the ferociously ascetic and the miraculous engages Bede, for what he is writing about is the ultimate form of something so obvious to him that he never says anything about what Cuthbert thought he was trying to achieve, nor about the content of those prayers.

Otter, Farne Islands

Grey seal & newborn calf, The Farne Islands, Northumberland

"It is not until rather later, from the tenth to twelfth centuries, that we begin to get accounts that attempt to explain what the island hermits were seeking, in the beguiling poetry of the Irish monks:

"Delightful I think it to be in the bosom of an isle, on the peak of a rock, that I might often see there the calm of the sea. That I might see its heavy waves over the glittering ocean, as they chant a melody to their Father on their eternal course. That I might see its smooth strand of clear headlands, no gloomy thing; that I might hear the voice of its wondrous birds, a joyful tune. That I might hear the sound of the shallow waves against the rocks; that I might hear the cry by the graveyard, the noise of the sea. That I might see its splendid flocks of birds over the full-watered ocean; that I might see its mighty wales, greatest of wonders. That I might see its ebb and its flood-tide in their flow; that this might be my name, a secret I tell, "He who turned his back on Ireland." That contrition of heart should come upon me as I watch it; that I might bewail my many sins, difficult to declare. That I might bless the Lord who has power over all, heaven with its pure host of angels, earth, ebb, flood-tide."

Birds on the Farne Islands by Bob Jones

Puffins on The Farne Islands by Joe Cornish

Unlike Maitland and the hermit monks she admires, I am not a Christian, and I certainly don't live an isolated life, yet my morning prayers on Nattadon Hill aren't so different from those of the nature-loving peregrini:

Delightful I think it to be in the green hills of Devon, climbing through bracken and blackberries to the granite peaks above, that I might often see the sheep-dotted fields, and the grey tors of Dartmoor beyond. That I might hear the wind singing in the trees, a choir of oak, ash, rowan, and beech; and the bells of the village church; and the bleating lambs; and the hooting of owls in the woods. That I might see this hillside covered in bluebells, stitchwort, and foxgloves, no gloomy thing; and that I might hear the voice of its rooks and its robins, a joyful tune. That I might see the badgers live undisturbed; and the small red deer, shyest of wonders; and watch wild ponies graze in the tall grass as they flow between valley and moor. That I come nameless to this hill, no more, no less than others creatures here, living quietly, gently upon its slopes. That I walk these paths with respect, attentiveness, open eyes, open ears, open heart. That I might bless Mystery within all of us; and my good neighbors, human and nonhuman alike; and the air, the water, the fire, the earth, ebb and flood-tide. Mitakuye oyasin.

Meldon Hill viewed from Nattdon Hill

Wildflowers in spring, Nattadon Hill

Young Dartmoor ponyWords: The quotes by Sara Maitland are from A Book of Silence (Granta, 2009), which I highly recommend. All rights reserved by the author. Pictures: The last three photographs above are mine, taken here in Chagford: Meldon Hill viewed from Nattadon Hill, a pathway on lower Nattadon, and a very young Dartmoor pony on the village Commons. The photographs of islands in Scottland and north-east England (and their birds and animals) are Creative Commons images. They are identified in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the images to see them.)


Sad news

Tales by Tanith Lee

The news today is that Tanith Lee has died, after many years of struggling with an illness -- and I'd like to take a pause to mark the passing of a giant in our field. Her numerous books, stories, and Tanith Leepoems often defied easy categorization (in the days when genre-bending works were less acceptable than now), delighting some critics and confounding others by the sheer range of subjects, styles, and voices she claimed for her own. Her novels (over 90 of them in all) include fantasy for children, teens, and adults (as well as sf & horror); she is also the author of fairy-tale-inspired stories (published in Red as Blood and elsewhere) that sit alongside Angela Carter's as a major force in the modern revival of adult fairy tale literature. Her readership had fallen in recent years, which seems an unjust end to the career of a woman who blazed the trails that so many younger writers are following still. She was a brilliant, original, sensual, maddening and wonderful writer -- and so flamboyantly iconoclastic that all of my best stories about working with her are ones I can never tell in public. I'm too stunned by the news to say much more now, but please go here to read Roz Kaveney's beautiful poem "For Tanith," and here for Storm Constantine's post about the generosity she extended to younger colleagues.

"It has to be said that many reports I’d been given about Tanith over the years painted her as a ‘difficult’ author," writes Storm. "This was from editors who’d worked with her. She was regarded as rather fearsome."

I didn't find her fearsome. Stubborn, yes, occasionally exasperating, and always quirky as hell...but mostly when I worked with Tanith we laughed a lot. I can't believe I'll never hear her voice again, except on the printed page. 

"Though we come and go, and pass into the shadows, where we leave behind us stories told -- on paper, on the wings of butterflies, on the wind, on the hearts of others -- there we are remembered, there we work magic and great change -- passing on the fire like a torch -- forever and forever. Till the sky falls, and all things are flawless and need no words at all."   - Tanith Lee (1947 -2105)

Here's to you, dear lady. You've left strong magic indeed.

Tales by Tanith Lee

Books by Tanith Lee


Sad news

Neruda's writing space in Chile, from ''Pablo Neruda Absence and Presence'' by Alastair ReidNeruda's writing space in Chile, from Pablo Neruda Absence and Presence by Alastair Reid.

The Scottish-born writer Alastair Reid has died. He was best known as a poet and essayist, as the secretary to Robert Graves, and as the English translator and good chum of Borges and Neruda, ...but he also wrote magical, Yeats-like children's poems, of which the poem below is one. (He allowed me to print it many years ago in one of my first anthologies.)

I knew him in my early years in New York...and despite the enormous divide in age and experience (I was a callow young editor of paperback fantasy books; he had an office at The New Yorker), he was unfailingly kind, warm, and funny...and for some reason liked to sit with me and Beth Meacham in our tiny Ace Books offices (when he had far, far better places to be) and tell story after story so funny that we'd be literally crying with laughter. I haven't seen him in years, but I'll never forget him.

Alastair lived a remarkably full life, died at 88, and left the world with treasures...what artist can ask for more? To read some of his fine poems and essays for The New Yorker, go here.

"Only the curious have, if they live, a tale worth telling at all."  - Alastair Reid

A Spell for Sleeping by Alastair Reid, published in Elsewhere Volume I, Arnold & Windling, eds, 1981


Finding stillness

Looking back to where we have come from.

Today, I woke with these words from Saul Bellow at the forefront of my thoughts:

"I feel that art has something to do with the achievement of stillness in the middle of chaos. A stillness which characterizes prayer, too, and the eye of the storm. I think that art has something to do with an arrest of attention in the midst of distraction."

These are words that I live by....or, at least, that I try to.

Looking ahead at where we are going.

Standing still.

Graham Joyce has died. I want to write an appreciation of his life and his work...and I find that I can't just yet. He's been very ill for a while, but this came much too soon, and I'm devastated. My heart goes out to his wife and children, and all who loved him.

Today, there are no words. Just gratitude for all the wonderful books, short stories, blog posts, book recommendations, and memories that he's left us.

Three of Graham's fine books


Doris Lessing, 1919-2013

Doris Lessing, 1962

"Writers are often asked, How do you write? With a wordprocessor? an electric typewriter? a quill? longhand? But the essential question is, 'Have you found a space, that empty space, which should surround you when you write?' Into that space, which is like a form of listening, of attention, will come the words, the words your characters will speak, ideas -- inspiration.

"If a writer cannot find this space, then poems and stories may be stillborn.

Doris Lessing"When writers talk to each other, what they discuss is always to do with this imaginative space, this other time. 'Have you found it? Are you holding it fast?'

"...We are a jaded lot, we in our threatened world. We are good for irony and even cynicism. Some words and ideas we hardly use, so worn out have they become. But we may want to restore some words that have lost their potency.

"We have a treasure-house of literature, going back to the Egyptians, the Greeks, the Romans. It is all there, this wealth of literature, to be discovered again and again by whoever is lucky enough to come upon it. A treasure. Suppose it did not exist. How impoverished, how empty we would be.

"We own a legacy of languages, poems, histories, and it is not one that will ever be exhausted. It is there, always.

"We have a bequest of stories, tales from the old storytellers, some of whose names we know, but some not. The storytellers go back and back, to a clearing in the forest where a great fire burns, and the old shamans dance and sing, for our heritage of stories began in fire, magic, the spirit world. And that is where it is held, today.

Doris Lessing and cat"Ask any modern storyteller and they will say there is always a moment when they are touched with fire, with what we like to call inspiration, and this goes back and back to the beginning of our race, to the great winds that shaped us and our world.

"The storyteller is deep inside every one of us. The story-maker is always with us. Let us suppose our world is ravaged by war, by the horrors that we all of us easily imagine. Let us suppose floods wash through our cities, the seas rise. But the storyteller will be there, for it is our imaginations which shape us, keep us, create us -for good and for ill. It is our stories that will recreate us, when we are torn, hurt, even destroyed. It is the storyteller, the dream-maker, the myth-maker, that is our phoenix, that represents us at our best, and at our most creative.

"That poor girl trudging through the dust, dreaming of an education for her children, do we think that we are better than she is -- we, stuffed full of food, our cupboards full of clothes, stifling in our superfluities?

"I think it is that girl, and the women who were talking about books and an education when they had not eaten for three days, that may yet define us."

- Doris Lessing (Nobel Prize speech, 2007)

Doris Lessing

I have no words...just deep gratitude for her work, her life, her intelligence, and her fierce, bright, irascible, transformational spirit.


On saying goodbye

Thomas Hine

Lunar Hine has publisheda very beautiful post about saying goodbye to her husband (and my friend, folklore colleague, and Nattadon Hill neighbor) Thomas Hine -- who died, much too young, earlier this year. One of the last things Thomas did, from his sick bed, was to contribute his art to the auction that raised money for my own family crisis -- contributing to my ability to carry on when he wasn't able to do that himself for very much longer.  That was just so...Thomas. Quiet, gentle, and generous of spirit.

Life. Death. Supporting each other. Raising the next generation and carrying on...that's truly what village life is all about.  Many thanks to Lunar for the reminder today. (And to Rima Staines, for her own lovely post about Thomas back in March.)


In Memorium

Thomas Hine

"I want my life to be a good strong one - not strong like a Mr. Universe,
but like a good strong cup of tea, full of flavour."
- Thomas Samoht Hine

This post is in tribute to the work and life of Thomas Hine, who many in the Mythic Arts community will know from his West-Country Folklore group and blog. Thomas passed away on Wednesday morning, at much too young an age. My heart goes out to his wife (writer/artist Lunar Hine), their young daughter, his aunt and extended family....and to everyone in his wide, wide circle of friends here in our village.

In addition to his work as an author and folklorist, Thomas had trained as an archaeologist, and was also an artist, fiddle player, and organic gardener who loved all things mythical, magical, hand-crafted, and home-grown. That's Thomas above, arranging an exhibition of his artwork at the Courtyard Cafe here in Chagford...and below on fiddle, making music with Jason Hancox, Steve Dooley, Rima Staines, and Howard at an Equinox bonfire last spring. The final photograph was taken by Thomas, a few months later, at a local May Day celebration, and posted on his Westcountry Folklore blog.

It seems just a blink of an eye ago that Howard, Victoria, and I were dancing at Lunar and Thomas' wedding. Yesterday, friends and neighbors gathered again, this time for a memorial celebration. I wish Thomas had had many more decades of time to make his mark on the Mythic Arts field...but his life was indeed a strong one, just as he'd wished, full of flavour, full of art, and full of people who loved him.

He will be missed. And he will be remembered.

Musicians at Spring Equionox bonfire 2011

May Day Bonfire photograph by Thomas Hine 2011


Remembering

Pat & baby me

 

Today, it is ten years since my mother died, in eastern Pennyslvania. When she lost her battle with lung cancer, she was not much older than I am now -- for she'd been just a teenager when I came tumbling, unexpected and fatherless, into the world. That she would lose the battle was something we all knew, but it happened a good six months sooner than expected. I'd been making arrangements to travel from England to Pennsylvania to relieve my exhausted half-brother from caretaking duties when I woke bolt upright from sleep one night, knowing, somehow, that she had gone. My brother called 40 minutes later, confirming what I already knew.

Today, it is also ten years (and nine days) since the World Trade Center came down in New York, ash blanketing streets I'd often walked when I lived and worked in the city.

Tomorrow will be ten years from the day that I hurriedly traveled back to the States in time for my mother's funeral. At London's Heathrow Airport, the numb shock I felt at my mother's death was mirrored in every face around me, for most of the world was also in shock as the Twin Towers lay in ruins. The airport was thick with soldiers and fear as international flight schedules slowly resumed. My New-York-bound flight was half empty of course (who in their right mind would want to fly then?), the passengers eerily silent, sitting fearful and white-knuckled all across the Atlantic. A bomb scare diverted the plane to Canada, but I made my way back to New York and then on to Pennsylvania, to a small, private death in a country that had bigger things to think about and to mourn.

Thus today, not September 11th, is the day of remembering for me. Tomorrow I'll go back to books and art, to walking in the woods and loving the land and dealing with some difficult things that are on my plate right now.... But today is for remembering. For forgiveness of the past. For gratitude for the present.

My mother was not an easy woman. Our relationship was not an easy one. But I deeply value the gifts she gave me: a love of beauty, the ability to cope with change, and a capacity for working hard. Today is a day of remembering a quiet young girl named Patricia Ann, who had a baby much, much too young. And did the best she could, in a hard situation. This beautiful poem is for her, with compassion, and with love:

"Flare" by Mary Oliver.

As Oliver says: "A lifetime isn't long enough for the beauty of this world...."