The Fool Report #2

The fool cards from the Dodal Tarot, Karyn Easton Tarot, and Rider-Waite Tarot.

Helsinki

As my Fool of a husband begins his second week working with Jonathan Kay and his merry band of Fools in Finland, here are some pictures snapped on Howard's bicyle commute through the streets of Helsinki each morning and evening.

He reports that the work has been fascinating, challenging, and full of both high points and lows. Last night, Howard's group of Fools-in-training went to see Jonathan's show at the FIC Festival...watching the master Fool perform...and today they were back in the studio, seeking entrance into the archetypal realm for themselves.

Our heartfelt thanks go out to everyone who has helped make Howard's exploration of Foolery possible. The journey is just beginning....

Helsinki

Helsinki

Helsinki

If you'd like to know more about Jonathan Kay's practice and philosophy of Foolery, listen to his discussion of "The Fool, Archetypal Play, and Self-Realisation" with Amisha Ghadiali (July 2019).

Meanwhile, the Funding for Foolery campaign continues. Please help us to keep our own dear Fool on the road:  https://gofundme.com/f/q5cuph.

Fool With a Flower by Cecil Collins

Art above: The fool cards from the Dodal Tarot, Karyn Easton Tarot, and Rider-Waite Tarot. "Fool With a Flower" by the English surrealist painter and printmaker Cecil Collins (1908-1989).


The Fool Report #1

Fools from the Dodal Tarot, Karyn Easton Tarot, and Rider-Waite Tarot

Howard Gayton

As Howard travels to Finland today at the start of his year-long Fool's Journey, we send love and gratitude to all of you who have helped make this possible.

Meanwhile, the "Funding for Foolery" campaign continues until the end of the month, and all contribtions (no matter how small) will allow us to keep this dear Fool on the road: https://www.gofundme.com/f/q5cuph.

Tilly, I'm afraid, has mixed feelings about this. She's proud of helping with the fund-raiser, but didn't realize that the end result would be Howard going off without her. He'll be traveling to four other countries as the year progresses (France, Spain, Germany, and Ireland) -- but don't worry, Tilly, he'll be home in-between.

And no doubt just as Foolish as ever.

Howard Gayton en route to Foolery

Art above: The fool cards from the Dodal Tarot, Karyn Easton Tarot, and Rider-Waite Tarot.


That's the way to do it: Punch & Judy

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 odd "swazzle" voice of the classic English puppet Mr. Punch: a sound which initially sent Tilly into fits of barking until she finally figured out that it was just Howard at work.

Looking for Mr Punch

Howard has loved Mr. Punch since his university days, when he wrote his thesis on the puppet's history -- so once he became a professional puppeteer he began work on his own Punch & Judy show. But then other theatre projects claimed his time, and the Punch puppets were all boxed away... until the morning I came downstairs to find them grinning at me from a chair.

Punch & Judy puppets

For much of that summer, Howard's studio was transformed into a puppetry workshop. There were carpentry tools, lumber, and swathes of red-and-white striped cloth crowding the practice room; tiny puppet clothes hang from our washing line; and more and more puppets staring at me when I walked through our livingroom.

Puppets on a wash line

Punch & Judy puppet heads

Judy, Mr. Punch and the Constable

I confess I was never a big fan of Punch & Judy or of slap-stick comedy in general before I met Howard -- 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 with 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. As I learn more and more about the roots of comedy from Howard, I find myself 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 ceremonial clowns of North America's indigenous peoples, and in other folk rites and sacred traditions all across Europe and around the globe.

Punch & Judy woodcut prints  circa 1850

Punch & Judy by Percivall Arthur Wise

Mr PunchThe 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 childlike "naughtiness," mayhem, and gleeful anarchy. Mr. Punch is a Trickster figure: a manifestation of Trickster's sly 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 and cheeky anarchy without tacitly condoning violence, domestic or otherwise, in the real world. Howard's re-telling of the Punch & Judy story treads this line carefully, without losing the glorious mayhem that gives children such delight. (See Emma Windsor's post on the subject on the Puppet Place News blog.)

That contrary old rascal Mr Punch

"It was in the early 1990s," Howard recalls, "while I was working at Norwich Puppet Theatre, that I began to carve my own Mr. Punch. Later, at the Little Angel Theatre in London, I carved several of the other characters found in classic Punch & Judy shows. I'm a puppet director and performer, not a maker, but the P&J characters are fairly simple and I wanted to try my hand at making them myself -- working in the Little Angel workshop under the Drawing from Punch Magazine  1854eye of master carver Lyndie Wright. I made Judy, Joey, the Baby, the Policeman, the Devil...but I never finished the full set. Other theatre work intervened, and Punch went into a storage box. Years later, when I moved to Devon, the box disappeared into a dark corner of the attic.

"Then, in the spring of 2016, I attended an excellent Punch & Judy workshop at the Little Angel, run by Professor Glynn Edwards (aided and abetted by Professor Clive Chandler) -- and when I came home, I searched the attic and rescued Punch from the dust and cobwebs. I'd dreamed of performing a Punch & Judy show for a long, long time, and now I was determined to do it -- but I had to work slowly, between other jobs, and the process spread over another two years: first finishing the puppets, then building the booth, and finally developing and practicing the show.

Building the Punch & Judy booth

The portable booth's collapsible frame

"I was lucky to have some expert help. My mother, a retired theatre costume designer, made all of the puppets' clothes, and covered the booth in traditional candy-striped fabric. The booth has to be light and portable, quick to assemble and disassemble, and her clever design of the booth's fabric cover allows for easy removal. I used a simple wooden frame for the stage, until our friend David Wyatt -- a multi-award-winning book illustrator -- stepped in. David generously designed and painted the glorious sign that crowns the booth today.

Howard & Jennifer Gayton

The booth in process (with Tilly's approval)

Punch & Judy sign by David Wyatt

"I then took my P&J booth on the road for trial performances in various public and private settings: learning the mechanics of the back-stage action, discovering all the ways that it could go wrong (in one show I swallowed the swazzle!), exploring each puppet's character and finding the rhythm and movement of the show.

Mr Punch & the Devil in Oxfordshire

"Highlights along the way included some wild off-grid performances with Hedgespoken Storytelling Theatre, birthday shows for Dark Crystal designer Brian Froud and fantasy novelist Delia Sherman, and two years' of performances at the Shambala Festival's Puppet Parlour. This summer I worked as the official Punch & Judy man for Teignmouth beach -- performing on a classic seafront pitch with Tony Liddington and his hilarious Flea Circus.

Punch & Judy, Teignmouth beach

Punch & the Baby, and the Flea Circus

PJ1

"I love contrary, naughty Mr. Punch, and the way he makes children scream with laughter, and plenty of adults as well. Despite all the entertainments on offer in our complex, fast-paced, digital world, these simple objects of cloth and wood, and a funny swazzle voice, can still create magic."

Punch & Judy  Southport Beach 1950

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. 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.'

Punch & Judy by Thomas Rowlandson (1756-1827)

"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.'

Punch & Judy by George Cruickshank (1792- 1878)

"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.

Commedia puppets

A Punch & Judy voice swazzle"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 most 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."

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 & Judy by Thomas Frederick Crane

"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.

A role for Tilly, perhaps...?

Punch & Judy shows were not just for children in past centuries. As the V&A curator notes:

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.

Punch & Judy

"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.' "

Or as Mr. Punch himself would say, "That's the way to do it!"

Howard Gayton

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.

The art above is credited in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the images to see them.) Some of my text comes from a previous post in the summer of 2016, when Howard began to put his Punch & Judy show together. All rights to the text quoted from the V&A website reserved by the V&A Museum, London, 2012.


Nonsense and Foolery

Fool and flower

Fool and bear

My husband, Howard, a theatre director and performer, is about to embark on a year-long Journey into the Heart of the Fool -- via the Nomadic Academy of Fooling (NOA), led by the extraordinary Jonathan Kay. In order to achieve this, we've set up a fund-raising page to help cover the NOA tuition cost, and I hope, dear readers, that some of you might consider contributing. Even the smallest donation will help to get this creative, kind, and lovely man on the road to making magic.

The GoFundMe page is here.

In the video below, filmed in my studio, Howard and I discuss fooling, clowning, Commedia, and a particularly fateful trip to Arizona. A certain hound makes a cameo appearance at the end...and also contributes enthusiastic water-slurping noises in the middle, bless her.

Foolery

In the spirit of nonsense and foolery, here is some further reading on the subject of tricksters, transgressors, and clowns:

A Chorus of Clowns in Masked Comic Theater by the always-brilliant Midori Snyder

Shaking Up the World: Trickster Tales by me (with a recommended reading list)

Merry Robin: The Native British Trickster by mythic scholar John Matthews

Transgression: a conversation on the subject of tricksters & transgressors

Dare to be Foolish: because all artists need to be fools sometimes

Also, if you're feeling very brave, here's a video clip of the Grey Gnomes, some deucedly odd little characters found infesting Howard's studio a few years ago. Don't worry, we've had the fumigators in since then and they haven't dared to come back....

Ophaboom

Me and the Fool I married

And of course, any help you can give us in passing on news of the fundraiser would be very, very appreciated by our whole foolish family.

Fool in training

The colour photographs above (except for the last one) are from Howard's work with the Daughters of Elvin medieval music & dance troupe, directed by Katy Marchant. performing in Devon and Northern Ireland. The black and white pictures are of Howard and his Commedia company, Ophaboom Theatre, performing on the streets of Denmark.


May Day morning on Dartmoor

Beltane Border Morris

After waking before dawn for an outdoor Easter Sunrise Service a few weeks ago, this morning I rose in darkness again for a celebration rooted in the pagan faith: a gathering of Border Morris dancers on a quiet road by Hay Tor, on Dartmoor, to call up the sun at the dawn of Beltane with the pounding of feet, the cracking of sticks, and the music of fiddle, squeezebox and drum. 

My favorite troupe (or "side," as they're traditionally called) is Beltane Border Morris: a wild and wonderful group of dancers who describe their art as the dark side of folk. This isn't the "bells and hankies and tea with the Vicar" sort of Morris dancing, it's fierce, eerie, athletic, unbridled -- invoking magic from the bones of the land and the old country lore that has not been forgotten.

Beltane Border Morris

Beltane Border Morris

Beltane Border Morris

Border Morris originated in the west of Britain -- probably sometime in the late Middle Ages, arising from dance traditions that were older still -- developed primarily by dancers and musicians along the border between England and Wales. The distinguishing characteristics of Border Morris (as opposed to other forms) are shorter sticks, higher steps, ragged costumes, blackened faces, and larger bands of musicians. The history of the blackened face is much disputed: it may have had ceremonial significance in the dance's deeply pagan origins; or it might have originated as a form of disguise adopted in years when Border Morris was frowned upon as rowdy, subversive, and un-Christian. It's important to remember today, however, that it is a form of masking, making the dancers anonymous and Other than their usual selves, and not intended to mimic black skin.

Beltane Border Morris

Beltane Border Morris 12a

Beltane Border Morris 8

Border Morris certainly is rowdier than most other forms of Morris; it's also more overtly pagan, and thus (to me) more powerful. Often performed at sacred times in the Celtic lunar calendar, the dances are tied to the seasons and the mythic wheel of life, death, and rebirth. Like other forms of sacred dance the world over, the drum beat and the dancers' steps weave patterns intended to keep the seasons turning and maintain the balance of the human/nonhuman worlds. Yet in contrast to other, more mannered forms of Morris, Border dancers unleash an energy that is earthier, lustier, more anarchic...both joyous and unsettling to watch, especially by dawn, dusk, or firelight. 

Beltane Border Morris

Border Morris at Hay Tor

This morning, there were two other local sides dancing with Beltane: Grimspound Border Morris, and a small group bedecked in ribbons whose name I didn't catch. The air was cold, nipping fingers and toes, as they danced the sun up over the moor and beat out a rhythm for summer's return.

Grimspound Border Morris

Border Morris at Hay Tor, 2018

Border Morris ay Hay Tor, 2018

When the sun was high, we said our goodbyes and made our way home across the moor, then down to Chagford through hedgerow lanes turned yellow with flowering gorse. It was early still. The village was quiet, and my own household still fast asleep. But while they slept, at the foot of Hay Tor the remnant of an ancient folk ritual ensured that another summer would come. The land had been blessed. We'd all been blessed: dancers, watchers, and sleepers alike.

Beltane Border Morris 7

To learn more about Beltane Border Morris, please visit their lovely new website. You can watch a short video from this morning here -- and from previous May Days here and here. For more information about the folklore behind May Day and Beltane, go here.

Beltane Border Morris

I wish you an abundance of May blossoms and wildflowers, fecundity in your creative work, fluid communion with our animal neighbours and all the non-human world, the lusty good luck of the Jack-in-Green, and all of the season's good blessings for growth and renewal -- especially for those of you who live on the world's other side, entering the Long Dark of the year.

I wish you stories, poems, pictures, tunes, and collective or personal ceremonies to ease the transition from winter to summer...and summer to winter.

I wish you dreams of drums, and of feather-clad dancers who move like a murder of crows taking flight.

I wish you a blessed, wild, and merry Beltane. Up the May!

Hay Tor

Hay TorWith thanks to my May Day morning companions, Miriram and Denise.