Monday, January 6, 2014

Inside the LabWorks Rehearsal Room: Julian Crouch and Saskia Lane

As the holidays rapidly approached, and the sights and sounds of Mother Africa filled the New Victory Theater, just down the street, a dimly lit studio buzzed with creative energy as our latest LabWorks Resident Artists got to work. Shadows came to life, scraps of newspaper transformed into startling creatures, and stunning masks were constructed. The studio had been converted into an artist’s cluttered playground -- complete with lighting stands, several tables filled with miniature props, rolls of brown paper, foam, an array of musical instruments, and even a sand pit. Each day for two weeks, Julian Crouch (world-renowned designer and director) and Saskia Lane (equally amazing, multi-talented musician and puppeteer) sat in the middle of the mess and created magic.

Julian and Saskia will spend several weeks in residence in the New 42nd Street Studios as part of the New Victory LabWorks Residency Program, working on a completely new work for family audiences. Inspired by the the mysterious and beautiful images of albatrosses from the Midway Atoll by acclaimed photographer Chris Jordan, Julian and Saskia will use puppetry, music and visual storytelling to create Broken Plastic Bird Heart (working title).

While many might find these photos of bird remains (filled with colorful plastic and detritus and washed ashore) to be sad or grotesque, Saskia explained that “...a discarded, broken thing can be a beautiful thing. We are drawn to the beauty in the photos.”

Rather than begin with writing a story, the artistic team chose to utilize the first few weeks of their residency to artistically sketch -- riding their inspiration through a variety of media, and capturing their mini-creations on video so they could remember them later. They wrote and improvised music, generated rich shadow landscapes lit against brown paper, and built masks of human and avian characters out of dyed foam.

In one exercise, Julian and Saskia each improvised the manipulation of two sheets of newspaper to create incredible life-like figures. “I’m interested in exploring the idea of something beautiful coming from nothing”, explained Julian. In another sketch, Julian constructed a mask out of foam on Saskia’s face, and in a matter of minutes, she had taken on the character of an old man in a boat with a distinct and aged “face.” Whenever they got stuck thinking of what to experiment with next, Julian and Saskia would write several ideas, thoughts and images down on separate slips of paper, scatter them around, and spin a pen which acted as a pointer, telling them which idea to pursue next. They would create a moment inspired by whichever slip of paper the pen had landed on after it stopped.

The seed of a story emerged by the end of the first phase of their residency. “We think it will involve a rivalry between a man and a bird, and perhaps one becoming the other,” said Julian of their initial narrative ideas.

In the next phase, the team will most likely storyboard the plot and further explore how to bring that story to life using puppetry and music. More importantly, the artists described how they discovered a “language and aesthetic that is unique to [them.]”

“We weren’t looking for that,” said Julian, “but it was created here.”

Having witnessed the imaginative process of these LabWorks artists in action, I’m looking forward to seeing how the creation of this work unfolds. Julian and Saskia’s unique and evocative storytelling techniques, coupled with the haunting catalyst of Jordan’s photography, are sure to lead to a beautiful new piece of theater for multi-generational audiences. I’ll share more of this process as it develops in June when Julian and Saskia return for the next phase of their residency!

Click here for more photos of Julian Crouch and Saskia Lane in rehearsal!

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