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Rebeka Haigh – Out of the Box?

Image of sweets scattered on a wooden floorDuring her last few months at university, Rebeka Haigh realised that it was puppetry and site-specific performance that truly excited her, rather than traditional theatre (which was the very thing that had drawn her to the Theatre Design BA (Hons) degree at Nottingham Trent in the first place). Having graduated she found herself working in a field that all but for one project at University, she wasn’t completely prepared for… two years on and Rebeka is busily working in her chosen field and has produced a site-specific event backed by the Arts Council England, Yorkshire.

Rebeka talks about finding her way, applying for funding and IOU Theatre, the company that gave her support and guidance as part of it’s professional development plan for emerging artists, offering artistic and business advice.

“University was good in the sense that the course allowed me to follow my own path, particularly in the third year. It provided me with the freedom and budget for a show that I wanted to devise, but it also showed me quite clearly what I didn’t want to do – what I call “black box” theatre. I spent the whole three years thinking that’s what I wanted to do but after I completed the Hansel and Gretal project, I had a change of heart. I liked designing for “traditional” theatre, but discovered puppetry was a more creative and meaningful outlet for me, I guess. I began to see site specific theatre in a new and exciting way.”

Do you ever see yourself going back into the box? Or are you free forever?

Image of a puppet covered in leaves

Boggart Puppet from "Boggart's Woods"

I respond more to visual stimuli – “black box” theatre is about interpreting text and creating a “world” from scratch, whereas site-specific theatre is about responding to an existing world and enhancing it. I really like the fact that characters can be formed directly from an environment.

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If we want to re-energise traditional theatre, surely its people that think outside of the “box” like you that we need inside them?
Yes and I’d be happy to do that! The only problem is I’d probably be inspired by the back door or the rafters, rather than the actual stage space. But, if the place has an interesting history or story attached to it that always helps.

“I’d probably be inspired by the back door or the rafters, rather than the actual stage space.”

Having pretty much changed the way you thought of yourself as an artist in the last months of your training, what happened next? Were you in shock or confusion as to how to enter that world?
I had no clue what to do with myself really. I spent the next 6 months looking for work and finally, after sending out tons (and tons!) of CVs in October 2004, I met David Wheeler at IOU Theatre He invited me to kind of an informal interview and told me they had no work. He did like my CV though and commented that it “stood out”. He probably just wanted to see what kind of an artist I am and to see what my personality was like… That’s a good point actually though. David did say that if my CV wasn’t as different as it was, he probably wouldn’t have even invited me to see him. It wasn’t in a typical A4 format – anything to get noticed!

That is something people forget – that there are hundreds of people applying for every job. Is standing out from the crowd something you actively have to consider or is it something that comes easily? Your scenography portfolio, for instance, is written in a very genial and honest way…

I think it helps to come across as a bit more down to earth. I also think it helps to think outside the box with everything you do, including CVs. If you think about it, something that’s a bit different is always going to catch someone’s eye and that’s the icebreaker in a way. It can mean the difference between getting your foot in the door or not.

So, you discover what you want to do artistically and you get a break from IOU. How did you go from there to finding money and support for your work?
Well, the first thing IOU offered was the chance to be involved in its professional development programme. This gave me the space, time, tools and advice to explore my ideas and identity as an artist. This included looking at my goals and the direction I wanted to take as an artist in order to plan for the next couple of years as well as vital support in developing artistic ideas. IOU provided a small budget to create an environment for me to explore myself as an artist. It gave me a chance to realise I am a puppeteer/maker and to develop this. It meant I could test my ideas and characters on an audience. My first show was a blacked out corridor that I created with large metal frames and blacks (blackout fabric). The audience walked in one by one and each member encountered a different creature or puppet. They were then interviewed about the experience by a recorded voice and captured on video for me to analyse afterwards. I wanted to get a sense of what peoples’ experiences were and what they gained/lost from the experience. I learnt pretty valuable lessons about which puppets were engaging and which were not – which creatures came “alive” for people and which didn’t.

“I learnt pretty valuable lessons about which puppets were engaging and which were not”

The whole experience at IOU was about experimentation rather than outcome. The lack of a structured marking scheme (that I’d just experienced at uni) meant that suddenly everything becomes about a personal vision and goal, and not concentrated on fulfilling certain academic criteria. Of course that isn’t all university is about!

So looking at the detailed content of the feedback rather than a brief summary, was useful?

Image of Puppet and puppeteer

A Puppeteer manipulates the "Boggart"

Yes absolutely. You don’t really get that kind of feedback with university work. I know you get individual feedback from tutors, but you never really get a sense of whether an audience liked or disliked a show, especially in such explicit detail! After the feedback, I decided I wanted to fund my development through the Arts Council England. I wanted to push myself into making a show that was more challenging and that had the potential to be something more professional. Through the development of the show, I was able to develop as an emerging artist and I got the funding from ACE on the basis that I was providing myself with a vehicle for professional development. I also invited students from Huddersfield University to develop through performing and being involved in the show.

Arts Council of England Funding

How did you find the application process? Was it easy to explain – what you wanted to do and where?
It was a difficult process. The first time, I had a stroke of luck at the time through an experienced freelance fundraiser. She was, at the time, being funded by the Arts Council, to investigate how difficult it is for individual artists to get funding. She offered to help me in exchange for adding to her research. Other than that, Richard Sobey (who is the Executive Producer at IOU) helped me a great deal by looking over my draft applications and working through my proposal. The application asks you to summarise what it is you do as an artist and what the project you are hoping to do involves. It can be quite painstaking to get all the information you want to put across into a few words and anyone thinking about ACE (Arts Council of England) applications should be aware that they take time to fill in.

How much do you need prepared before you apply? I’m assuming it’s more than a great idea scribbled on a bit of paper!
Much more! You have to have a time frame, a proposed budget and a very clear idea about what it is you want to achieve. I had a lot of things in place before I got the grant such as performers, ideas for the show and a confirmed venue.

After being accepted, how did you find the responsibilities of your first big project?
It wouldn’t have mattered if the event had fallen through as long as I explained to ACE why it was unsuccessful but I think it was because of the preparation. You learn quickly that a show is about 80% administration, 20% creativity.

“A show is about 80% administration 20% creativity”

And are you as a good an administrator as you are an artist?
You have to be organised and you have to at least be aware of the organisation involved. If you’re in a partnership, one person has to be a good organiser. You just have to be vigilant and try to push for things that you want to achieve.

Had you remained a traditional designer, do you think you would have gotten a main stage design in as short a time as you had your “Boggart Woods” piece?
No I don’t think so. For a start, I know now that I have much more passion for this sort of work. Something so unusual also tends to be more exciting, simply because it is new and provides new scope for audience participation or a different way to get an audience involved in the theatre. I have been lucky but I’ve also had to prove myself as an artist, as a director and as an organiser. It did make me realise that there are different ways into the industry.

Theatre in a Yorkshire Wood

Back to “black boxes” and proscenium arches… They are all about focusing the audiences’ attention on what you want them to see. How do you do that in a Yorkshire wood?
I like the fact that there’s an uncertainty about what each person actually sees. I also like the fact that the action can happen anywhere – sound and other senses become more important. It doesn’t matter if one person sees something and another doesn’t, it’s about creating an atmosphere or world that the audience is an invader or outsider in. It’s a more personalised experience for each audience member.

Do you want to bring the imagination that exists inside you into the real world?
Yes, definitely! I’ve always imagined that there were creatures living in the woods, in the walls of buildings and under the floorboards. Now I get the opportunity to make those creatures “real” for everyone else.

Does your work have a narrative? Does it follow a linear timescale?
Not as such. It’s more about a moment in time in a different world, rather than a narrative or a familiar storyline. The characters and their personalities come from stories and narrative, but for me it’s more about building a relationship with the audience and having the puppets interact with them. “Boggart Woods” was a character-based production – the audience soon get pulled into interaction by the characters. Not all of my characters are puppets in the piece and none of them speak. I wanted the characters to have more of a mutual understanding with an audience member… or reach one through interaction and play!

The great thing is that there is a blur between what is “real” and what is “staged”. A great example of this is the presence of some bats flying around the area we performed in. A lot of people thought I had made them or at least taped the sound and created that atmosphere, but they were just there… It added a fantastic element to the show and was a happy accident really.

How much is planned… and what comes first? Do you find a site and then create characters from it?
The last show came from local myths and was formed on the basis that I love the local area. I found the woods second, the stories first. I don’t really think it matters. Sometimes it’s a location that really speaks volumes.

As for the performers, the show was about emotions and mannerisms – lots and lots of rehearsals! One more thing to say is about rehearsing with puppets, which we did pretty exhaustively. If something you’ve planned goes wrong, you have to keep the puppet alive. If something you’ve planned goes wrong, you have to keep the puppet alive. Performers have to be able to improvise or have lots of different mannerisms to pull from to make them believable.

“Puppets also look a hell of a lot smaller outside”

Did you spend time rehearsing at the woods?
Yes lots! We got cold and wet often, and rehearsed in the dark as well. It’s all part of the process and the girls I worked with were always in good spirits, mostly because I plied them with damn good chocolate! Seriously though they were fantastic, I was lucky that they were so dedicated and up for the challenge! They had to scrabble around on the floor a lot so getting the puppets to look up at people was a pain. Puppets also look a hell of a lot smaller outside! Lighting became a massive challenge too; having some of my lighting stolen by chavs was a sobering experience. The lights were also a nightmare to light individually and to collect in every evening. As I wanted a certain feel, we used paraffin lamps, which have a tendency to go out. We had torches as a back up but they didn’t have the same quality as firelight. Paraffin stinks too, but luckily most people told me it just added to the whole experience.

Do you have plans for another production/event of your own?
I’m currently planning as we speak. I now have a professional promoter/venue on board and they have offered to run the box office for a show performed in a national trust area. It gives my work much more credibility and I’m applying for funding from the Arts Council again. Cross fingers I’ll get it!

How would you describe your work? Is it theatre, events, installation or some kind of “experience”?
Well it’s definitely an experience! No, I’d say it is definitely theatre, and it is puppetry, and it is site-specific – it’s a melting pot of pigeon holes really…

So site-specific puppet theatre?
Yeah, I’d be happy with that description!

Rebeka Haigh was interviewed by Martin Paling.

To see more of  Rebeka’swork visit Frolicked

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