Out the Box: a couple of gems and a whole lot of other stuff

I just got back from an evening at Hiddingh campus, taking in some of the offerings of the Out The Box festival. I’ve always had a bit of a fascination for puppets, and was looking forward to seeing some exciting puppetry at the festival. But the festival seems to be suffering from.. well, a lack of puppets.

Of the six shows I saw this week, only two had much puppetry to speak of. The first was Erik de Waal’s Canterbury Tales – an early half-hour show I managed to sneak in before Theatresports class on Monday. This consisted mostly of the narrator’s monologues, between which he occasionally picked up a stick puppet and waved it around, then tossed it away like garbage. OK, I thought, some of this stuff is going to be a little more, say, fringe than others.

Then last night I headed out to the Baxter to see what I would find. First up was ‘High Diving’. Which seemed to be a play trying to be a rom-com movie. Except the script was abyssmal. You’ve got to give the cast credit – there were a couple of excellent performances – but there was no real plot, and the dialogue limped along. And the puppetry link was tenuous at best: a few shadow puppets reeled back and forth behind a screen as a sort of backdrop device. I sat there for the full 80 minutes wondering why, why, why this had been staged. There seemed to be no guiding impulse: no strong story; no powerful storytelling style; nothing much to say really.

Happily, though, I bumped into a couple of old acquaintances heading upstairs next to see Gaetan Schmidt’s one-man show, Rumpsteak. Gaetan is a bloody brilliant performer, utterly polished, with his own brand of physical performance. The show – almost entirely in French, with almost all the dialogue made up of the dishes on a restaurant menu – is a delight. Brilliant. Erm, definitely not puppetry. Lovely theatre to watch. Not a … oh well.

Then this evening presented another babysitting opportunity. Feeling a touch guilty for spending two evenings in a row away from K, I scooted back down to Hiddingh. It’s just… there was SO much on. So off I went. Feeling intrepid, I bought tickets for three short shows.

The first was called Washa Mollo. Perhaps I should have read the festival programme more closely: “…explores the heroine’s journey from disconnection form self to ultimate reconnection with both masculine and feminine aspects of Self at a spiritual level”. Here we have therapy-process-meets-physical-theatre. Lots of writhing around in cloth and rolling around in the floor. Some snippets of text projected on a screen. I sank down in my seat. Couldn’t someone just, I don’t know, haul out a sock and stick it on their hand, and do something interesting?

A dire 45 minutes later I escaped outside. Next up was Soulskin Sealskin, a one-woman puppet show by Jill Joubert. I knew this would actually have puppets in it because I know Jill and she’s a beautiful puppet-maker. The tiny audience trickled into the tiny venue. Jill insisted we all sit in the front row or on the floor, otherwise we wouldn’t see. And rightly so. Her puppets are beautiful, small, and intimate, and she uses them to tell a story. It was a tiny half-hour piece, but beautiful, sensitive and funny. With a story, compelling as such a thing is. I walked out feeling like someone had given me a hug.

At 8pm, one last piece, Eu peca de terra II. Again, perhaps I should’ve read the blurb in the brochure more closely. Another woman writhing around. Oh look, frenetic stamping followed by throwing herself onto the floor. Oh look – now she’s slicing open a bag of pool salt and throwing it around. Oh, now she’s… on the floor rolling in the pool salt. The only pleasure in this piece was the usher’s announcement that the show would in fact only last for 25 minutes.

Out the Box is a fantastic, ambitious project. But it’s suffering from a few problems. One is a lack of definition. There are plenty of dance festivals. Let’s leave the dance stuff for them. Now, obviously there’s an overlap; some physical performaces really do blur the boundaries between puppet theatre, image theatre, object theatre and the like. But that leads straight onto my next point.

The second, perhaps most important problem seems to be a lack of curatorship. Whilst I think it’s lovely to have a nice inclusive policy and to let independent performers and puppeteers a platform for their work, the organisers need to ensure that the festival doesn’t get swamped in mediocrity. It doesn’t work to have a few professional, exciting shows amongst a sea of under-resourced, under-rehearsed or simply obscure work. Curatorship would also help to ensure that there really is a coherent vision to the collective body of work on offer – that it doesn’t dissolve into a sort-of dance fest.

Finally – and this is a personal gripe – I notice an increasing number of people who vaguely seem to want the opportunity to have an audience, without necessarily starting from the point of finding, creating, developing something meaningful and compelling. Theatre has to bring something to its audience – illumination, entertainment, spectacle, an emotional shift of some sort. In two separate shows I saw tonight, I watched women writhing around, jumping up and down, and proclaiming ‘I am a princess!’ (Yes, really, two.) The performances seemed to be about some sort of cathartic therapeutic process for the performers. Quite frankly, the place for drama therapy is in a therapeutic workshop session. Please will whoever is propagating this scourge of self-indulgent, repetitive and uninteresting therapy-posing-as-theatre please please please just stop.

About Lisa

I live in South Africa with my husband and two small children, doing things, thinking about things and sometimes writing about them.
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