TW Talks Tuesday: An Interview with Bernadette Trench – Thiedeman

This week, for TW Talks Tuesday, we chat to Bernadette Trench – Thiedeman a writer, producer, performer and devisor working on Phantasmagoria. 

Hi my name is Bernadette. I’m the writer, one of the producers, sometimes performer, puppet maker and costume maker for Phantasmagoria which will be on sometime in the future at Theatre Works. I’ve worked in theatre for about 15 years.

I love theatre for the reason that it is a multi sensory medium. It can engage with all of the senses and for that reason it’s much more accessible to people with different sensory needs and diverse abilities. So I feel that it has a lot more opportunity than screen based media for instance which we’re currently having a lot of experience with. I work with puppetry, animation, painting and other mediums and I sometimes like to employ these as other languages within the theatre space. It’s a really exciting space to work in.

What inspired Phantasmagoria?

I was inspired to create Phantasmagoria many years ago actually when I was unearthing some stories about my father who passed away when I was a child. The deeper I dug, the stranger and more complex it became. All of these different stories and perspectives from other people who knew him. I was really interested in how we understand somebody after they pass away through other peoples eyes. I was also interested in how we invent stories to fill gaps in our understanding and often our memories are partly fictional anyway and so the idea of this one true reality is an illusion in itself. I was also interested in exploring that idea of the monster. Of the complexities of the character who has done terrible things but has also done great things too. I was interested in how we come to terms with this complexity in others but also in ourselves. This is a thing that I grapple with in my writing for this piece.

Tell us about Magic Realism

So I chose to use magic realism as a lens for this work for a number of reasons; magic realism has the ability to bring us closer to reality I feel and to uncover hidden worlds in amongst the every day or what we consider to be everyday or normal. This is a really strong interest for me and the creation of this work, which began as a series of illustrations with text in the form of a graphic novel which is still in production. I’ve been influenced by a lot of books and films in the magic realism genre as well as horror and fantasy – The Babadook, Pans Labyrinth, Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things, Michael Ondaatje’s Running in the Family which recounts stories from his Sri Lankan Burgher family which is related to my family, Isabel Allende’s House of Spirits, Shaun Tan’s The Arrival which is an amazing, wordless, textless, illustrated book or a graphic novel which is about migration which is also one of the themes in the show. Also Ben Okri’s The Famished Road which explores all these spirit worlds, theres also a very important theme in this work which is that idea of spirits and whether you believe in them and how you believe in them and what they mean to you.

That’s one of the big reasons why magic realism came in as an idea. We’re experimenting with a lot of different forms in this show; costume and shadow puppetry, projected paintings and physical performance and trying to create this strange magical world of ghosts and fantastical creatures. There are these parallel worlds of fantasy and reality that bleed into each other, which I feel is actually closer to what humans actually experience in the world. We’re all emotional and deeply imaginative creatives with these rich hidden fantasy worlds, that have just such a powerful influence on our every day lives and also on how we interact with each other for better or for worse. I believe in harnessing the power of these imaginings and consciously acknowledging their importance and agency in our lives, rather than pretending they don’t exist.

What can you tell us about the use of puppetry and animation?

To talk a little bit more about the animation and puppetry in Phantasmagoria I’ve been using animation and puppetry, who are close cousins actually, for a long time and I like to employ them as languages in theatre together often and sort of playing with the slippages between projected image and physical form. Both of these forms have the ability to make the invisible physical and real in some way and they also lend themselves well to magic realism where the every day is subverted or challenged. The use of stage magic, projection and analog visuals of artistry, puppetry and lighting, they allow us to create these illusions and otherworldly atmospheres where anything is possible and the shadow puppetry in particular allows us to play with scale and distance and to evoke these different worlds. The costume puppetry, which we’re using creates all these different strange characters and the costume puppetry allows us to transform our bodies and to physicalise these imaginary creatures. That physicality has been really exciting to explore as well as design and make. They’re quite intricate costumes with fabric and lots of different materials and lot of found materials. Most of the materials we’re using are found objects, recycled and up cycled materials. We’re trying to not buy new things as much as possible which is also helpful in the theatre context where there’s not thousands and thousands of dollars to spend unfortunately.

What has been a highlight of developing this work?

There’s quite a few. We had to stop at the beginning of rehearsals but we’ve been through some development before that and the work has been in development for actually a number of years. Definitely one of the highlights for me has been the team. We’ve had an incredible team, a multidisciplinary team and very diverse team as well with very diverse experiences. It’s been quite delightful to work with all of our wonderful people on board. Just the energy they bring and seeing the images and text materialised. Also the sounds and feeling the energy of the work have its own agency within all of the teams engagement has been really incredible, because that sort of changes it again. Its like the next iteration and there’s things that happen that you just wouldn’t have expected. This has been really exciting. I think we’ve all been quite excited by it and constantly surprised about what bubbles up from within everybody.

Another highlight has been exploring the multiplicity of all the complexity of identity, through having multiple actors sharing the same role. Thats just brought this whole other dimension to the work that I’ve really enjoyed seeing come alive. We’ve had to delve into some quite emotionally heavy and sort of dark material but because of the performers comedy and clowning experiences, as well as the costume puppetry, we’ve been able to contrast this with very different emotional tonality. So it’s been interesting seeing that shift and change as the process continues and how it will continue into the future as well.

What do you hope audiences take away from Phantasmagoria?

I hope the work speaks to people who have lost someone, close family members or friends, and people who have been affected by wartime experiences or know someone who has. Also give people another perspective on family violence and an insight into the complexity of experiences that exist around these situations. The work twists and turns quite rapidly and it moves back in forth in time and place and we’re creating this magical world for people to journey into. I hope it stimulates a kind of intrigue and wonder with sort of the seemingly normal and everyday experiences that we all have outside of the theatre space and inside of ourselves. I also hope people laugh.



Enjoy the video of our interview with Bernadette here

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