Wooden expressions

German artistes Michael Lurse and Marko Werner pull strings to create a unique new storytelling medium for an audience spanning age groups

November 01, 2017 11:13 am | Updated 11:13 am IST

CHENNAI: 26/10/2017: German performance artist  Michael Lurse during an interview with The Hindu, in Chennai. Photo: R. Ravindran.

CHENNAI: 26/10/2017: German performance artist Michael Lurse during an interview with The Hindu, in Chennai. Photo: R. Ravindran.

The stage is wood all right, but there are no boards to stride. Instead, you see a thick layer of wood chips and sawdust fashioned into an octagon with a myriad array of wood in various forms and sizes scattered all across. Think logs, branches, tree discs, sticks and paper with a consort of percussion instruments (mostly made of wood) in a corner.

Michael Lurse sits in the middle of the “stage” pulling the strings, so to speak. A “woodworm” — chips of wood strung together — emerges from its woody cocoon, slithering across the chips and the logs, encountering other props along the way. Lurse, a trained puppeteer uses his props to create a series of figures, creatures, situations and stories, unfettered by words. Gibberish and the dull thud of striking wood are serenaded by notes coaxed out of a magnificent balafon and djembe, manned by his co-performer, Marko Werner.

An engaged audience

Holzklopfen or Woodbeat , directed by Barbara Kölling and co-produced by the Germany-based Helios Theatre and Theatre Jeune Public Strasbourg, France, is “a special form of theatre for very little children. Anyone from two upwards can attend,” explains Lurse, who is touring India with this show in association with the Goethe-Institut. The performance staged at Spaces in Chennai last week saw Lurse and Werner entertaining a diverse audience ranging from toddlers to grandparents. That is why the absence of words, of course. “For the very little, you cannot make shows that are bound by language,” smiles Lurse. “You have to find other aesthetic means to make your show.”

Admittedly, theatre for very little children is a relatively new concept. A March 2008 article in The Guardian states that this particular genre of theatre has been around in France, Belgium and Denmark since the early 1990s. “We began using it around 10-12 years ago,” says Lurse. Helios Theatre’s first production for the very little, called Erde, Stock und Stein (Earth, Stick and Stone) was created in 2005, after extensive research. Like Woodbeat , the show was all about, “talking about basic materials that surround us,” says Lurse, pointing out that often people forget about them. Yet, “the Earth is where we come from, where we are going to be buried one day. I wanted to keep our relationship to these simple things alive,” he says.

And yes, he firmly believes that children are the best audience to engage with. “An artiste’s life is constantly confronted with judgement. Children are open-minded, they don’t judge: they just see something interesting is happening and are ready to receive it.”

A theatre’s story

The ancient Greeks believed that the sun rose and set thanks to Helios, the sun god who tore across the skies every day in his flaming chariot. The baptism of the Helios Theatre Group was partly inspired by this story, laughs Lurse. “The street in Cologne where we started was called Helios,” he says. “And once we found what the name meant, we thought it wasn’t a bad thing to be connected to the sun.”

Helios Theatre, founded by Lurse and Kölling in 1989, started off as an art collective created by a number of performance artistes who met at an art school in Bochum. “We all came from very diverse backgrounds, including music, puppetry and theatre,” says Lurse.

In 1997, they were invited to work in Hamm because, “there was no professional theatre company there,” says Lurse, and so they moved cities. They continue to be headquartered there. “We found a space close to the train station and built a very nice theatre,” he smiles.

Today, the theatre house has a repertoire of 10 productions, develops new ones every year, conducts workshops in school, organises a regular theatre festival and tours widely with their productions. And though the very young certainly appear to be their favourite audience, they also make shows for older children and teenagers. For instance, Our House , their last show, a co-production with the Ishyo Arts Centre (Rwanda), explores the concept of home, identity and community, through the lens of both the Holocaust and the more recent Rwandan genocide against the Tutsi. “It is a totally different style and theme,” offers the more reticent Werner.

Next on their to-do list is leaving a version of Woodbeat behind for India. They are working with Ruchira Das, founder of the Kolkata-based Think Arts, to produce a version that involves local artistes. While the format will remain the same, “I expect it to have a totally different energy; there will be new people, and maybe even new instruments,” says Werner.

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