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Personal (R)Evolutions: Raven Kaliana’s Fragile/Sacred

2011 November 16

When people talk about art changing lives, I think Raven Kaliana’s work is the kind of thing they mean. Using a mixture of live actors and puppetry, her company Puppet (R)Evolution uses ingenious staging to show what cannot be shown in live action.

The first play of Kaliana’s I saw was Hooray for Hollywood a while back. It told the story of her own horrific childhood in the child sex industry. The play showed adult actors from the waist down (just jean legs, skirts and overheard dialogue) and focused on the level – both emotionally and physically – of the children, who were portrayed with puppets.

I first saw Hooray for Hollywood in July 2010 and wrote about it then for feminist mag Fat Quarter. More recently an abridged version of the play has been filmed for wider distribution and showed at an event on ending child pornography held at Amnesty International Headquarters. The work is powerful, brave, and through ingenious staging conveys what it would be near-impossible to bring out for open discussion any other way. Frequently Hooray for Hollywood is played with a talk afterwards, hosted by various child protection charities.

Puppet (R)Evolution’s current play, Fragile/Sacred, was on as part of the Suspense puppetry festival.

Whereas Hooray for Hollywood was already an extremely creatively-presented play, Fragile/Sacred pushes the boundary further and forms more of an art piece. Once again part of Kaliana’s autobiography, and drawing this time from her teens, the entire performance is wordless, and uses four live actors along with a minimal number of puppets.

Promo image for Fragile/Sacred: shoulders of a figure in a red plaid shirt. The figure holds a model house with orange light in one window and is tilting the house at an angle. Image by Emma Leishman, shared under Fair Use guidelines.The set is a large, square tunnel – with each side draped in a different material, used to great effect to convey everything from undergrowth to water to a hospital ward. The opening sequence of the abusive father figure holding a light-up model of a home and pushing his hand into it and licking his hand – clearly getting a sexual kick out of it – set up the creepiness of the story’s homelife, and was one of the most uncomfortable few minutes of stagetime I have ever seen.

I feel I very much benefited from seeing Hooray for Hollywood first, and feel the two plays could, perhaps, complement each other on a double-bill. As it was, I’m not sure if those coming to Fragile/Sacred afresh would have understood all of it.

However, that said, the play is as much about atmosphere as it is about plot. The father figure character (opening scene aside) is oddly inexpressive – tightly-wound and capable of violence, but the actor playing him nonetheless gives little away facially. I say ‘the actor’ as the part is also sometimes played by a puppet for the longer-range scenes.

Photo showing a young dark haired mixed race girl cuddling a large stuffed brown toy rabbit in a darkened space with a sense of fragility and melancholy. Photo by Tinka Slavicek, shared under fair use guidelines.Compared to Hooray for Hollywood, Fragile/Sacred is very light on puppetry. It has a father puppet, a rabbit and a raven, as well as some shadow-puppets, but the play also makes good use of models and toys to convey the larger scenes. Puppetry in this play is just one element in a large range of innovative techniques used to convey the story.

Watching adult actors move toy cars or toy helicopters around added a layer of non-optional make-believe to the production. I occasionally found the lines between characters playing and representation of wider plot a little difficult to discern, but that in a way added to the dreamlike quality of the piece.

I found the complete lack of dialogue a little difficult, but – as in the earlier play – this is about a protagonist who sees a lot, but is often scared to speak or act. The character seemed on the surface to be very passive, yet was making brave and bold moves throughout the play. The dreamlike quality of the production conveyed a kind of inner sanctuary that the protagonist retreated to and drew strength from.

A fascinating, artful and thoughtful production – and an absolute must for lovers of physical theatre, as well as anyone working in fields which touch on the themes of abuse. But, strange as it feels to say, I found Fragile/Sacred – the gentler of the two plays I’ve seen – was slightly more difficult for me than Hooray for Hollywood with its more straightforward plot. While Hooray for Hollywood was entirely viewed from the protagonist’s (physical) point of view, Fragile/Sacred seems to be viewed from mostly inside the protagonist’s mind, where there is an often luscious stillness while horrors swirl around her and worlds blend together. That said, the two pieces do inform each other hugely, and I repeat my call for a double-bill.

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