'Making things makes me happy, and I feel ‘art’ is making things that make other people happy. Happiness in this definition is not fluffy; it is the feeling of becoming unselfconsciously interested.

I learnt that I felt this in the early years with Forkbeard, because I did not just make much of the
set and costumes, I also did the sound and lighting during the show. Sitting behind the audience at the lighting board with the audience silhouetted against the performance is a way of watching how people become unselfconsciously interested, the collective stillness that unites.

Performers often talk of timing, but props and effects having timing as well. Sometimes one makes something that takes a long time to make, but it should be seen for only a moment to have a really good effect on the yarn. For Forkbeard’s show ‘The Fall of the House of Usherettes’ I made two 8 foot high string puppets that stood each side of the set. At the very end they slowly fell down as their ropes were gradually slackened. We had a long talk about whether they should be hidden before they fell, but obviously they worked because they had stood so still for so long. In ‘The colour of Nonsense’ the parrot was operated both manually and electronically. To start with it was just manually operated and the audience got comfy with the idea that someone had to stand next to it for it to be ‘alive’. And then it moved remotely and ‘ping’ the parrot seemed more alive (and anarchic) than she would have done if operated remotely from the beginning.

I did the sets for Ken Campbell’s ‘Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’ at the ICA. He was very aware of the necessary tension with the audience – “Always give the punters what they want!” he used to say as a growly way of commenting on theatrical preciousness and pretension. Shortly after this I saw Tim and Chris in their Forkbeard ‘Clone Show’ and there again was a feeling that the show and intense audience involvement was imperative, very untheatrical if I can put it like that. They also worked very well with their set and gadgets as though they were vital to telling the tale. This was unusual then, and very enticing. Eventually I joined them for a very enriching thirty years. We have worked more like artists always searching for new ways of expressing a state of mind, often using devices so inconvenient and experimental the shows felt like a journey with the audience’s imagination which involved quite a lot of trust. This has been great fun as the boundaries were very allowing. I have been able to make some very exciting things. We wrote the shows together, the elements – the text, the music, the filming, the set, the effects, the characters, and eventually the show would grow as the ‘the lore’ became apparent. Sometimes what I made would happen early and become a dominant force, sometimes I made things that didn’t get used, sometimes I made things that changed a great deal as the story unfolded, I would work with the performer a great deal adapting what was made. Sometimes the performer made what the prop because the relationship they would have with it in the show was too much involved with what they wanted to do.

I found some of the facts of touring theatre a bit restricting: such as the fact that everything had to break down small enough to get into the van and be easy to carry; that as we used film more and more it had a very dominant effect on aspects of the set; that everything was seen from one side and only on the ‘darkness’ of theatre lighting. I am addressing that now building a very large sculpture for outside that interacts with the wind. It could easily be seem as a Forkbeard set without performers, it is mechanical as Forkbeard’s sets often were, and it expresses instability, something I often liked to add to a prop’s character.'

People & Skills: Penny Saunders