Sue Buckmaster is wonderfully articulate for someone who, twenty-odd years ago, was denied entrance into art school because she lacked the language to express her impassioned intentions. Make no mistake, she has since found her voice. How warm, good-humoured and intelligent a conversation with her is. [This one took place on May 25, 2006.]
Buckmaster makes children’s theatre, but not as it is commonly known. What’s special about her London-based company, Theatre-Rites, is how the work gets made and the strong, instinctual impulses behind its methods.
Theatre-Rites was founded in 1995 by Penny Bernand. The latter died six years later, but not before she and Buckmaster had established Bernand’s brainchild as one of the most innovative theatre groups in the UK. ‘Penny was amazing,’ says Buckmaster. ‘She’s been described as a comet that just kept changing and travelling through. She really made an impact. Theatre-Rites is her gift to us. It’s very much about celebrating the child in us, and celebrating the child in our world.’
Theatre-Rites was never a facile, box-ticking operation. From its inception the company was artist-led, a policy to which Buckmaster adheres. ‘The product, or show, is for the child,’ she explains. ‘The process is not.’ She knows full well how rare this is. ‘Normally children’s theatre is justified on the basis of its educational or issue-based value. We justify what we do as artists who have something to say, and children can hear it as well as adults. That’s our ideal audience. The two experiencing something together triggers off things for each of them.’
School residencies or workshops are generally not on Theatre-Rites’ agenda. Instead, says Buckmaster, ‘I put a group of artists in a room, choose an object or a site and say, Let’s all respond to this. If those artists say they’d love to go into a school and try out these ideas with kids, that can be facilitated.’
Buckmaster’s priorities are constant and clear. Asked how a show’s recommended age range is determined, she replies, ‘I don’t make theatre thinking about the age group of the children at all. When I’m making a piece, the only thing that makes it suitable for children is the fact that we’ve played like children to make the work itself. Actually, it needs to be suitable for anyone who sees it. That’s all the criteria we need.’
Is the creation process generally fun? ‘Yeah, it is. The spirit of play has to be in the room. A lot of preparation has gone into making sure that play can thrive by providing things to play with --- concepts, ideas or possible ways through. Good equipment, a good game or just a good environment often facilitates good play.’
Most Theatre-Rites shows take two years to make. Only in the final stages of the artistic process does Buckmaster ‘check to make sure we’re not doing anything that’s irresponsible, or not within a child’s reference.’ What would she deem irresponsible? ‘Swearing or being sexually explicit onstage. Being too political, or thrusting ideas in your audience’s face. In terms of family work it’s important not to be didactic.’
What, conversely, is it important to be? Here, again, Buckmaster is exceptionally lucid. ‘To allow enough space in the work for any audience member to be able to project their own ideas, politics, thoughts or emotional situation. Whatever they need to work through.’
But what must be kept in mind to achieve such a delicate state of affairs? ‘Don’t illustrate, don’t explain everything and don’t have only one answer to what you’re exploring. A lot of children’s work has a particular point to make.’ Again she mentions issues and the dictates of the educational curriculum, where ‘two and two makes four. I suppose I’d like to say, Well, two and two could make anything you like. It might make four, and that’s okay,’ she laughs. ‘But we don’t give the answer. We give space to see how different people respond to the same stimulus.’
Buckmaster’s lineage stretches back several generations into show business. Her great-grandfather was a music hall entertainer and inventor able to juggle on a revolving table while riding a unicycle. Her grandmother, a musician, was a member of a clown-like group known as The Musical Elliots. Her grandfather, a virtuoso concertina player, married into this family act. (Historical footnote: Hitler’s mistress, Eva Braun, was a fan of his.) Buckmaster’s mother graduated into the act, too, but left to marry a puppeteer she’d met on an end-of-the-pier show.
Young Sue’s parents continued to perform on the variety circuit. ‘The working men’s clubs and holiday camps they played were full of speciality acts,’ she remembers. ‘Magicians, jugglers, lots of visual, accessible theatre --- that’s what I was brought up on.’ Mum taught her musically, while from her dad she inherited a love of manual creativity. ‘I would always try to make everything that Blue Peter suggested, and he would facilitate that. It was great.’
Drama, art and music have been natural, life-long focuses for Buckmaster, both practically and academically. After a short stint trying to be a serious actress, she was roped into a series of government-sponsored community workshop schemes. ‘They were really dodgy, but what a way of putting 30 artists together!’ Asked to set up such a scheme herself, she developed a real understanding of the rewards of a more open, cross-art form of working into which she could easily channel her family background. This, in turn, led her to approach a company called Puppetworks. ‘They did large, outdoor gigs with pyrotechnics. That’s how I got back into puppetry, by strapping myself into a giant puppet and setting off fireworks around me for 3000 people at a time. It was brilliant!
‘The reason I didn’t continue with that,’ she adds, ‘is because it rained too much in this country. After awhile of running around fields you just go, Oh, give me a roof! All the site-specific work Theatre-Rites does interested me because it gave you a roof, and yet you still had this not-quite-the-theatre space.’
Buckmaster’s status as a director, she says, rests more on her specialist puppetry work at organisations like the National and the RSC than in children’s theatre. Certain life experiences have significantly impacted her theatre-making no matter what the location. Her daughters, currently five and eight, have been a particular inspiration. ‘I think I’ve travelled with them, so probably I’ll be doing teenage work come 2012,’ she laughs. Another influence was ME, a condition that physically limited her for seven years. ‘The intimate theatre stuff I did came about because I wasn’t able to pull off the big events. It was more, What can I manage in a wheelchair? Also, my ex-partner was into psychoanalysis, so I was reading all these books on the meaning of objects from that point of view.’ Later, pursuing an MA in contemporary theatre, she says, ‘I suddenly found I did have a language for what I was doing.’
It’s psychology, not politics or education, which drive Buckmaster’s art. ‘The meaning of objects, image and the space in between people is what interests me.’ From this, she says, stems theatrical narrative ‘as opposed to, Oh, I’m going to choose this story and to tell it. I’ll employ a visual artist, an actor and a traditional Chinese dancer. Instead I employ the people, give them the object and only then does the psychology arrive and a story emerge.’
Theatre-Rites has acquired a solid, even glowing reputation. Consequently, with producing collaborators such as LIFT, the Lyric Hamersmith, the Barbican, the Young Vic, Leicester Haymarket and Sadler’s Wells, Buckmaster enjoys a pretty free artistic rein. The company, she says, is in a transitional state. It’s revenue-funded, employs a full-time staff of four, has a spacious new office at BAC in Battersea and a board composed of movers and shakers. The work, too, is about to expand into larger-scale spaces and, during the next three years, in directions that encompass dance, circus and promenade performance.
‘It’s important to have looked closely at what our relationship is to a small audience,’ Buckmaster says. ‘Equally, now, I want to go back to my roots in the music hall and big pyrotechnic events. We’re still going to tour studio pieces and do site-specific work, but more people need to know we exist. I need to do bigger shows so that people can come to them. Let’s create intimacy on a bigger scale. Why not?
‘I suppose to make theatre that matters you have to invest quite a lot of yourself,’ Buckmaster reflects. ‘We’re a nice theatre company to work for. We don’t exploit or just employ. We have quite a supportive process with practitioners and artists. We go on a journey with people where everyone is quite carefully listened to. As we get bigger that’s harder to maintain, but that’s our intention. We’ll see whether we can make one member of an audience of a thousand feel as important as we did in the site-specific piece that was just for fifteen people.’
Does she consider what Theatre-Rites is doing radical? ‘I’d use the word unique. I just have a very particular way with people and objects. If I gave the same thing to somebody else they wouldn’t do what I do with it. Of course object theatre has been happening for years. It’s not radical in that it’s not new. That’s why I love referring back to my family. They were playing trumpets attached to tubes attached to chairs. Someone would do that in a cabaret now and say they’re being very radical. No, my granddad did it in 1914! It’s just about reinvention. I’m inventive, and I love allowing room for people to be inventive with each other. You’ll never ever create something other than the radical as long as you’re always experimenting. You’ll come up with the archetypal, the familiar, the accessible and the recognisable, but you’ll also come up with something no one else has.’
Donald Hutera writes regularly about dance and live performance for The Times, Time Out, Dance Europe, Dance Now and many other publications.