How We Work: An Interview With Sara Drake

December 4, 2013 · Print This Article

Guest post by A.Martinez

I was introduced to the work of Sara Drake at my first Brain Frame event, March 2012. Brain Frame is an event series that invites comic artists to explore the performative side of their work. That night, Sara’s shadow puppet performance “The Romance of the Tiger Lady”  truly blew me away. I try to avoid using the word ‘magic’ to describe work, but the kind of child-like captivation I felt in response to this piece was both unexpected and incredibly moving.

Bad At Sports last spoke to Sara just before her two-month teaching venture in Cambodia. It was this trip that inspired “The Romance of the Tiger Lady”, and it was also this trip that inspired her (most impressive) self-taught movement towards shadow puppetry. You can find Sara’s work online at http://saradrake.info/;  she is also the  comics writer for Bad At Sports.

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A.Martinez: How did you get from making comics into performing shadow puppetry?

Sara Drake: Estrangement. I had just returned to the US from Cambodia where I had been teaching comics, and every way I knew how to articulate myself became erroneous. I needed to communicate in a mode which wouldn’t come off as abrasive or didactic within an insular arts community in Chicago. I wasn’t ready to process my experiences abroad with other people yet. It takes me a long time to process anything, including my new found political awareness.

Shadow puppets signaled tedious, meditative sessions alone in the dark and allowed me to find a voice I was aware of in the back of my mind but wasn’t sure how to wield.  So much of my creative life is prefaced with writing and asserting justification for making things. When I’m speaking in shadows, I am literally fumbling around in the dark trying to find bits and pieces to a story.

Martinez: So to begin talking about your piece, The Romance of the Tiger Lady, I want to start with your trip to Cambodia to teach comics to a group of young women. When were you there and for how long?

Drake: I was there for two months in 2011 through an initiative called Independent Youth Driven Media Production in Cambodia. My former teacher, Anne Elizabeth Moore, was looking for creative responses to issues relevant to young women in Phnom Penh. I applied with a gendered comics and self-publishing workshop.

Martinez: How did living in a completely different country teaching comics influence your work?

Drake: I was there for such a short time! I wouldn’t exactly consider two months “living” in a foreign country. It did completely shift my life. As for my work I attribute it most to an entangling and dispossession of my morality, which I’m only just beginning to explore through comics.

I am definitely an advocate for travel if you have the means or opportunity to do so, but hesitant to encourage others to pursue a project like mine. There are unique risks and potentially hidden power structures at play. To walk into a community as an outsider with limited understanding could be devastating, despite how well-intentioned an artist may be.

Martinez: Did you watch much shadow puppetry there?

Drake: Only as a tourist. Not as someone who has the ability to talk about the medium affluently or with respect to a long, and important cultural tradition.

Martinez: Of all the comics you read while you were over there, what made you decide to choose this story to work with?

Drake: That’s the thing. I did not speak or was literate in Khmer. I had to find comics in the market places and through word of mouth, typically through western expats. Cambodia is still rebuilding from and coming to terms with decades of illegal American bombing, the Khmer Rouge regime, civil war, and persistent corruption. Comics, like all artistic production during the regime, were completely wiped out. The Romance of The Tiger Lady, by Im Sokha, is a horror comics from the 1980s about a were-tiger lady who falls smitten for a hunter. Aside from it being a good story, it was one of the comics that was well liked and looked at often among the women that came to my workshops.

Martinez: So, you made a decision to make this into a shadow puppet performance, and then how did you begin this process?

Drake: I spend a lot of time writing and collecting fragments of ideas until I internalize and visualize moods and feelings. Then I have to somehow translate them into puppets. I am still a bit mystified as to how that happens.

Martinez: The piece is 17 minutes long. About how long did it take you to just cut out all the scenes?

Drake: For Tiger Lady, I wasn’t just cutting out the puppets, I was also teaching myself how to make shadow puppets. The show took about three months to physically cut out. A clumsy, one foot after the other sort of business.

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Martinez: Did you work mostly by yourself?

Drake: Yes and no! When I’m starting to work on a show there is a germination period of a few months, where I’m working solo on scripting out the story and making all the puppets. Then I get together with a group of puppeteers and a musician to figure out the rest.

Martinez: How did you decide to use an overhead projector for your performances?

Drake: They are the staple, it seems, for shadow puppet shows. The puppet community in Chicago is incredibly supportive. Julia Miller of Manual Cinema, another shadow puppet group, gave me a lot of pointers in the beginning. Knowing about their work was an invaluable resource in the beginning and their work is mind-blowingly gorgeous.

Martinez: Comics are usually a very solitary act, so was it difficult for you to switch to an art that is so collaborative both in its making and its viewing?

Drake: I see this logic posed often to cartoonists and frankly, it’s missing the point. Comics are solitary as a process sure! but similar to other art forms, communities have formed up around and about it all over the place. It would seem odd to ask a writer this question. Chicago is not as lonely as my cartoon predecessors would have most believe, yet certainly alienating at times. It bores me when artists use this paradigm as an excuse.

But to answer your question, there was never a time when I haven’t been collaborating. Maybe the result isn’t always a visual one or one whose end goal is something tangibly producible.  For me, cultural production necessitates community involvement and being exposed to as many voices and encouraging access to as many voices as possible.

Martinez: When did PUPhouse form?

Drake: During the production of Saltwater Weather. Early on I realized that the project was going to be ambitiously technical and require a deeper commitment from the artists who stepped up to be puppeteers. Each of us had been collaborating in some form or another outside of shadow puppets. The range of mediums each of us is coming from is pretty protean: textiles, animation, comics, music, filmmaking, theater. PUPhouse, or giving our time together a name, became a way to reinforce what we were building together.

Martinez: Do you like working with a crew  of people like that?

Drake: As with any group of humans, you can expect drama. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

I mean, I couldn’t have it any other way.

Martinez: What’s the strangest or coolest thing that’s happened to you while working together?

Drake: Being around other artists is strange and cool in general.

One of the perks of being in an experimental puppet company, is that no matter what event or show you are at, if it’s going badly or is boring, I always have seven weirdos who I adore to hang out with on the sidelines. Eternal friendship lifestyle.

Martinez: How often do you meet and rehearse for shows?

Drake: When a show is in the works once a week. Sometimes two, three times a week.

It takes longer time than one would think to show someone how to move a small piece of paper from point a to b. . .

Martinez: What is the most difficult thing for you about shadow puppetry?

The physical and emotional labor that goes into it. Shadow puppetry may look effortless from the front but there is a flurry of movement, sweat, and awkward body positions happening backstage. It takes an exceptional group of people to be able to maintain strong friendships after tense long hours of being told their fingers need to act more like animals.

Sometimes puppets catch on fire . . . which, is definitely difficult.

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Martinez: What are you currently working on?

Drake: I’m taking a break from puppets for a moment to make a new comic – but I don’t want to share all my magic tricks just yet. On top of that, I’m heading out of Chicago for a bit to do an artist residency in Colombia.

Martinez: It seems like you like to travel to new places. Do you work while you’re traveling? Or mostly just collect ideas?

Drake: I have a long-term, co-dependent relationship with wanderlust. I intentionally do not go to any place wanting to make work about it. I’ve found that traveling with a purpose in mind, mediates my experiences. It is however, important that all of the materials I work with are portable. This does two things. I like culture that is definitely small – that’s human sized and encourages people to relate to it. And of course, it’s practical!

Martinez: Do you keep/have a collection?

Drake: I’m always leaving places. I do not like/enjoy owning things, maybe that’s why I work in ephemera and experiences. Although, I am a compulsive autobiographer. I keep a dated record of every book, movie, and art show I’ve ever read or seen since I was a teenager. I keep meticulous word lists of all sorts of things: new compound words I create, overheard conversations, turns of phrases that sound off, mood words, fragments.

Martinez: What is the most distracting thing for you while you’re working?

Drake: Exhaustion. Or not feeling lucid and the feedback loop frustration that comes with that.

Martinez: What’s the biggest revelation you’ve had about the way you work?

Drake: The puppeteers always note that I exclaim “do you hate it?” when I show new work or scenes to them. I have a parasite known to many as self-depreciation.

Martinez: Is there a certain time of day that you feel especially inspired to work, or when ideas come to you?

Drake: I do most of my writing and scripting when I am on my bike. Most days this tends to be the only alone time I have. And of course, shadows are more dramatic after dark. . .

Martinez: Does your cat hang out with you while you work?

Drake: Of course! We have a symbiotic working relationship. I cannot stress enough, how crucial a creative life in the company of other animals is to a human psyche.

Martinez: Is there a piece of advice, art related or not that you think of often?

Drake: When I was small, my dad always used to say, “What makes a good animal, a good animal?”
This was meant to be soothing after some brutal animal world fact on television, a pet death, watching viruses destroy human cells on bring your daughter to work day, etc. It meant, what ensures that animal survives? Is being brutal or dark, something that a human animal might consider bad, a part of what defines that animal?  “What makes a good human, good at being human?” This is how I move around in the world ad. infinitum.

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All photos courtesy of Gillian Fry and Sara Drake.


A.Martinez is a freelance art and music organizer living in Chicago, IL.




FJORDS!

February 21, 2012 · Print This Article

This weekend, Chicago’s Poetry Foundation plays host to FJORDS, an exciting multimedia adaptation of Zachary Schomburg‘s book of poems of the same name. A collaboration between Manual Cinema and the Chicago Q Ensemble, the production features all manner of performed silhouette, shadow puppetry, and multiply-sourced projections with an accompanying score. Composer, musician, and Manual Cinema member Kyle Vegter wrote the score for the Q Ensemble, a forward-thinking and collaboratively-minded string quartet.

The Poetry Foundation shows are mostly sold out (though day-of tickets may be available at the door). Schomburg’s tumblr hints that an encore show may take place on Monday. I’ll update this article if/when more specifics are revealed. Tour dates can be found here.

Schomburg’s poems have been published all over and with good reason.  FJORDS Volume 1 will be released by Black Ocean on March 5th. Additionally, he is one of the three editors behind the small poetry press Octopus Books, co-programs the Bad Blood reading series in Portland, and teaches at Portland State University.

I was privileged to experience Vegter’s site-specific composition/installation for the Chicago Composer’s Orchestra in the Palm House of the Garfield Park Conservatory in December of 2011. The work utilized the tremendous room, with subtle, textural tones mirroring the space’s. His work with Manual Cinema (Julia Miller, Drew Dir, Sarah Fornace, Ben Kauffman, and Vegter) has included the much heralded Ada/Ava and The Ballad of Lula del Ray. This is their first collaboration with the Chicago Q Ensemble, whose Ellen McSweeney I interviewed about the collaborative process.

Please describe the kind of work you typically do.

As a quartet, we perform a combination of contemporary music — often by Chicago composers, like Kyle — and works from the classical string quartet repertoire, like Haydn, Beethoven, Brahms, Shostakovich. That’s the stuff we got all our advanced degrees studying.

Our process is pretty simple: we’ll rehearse several pieces of music intensively, just the four of us, for a period of months before presenting it to the public. Occasionally we’ll play for coaches (master teachers/mentors) to help us take the performance to the highest possible level.

While collaborating for FJORDS is definitely the most “outside the classical music box” project we’ve ever been part of, collaboration is a part of our mission statement, so it’s very much in line with that our priorities are and the direction we want to go in.

Please describe how this project came to be and how you became involved.

Kyle and I first met while working together on a concert for Homeroom — I played one of his pieces. I later interviewed Kyle for my blog and we became friends! My first Manual Cinema experience was The Ballad of Lula Del Ray. I was completely enchanted. I was so mesmerized by the show that I had absolutely no idea what was happening; for example, I didn’t realize the puppets were being manipulated live. So I’ve been a fan of their magic-making for a long time.

When it occurred to me that Chicago Q could actually collaborate with Manual Cinema, I called Kyle out of the blue one day and basically said, “We have to do this!” It turns out it was the perfect time for them to start thinking about it, as they were looking to do a more music-centered project. We started meeting together — all nine of us! — to talk about what the collaboration would look like. It just goes to show you that sometimes it’s work making that call

I think when Kyle told us about Zach’s book, FJORDS, the project really just started to take off. All the creative minds of Manual Cinema were drawn in by his work and started to create amazing worlds around it. On our end, we began to get to know Kyle and his music better.

Please discuss, as you’d like, adaptation, adaptation as collaboration, and collaboration.

Funny enough, around the time that you emailed me, I wrote a blog post about why collaboration is so challenging, and so essential, for classical music ensembles. In our field, there’s a conservative attitude that if you’re playing a great musical masterpiece, you shouldn’t need anything else on the stage. There’s a fear that other elements will distract the listener from the greatness of the music. This project is working from the opposite assumption: that, if you do it right, we CAN marry elements of theater, poetry, and chamber music in a way that lifts them all up, as opposed to cheapening them.

One of the sad things about being a classical violinist is that you aren’t often treated as creative artist. You receive a score, and your job is to execute it as written. Sure, there’s some flexibility, and your technical knowledge and performance ability matter a great deal. But as performers, we often enter the picture after the creative process is over.

This project has started to defy that “post-creative” role a little bit. Kyle has been exceptionally open to our feedback and ideas about what he’s writing. And now that we’re rehearsing with Manual Cinema, in front of the screen, we are absolutely a part of the creative process. Because we know Kyle’s scores extremely well, we have strong ideas about what the mood of the music is, and how it can help increase the drama and emotional resonance of what’s on the screen.

When Q and Manual Cinema first sat down together, I declared that I wanted us to be creative partners, not mere technicians, as instrumentalists are often asked to be. That dream has totally come true and it’s an amazing experience so far.

What are the ideas, stories and interior logics of this work about which you felt most strongly? How important to you is it that certain elements of the source were carried through to the performance? What is most challenging/exciting about the wordless rendering of a poem? 

We’ve really deferred to Kyle and MC on these fronts, and we weren’t really a part of the adaptation process.

Music and poetry have been working together for a long, long time. I find when I read a great poem, it’s a like a tiny capsule that evokes an entire world. There’s so much AROUND the text of the poem, so much just outside the boundaries of what’s been written. Music is a natural way to express that world that’s being evoked: the textures, feelings, colors. I think Kyle did an amazing job creating a musical world for each poem, and it’s a lot of fun for us to embody that world as we play our instruments.

Much of the revitalized Poetry Foundation’s mission is to “discover and celebrate the best poetry and to place it before the largest possible audience.” While this doesn’t specifically mention finding new forms and modes for poetry (as a way of enabling its position before a larger audience), I’m curious how conscious you are of trying to expand poetry’s audience. And, relatedly, how conscious you are of trying to expand contemporary classical/string music’s audience. 

Absolutely. Expanding the audience for contemporary music/classical music/the string quartet is probably the most important part of our mission.

It’s amazing how much excitement this project has generated. People are really intrigued by the possibilities of the project. And I think there’s a tremendous excitement for us, for Zach, for MC to be engaged in something that’s very ambitious and very different for us. And it’s amazing how much we are all benefiting from the risks we’ve taken. All four shows are now sold out, and hundreds of folks — who might never have come to a regular string quartet concert — are going to be engaged with our playing. The project has been a huge learning experience for me about the power of working together as a team — not going it alone, but finding others to support you and work with you.

Should more string quartets tour? Should string quartets tour more?

Sadly we aren’t touring with the show — they’ll tour with the amazing recording of us that Kyle just produced! But we definitely would like to tour more. Turning our ensemble into a full-time job that can sustain us is a gradual process, but we’re getting there!

Another tidbit about touring: I think people in string quartets are a little fussier than rock bands. Sounding “perfect” and being at your best is a strong pressure in classical music, so we somehow think that touring should involve comfortable travel and accommodations. We should learn from the whole “band in a van” thing, get our hands a little dirtier, and we’d probably tour more.

What (historical) collaborations informed this project? Are there other productions involving/engaging poetics that you felt were especially useful? 

I like knowing we’re in good company with that ensembles like Fifth House, who are very committed to “musical storytelling” and having huge success with it. I’m inspired by some of the more off-the-walls collaborations that eighth blackbird has done. Obviously, the Kronos Quartet were a huge breakthrough force; all the crazy stuff they’ve done over the past few decades has paved the way for classical ensembles to venture into new territory, both musically and theatrically.

But honestly, I’m still figuring out what our role is in this show. Are we in the pit at an opera house? Onstage movement artists with instruments? I think we’re making our own way, trying to figure out what’s going to create the best possible experience for the audience.