I mapped out an idea for a new show as early as 1993 – the life of Hildegard of Bingen, the 12thcentury revered Benedictine abbess and mystic whose extraordinary and groundbreaking music was in the process of being rediscovered. In fact I first came across this remarkable woman much earlier, reading Dr. Oliver Sacks first book ‘Migraine’, in which he considers her visions to be part of a migrainous syndrome.
By the time we got round to planning the show, however, the company was undergoing one its worst ever financial crises. We were struggling with the impact of the Hungarian tour of 1994, during which we had lost money. One solution was to drastically cut back our costs, and create a touring show that could earn income with little or no financial risk. Drastic decisions were taken – to cut the touring company to four performers; to have just one musician; and most dramatically of all, to trim the rehearsal period from eight to three weeks.
Rehearsals on the road
We all worked hard to make this succeed, but there was no doubt that the early Hildegard shows suffered from being under-rehearsed. There was nothing that we could do about it, as the tour had already been planned and contracted. Looking through my notes it’s clear that we knew that the issue was lack of rehearsal time. The script was sound and the imagery was exceptionally rich. In addition the music and making were strong, and the performers were good.
Over the next month and more we worked every available hour to improve the situation. I travelled whenever possible to meet up with the touring company so that we could spend time together working to deal with the weaknesses in the show. Eventually we had a four day gap while in the Midlands, and the company agreed to give up their break for a concerted period of rehearsal. We hired the village hall in Ansty, and worked hard to bring the show up to our usual standard. It made a big difference. After that things improved rapidly, and gradually Visions of Hildegard blossomed into a rich and eloquent show.
I have occasionally been asked by Arts Council representatives whether we needed to spend so much time preparing productions. Rehearsing with puppets is always a highly technical matter and requires time. In my experience it will take two or three times longer to rehearse a puppet or mask scene when compared to working with actors. Sometimes it can be even longer. Then, in addition to rehearsals, there is the time required to make the puppets and masks. This is important. The look of the production is at the heart of what the company is about. The first Visions of Hildegard tour was an example of what happens if you seriously cut these resources.
To compensate for having a small cast I used a complex arrangement of shadow projections for Visions of Hildegard. In many ways the show was very filmic, as hand-held lamps were carefully moved through and around detailed models backstage to create large projected shadow images of castles, landscapes, the River Rhine, and life in the abbey. Best of all they lent themselves perfectly to recreating Hildegard’s extraordinary colourful visions, and these gave a distinctive and unique character to the production.
In May 1996 we gave ourselves another four weeks to re-work the show; longer than the whole of the original rehearsal period. This time we were properly prepared and the tour went well from the start. So when we were asked by Westminster Abbey to put on a full show as a Sunday service, we decided that Visions of Hildegard was the obvious choice. We brought in a large band of musicians to accompany the performance, which succeeded brilliantly. To my surprise the Abbey decided to use the show as their regular Sunday service. It was a memorable show – to a packed Abbey congregation as the sun slowly set behind the stained glass windows.
BOB FRITH (wr/dir), SARAH FRANGLETON, CLAIRE INGLEHEART, MARTIN PEARSON, LOZ KAYE, JO KING, LIAM CARROLL (h), JILL PENNY, LISA HARRISON, SUE PALMER