by Gabriella Fenton
The first thing you’d see if you were to visit the West Cornwall cottage I grew up is a rusted fish on a bamboo pole. It sits just above the garden wall and, depending on how the camellia is doing, catches the last of the daylight before the garden gets a chance.
The fish came home with me on the last night of Wildworks’s first show, A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings, in 2005. I was ten years old and played an ancestor child who narrated the performance from the top of a chicken coop, overlooking a story village built on a harbourfront. When my plan to adopt the show chickens failed to convince my parents, they let me take home a prop—and the fish has been there ever since.
It’s things like curiosities in garden corners that remind me, while I live and study away at Yale, that I’m really home. This summer I’ve come home from Connecticut to catch the last rehearsals for Wolf’s Child. The journey to Trelowarren offers up more signs of home: I note the cottage lights and the sway of the sea drizzle, how the roads seem to curl in the rain as much as my hair does. As we arrive at the estate, a sign for The Paddock shows the way to the team’s gathering place. It, too, feels like a welcome home. The cream canvas tents, the tap coming out of the ground, the makers’ dens, are all the village I remember.
Yale so far has been a mystery trip, a time for picking small pockets of the world to explore and the world revealing small secrets about itself. I study English and Film, and hope the two will help on the way to worthwhile projects of my own. But the more ideas I discover, the more excited I am to see how they are made real. Wildworks do this better than anyone I know. For a Mellon Sawyer lecture series last year, I looked at how far their visual language is an analogue to the language of cinema. Now I have the privilege of glimpsing how these stories happen—of stepping around and inside of one.
Rehearsals have begun in the woods, and the stage managers help me find them. In the first patch of trees we come across more Wildworks motifs: hammocks and old televisions, hessian torches. We come out of the trees to “Civilization,” a lawn where the great house stands in front of us. A group of crows are tracing the paths they’ll coax their beholders down and going over the tales they’ll tell them. In this part of the story, to face the house is to turn your back on the woods. But having just come through them they seem to pull you backwards. By the house, the maids practice their catechisms. When they pause there are stirrings and murmurs from behind. I follow the crows toward their next scene, along some sunshot paths, until we come to a woodpile. This clearing feels much darker, and in the story it’s where the most important choice is made. Here the shadows fall harder and trees lean inward—as though the choice were really yours and the woods were waiting for it.
The crows’ familiarity is assuring and alienating in different moments. They glide through the trees and speak as though they’d long expected you. Then they climb long ladders and lose themselves in the sky, and you remember how far you’ve wandered. But in this rehearsal, the team seem just as at home. When we deliver costumes, we navigate by nettle patches. Props live in boxes under certain trees—everyone remembers which. There is, in every glade, the feeling that this story belongs to its surroundings rather than on top of them. And it’s this feeling that reminds me most of the show on the harbour. I remember how the same flock of birds would pass above the audience at the same time each night. Or how once, on photo day, a rainbow appeared and wrapped itself around the chicken coop, while we were sitting on top.
I got back in touch with Wildworks last summer, for the first time since those years ago. And it was last summer that I found myself, one afternoon, in Bill Mitchell’s attic, surrounded by miniatures that looked like scenes I remembered—like terrariums for tales to be. There were past props and relics, medical instruments, paper birds that belonged once to a dress of thousands of them. But everything felt like it fit. “Find yourself an attic” was his advice to me when we discussed how good stories are made. And let the ideas grow there. I realized then how home itself was for me a kind of attic—how much my own work has grown out of this landscape, how the wondertales I grew with were the first things that compelled me to look outwards. The world of the crows reminded me once more that the best ideas come from attics—and how lucky I am to have mine.