Julian Crouch & Saskia Lane Talk Bringing Puppets to Life for “BIRDHEART”

By Vanessa Ague

Tuesday, February 20, 2024

Last fall, theater designer Julian Crouch and composer Saskia Lane were performing their animated theater piece, Birdheart, and something went wrong. The paper they use for their bird-shaped puppet had never ripped so much. So, they frantically grabbed tape to repair it in real-time. Though it wasn’t planned, the audience loved it—they got to watch the humanity of making an error and two people working together to fix it up. The mistake, in the moment, became the show. “That keeps [it] alive,” Crouch says over a Zoom call. “Sometimes it almost feels like there's no show there until you're actually doing it.”

Crouch and Lane brought Birdheart to National Sawdust on February 3, which marked the duo’s second performance at the venue (the first took place in 2015 on the venue’s opening day). It’s an all-ages multimedia performance that uses brown paper and a box of sand to reflect on the gradual and uneven process of transformation. Though it’s open to interpretation, Lane is drawn to its meditativeness, recalling the piece’s openness to change. “There's something about this piece of paper, how it transforms and is trying to figure out what it is,” Lane says over Zoom. “For me, I feel like that is life—we're trying to figure out who we are the whole time.”

Crouch and Lane estimate that Birdheart has been performed more than 100 times around the world since its inception; it has taken them everywhere from cozy living rooms to major New York venues to conferences that feature the Dalai Lama. For this iteration of the ever-evolving show, they opened with old-timey songs that mention birds, which was a new section of the piece that the duo created with Philip Roebuck in an effort to continue evolving and trying new things.

Crouch and Lane first met while working on separate artistic projects in Australia. They later found themselves together in London; Crouch was, at the time, working on a puppet show and looking for someone whose hand could fit inside the object. Lane’s was a perfect fit, and so she ended up subbing in the show. From there, their working relationship came naturally—they match each other’s sense of humor and don’t mind traveling together for their worldwide tours. While in London, too, they came across a photo of an albatross that was so crystalline and striking that it looked like a painting, inspiring the bird that would eventually become the center of Birdheart.

They first developed Birdheart during residencies at St. Ann’s and New Victory Theater. Neither were trained puppeteers, so they went in excited to explore the motions of the artform. “There's something about puppeteering, especially with a piece of paper, where it's almost like a dance. The physicality of it and having to dream into it was so satisfying for me,” Lane says.

“There's something about this piece of paper, how it transforms and is trying to figure out what it is. For me, I feel like that is life—we're trying to figure out who we are the whole time.”

Birdheart also presented an opportunity to make a show that was simple to put together—it just required a few simple materials and the two performers. At these residencies, they played with a variety of materials to create the piece, often using recycled materials found at Materials for the Arts in Queens or whatever was lying around at Crouch’s studio. They started with plastic bags, but discovered they hated the feeling of them; Crouch works often with paper, so it was an easy choice to try it out. Magnets were ill-advised, but they tried them anyway. The whole process, for them, was about embracing openness, surprises, and play. “A lot of the decisions came from actually not having a fixed plan,” Crouch says. “You end up becoming open to the thing almost writing itself.”

Though they have performed Birdheart hundreds of times, the duo still has plans for doing more with it. They’d like to bring it somewhere with limited materials, creating another opportunity to follow the materials wherever they go. What keeps them coming back is the show’s transformation, how there’s always something to explore and a new way to be present in it. “I think that I also find there's something meditative about it,” Lane says. “You're so present that everything else that happens in my life falls away.”

About Vanessa Ague

Vanessa Ague is a violinist and critic who writes for publications including the Wire, Pitchfork, and Bandcamp Daily. She is a recent graduate of the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY.