Hazel Mills - The Paper Cinema's 'Odyssey'

By Poppy Tohill

What happens at the accidental meeting of inkblots, photocopies, cardboard, angle-poise lamps, video technology, a laptop and a banana box? The United Kingdom's ‘Paper Cinema,' theatre company is what happens. Using the language of animation, music, film and theatre to lead viewers through a variety of stories, New Zealanders are lucky enough to have the opportunity to experience their most recent work‘Odyssey' in action this month, as the English theatre company bring this show to our shores for the very first time since its premiere in the spring of 2012.

After performing their first show in New Zealand, in Dunedin to be exact, I had the privilege of talking toHazel Mills, one of the musicians throughout the show. During our chat she told me all about The Paper Cinema, The Odyssey, and what it's like being a musician touring with and performing in the theatre.

"Wow, three words..." Mills laughed, as I asked her to describe the show ‘Odyssey' in three words. After lengthening it to a sentence, she happily responded, "it's basically, a live, animated, silent film, created by illustrated puppets manipulated in front of a camera, with live music and sound effects. The main thing about it, is absolutely everything is live, and visible," she went on to explain.

"In general the live, animated, silent film is what the Paper Cinema is all about, it's what they do, or what we do," Mills replied when asked about ‘The Paper Cinema' theatre company. "It basically started as a necessity for Chris Reid who is the musical director," Mills proclaimed. "Chris was looking for somebody to create visuals to go with his music and he soon came across Nick Rawling who is the illustrator and artistic director and it basically all grew from them sort of playing around, with how the music and the visuals can work together, she continued. "I think that's probably one of the main things about this kind of medium, which is quite unique. We don't know of any other company anywhere in the world that does what we do, Mills exclaimed. "But the thing about it, is what we do with the music and visuals are an ensemble in that they work together, it's not one accompanying the other, its very much a unity," she concluded.

When asked what the ‘Odyssey' show is about, Mills went on to telling me, "It's an adaptation of Homer's Odyssey with modern twists. I think Nick has sort of drawn upon the elements of the original story that people can relate to such as the love story of Odysseus and Penelope and also the idea of family which includes their son Telemachus, as well, so it's sort of drawing on those issues," she explained.

Being the first time either Mills or the show have been seen in New Zealand, I asked Hazel what she was most looking forward to about performing the show on our shores. "I'm really looking forward to just seeing how the show is received here," she honestly responded. "We've done one show so far, in Dunedin and it was well received, but I just really enjoy the audience part of going on tour and how people react," she responded, cheerfully.

"We have mutual friends," Mills replied when asked who she initially became involved with the Paper Cinema and came to become a part of the Odyssey show. "I actually joined about 6 months after Odyssey premiered, so it was already in existence before I joined," she continued. "They were looking for someone to replace their pianist, who was moving on to do other things, so they just basically asked around and a friend of theirs is a friend of mine, so quite luckily for me, I was recommended for it!"

"I actually got to see the show once before I joined the cast too, and it was brilliant," Mill declared. "It's really great having been a member of the audience and then joining the cast as a performer as well, because I kind of got to see it from both perspectives. I really enjoyed watching it as well," she exclaimed again. "Although when I was watching it I actually did spend a lot of time watching the person who I took over for," she laughed, "so I guess I wasn't a true audience member."

Continuing on to talk about Mills particular role in the show, she went on to tell me about the music and what instruments we can expect to hear and see throughout the show. "Everything is there right in front of you," Mills began. "The puppeteers are on one side of the stage and then you've got the three musicians on the other. Then behind us all there's a large screen, which everything is projected onto. There's a lot to look at," she laughed. "We've actually had quite a few people come to the show on more than one occasion just so they can see everything," she chuckled once more.

"I suppose piano is the main instrument I play," Mills continued. "But generally speaking, a fairly important part of it is the electronics. So, I trigger a lot of electronic sounds and play a lot of electronic instruments using a laptop and do live sampling," she exclaimed. "I do a touch of singing in the show too. There's not too much but there's a little bit. All three of us musicians are multi-instrumentalists though, and there's quite a few interesting little collections of instruments that we use as well," Mill declared, continuing on as she stated, "I also play the melodica, a power drill for sound effects," she laughed, "and a tray of grit I use which I consider to be a musical instrument too," she confidently concluded.

When asked what the biggest challenge or best thing she'd learnt from being a part of The Paper Cinema and Odyssey show, Mills thoughtfullyreplied, "Hmm yeah, good question! I think musically speaking, when I first started started preparing for the show that was a challenge in itself," Mills admits. "It's not like an ordinary musical gig or performance where I just learn a list of songs. It's very fragmented in that there's lots and lots of little or larger pieces of music, so it's a lot for the brain to take in, in a short space of time," she continued explaining. "I was making sense of what music existed partly from bits of scores, or mostly by ear, and I'm kind of learning it, interpreting it, and putting my own spin on it and that whole process was really eye opening, because I'd never really done that before" she confessed. "Then being able to put my own stamp on it, made me feel ownership over it slightly, so that felt quite good in that respect," Mills went on.

"But in terms of what I've learned about how the music and animation can work together, has been really fascinating and I always try to apply that to everything that I do, so that's kind of really touched upon in me and the idea of the visual experience of a performance as an experience and not just as a listening activity," she exclaimed.

After admitting that I personally love live music in theatre, Mills went on to explain how she believes the music throughout the silent film helps tell the story of the ‘Odyssey' and gets the message across to everyone, without the aid of dialogue. "The music definitely plays quite a big part in it, because there's no dialogue in this," she began to explain. "There's a few words throughout the show, which are visible on the screen but the music really does help to, not necessarily create a mood or emotion but emphasise it," she exclaimed.

"It just emphasises what's already there in the drawings basically, because they are such beautiful and emotive drawings already, without the music. But yes, basically there are certain themes that we use, to reflect certain characters," Mills continued explaining. "They have their own themes, and we can do different variations of these themes depending on the mood of the scene at the time. But, I also think sonically, because we have such a large pellet of sound, with so many different instruments and the electronic elements can really help us to find a specific sound that we think will be suitable for a particular moment also," she concluded.

"Most of it, for this show anyway, because there are other shows that the The Paper Cinema do that are a lot more improvised," Mills responded when asked if she or the other musicians ever improvise with the music throughout the show. "Most of the music for this show is actually written and scored, because it's all very in sync with the movement," she explained. "We have very particular points where we meet together and move around and weave in and out of one another, but there are some areas of the show that we can kind of put our own spin on things and have a bit of fun improvising, so there is an element of that, but its not entirely improvised," she confirmed.

As well as touring internationally with The Paper Cinema, performing ‘Odyssey' in a number of different countries over the past two years, Mills is also in a band, back in the UK called The Adding Machine, whose style ranges from post-punk to psychedelic pop, two genres which are very different to the music that features in this show. So bringing this up in conversation, Mills went on to tell me what it was like transitioning from performing psychedelic pop with her band, to the more melancholic and softer music throughout ‘Odyssey.' "The progression was actually quite natural for me, because I've been in the whole world of classical and folk music before," she truthfully admitted. "The music throughout the show is very much created with a film soundtrack in mind also and I absolutely film and the idea of writing music for film. I'm actually surprised I haven't done it yet," she laughed, "But I'd love to one day," she added. "So yeah, you're right, it's very different from everything else I'm doing at the moment, but actually that's what I love is that I'm not just doing one style of music at the moment, I get to do lots of different kinds of things and I love that about it," she proclaimed.

"In terms of going from one style of music to the other, I think it's really great in that it will always give the next thing I'm doing a kind of fresh spin," Mills responded when asked what the ongoing transition between numerous different musical projects and styles has been like for her over the past few years, while on the road touring ‘Odyssey.' "Because, I'm not just concentrating on this one path, if I go somewhere else and do something completely different and then come back, I'm kind of more excited about doing it and can have a new perspective on it," she explained. "It has been difficult because I have been doing a lot of international touring this year with the Odyssey, so my band The Adding Machine has taken a little bit of a back seat temporarily, which has been a little bit difficult keeping it going, but at the same time I kind of get more excited about it when I come back," she concluded, laughing.

"It's the first time I've been involved in this very unusual kind of theatre," Mills went on to tell me, later in the interview. "I've certainly never involved in puppetry before," she declared. "When I was in my teens I was very involved in theatre through, as I was kind of temporarily a budding actress," she laughed, "because at that point that is what I wanted to do. But I was into a lot of movement based theatre," Mills pronounced. "I'm really interested in the visual side of the arts as well as the music and the way they work together, so when I got involved in this kind of theatre I thought it was very exciting, when it was described to me before I actually experienced any of it. But the idea of animation playing off the music and vice versa, is just a very exciting concept to me," she happily announced.

"Yeah, its basically all I know," Mills gleefully responded when asked if music and performing have always been a big part of her life, considering her mention of wanting to be an actress as a teenager. "I've been performing as a musician since I was about 6 or 7 years old," she continued. "I started learning the piano when I was 6 and my piano teacher got me to perform as much as possible here and there, but obviously the scale of the performances I was doing gradually got bigger, but it's definitely part of my life as much as breathing, I need it," she laughed.

When asked if this form of theatre is something she'd be interested in doing again in the future, Mills honestly replied, "Possibly... I'd never rule it out because it's such an exciting and fun thing to do. It's like nothing else I do really, every project that I'm doing right now is just so different," she repeated. "I mean, everything else I do is just kind of music and performance based, so this is the only theatre thing I'm doing at the moment, but I definitely wouldn't rule out doing more of it," she revealed.

Prior to our interview I was scrolling through the abundance of countries the Paper Cinema have visited and performed Odyssey throughout, soafter slipping this into the conversation I asked Mills if she had a favourite country or place that has stood out to her, where they had taken and performed the show. "Yeah, I think that would have to be Brazil," Mills quickly responded. "Well specifically, Rio I think," she added. "It was actually near the beginning of this year, and it was such an amazing experience just being in Brazil anyway, because it's a beautiful country. The people are amazing also. They're so enthusiastic and friendly, and actually not too dissimilar from the people over here," she confessed. "But, yeah we just had a really lovely experience playing in Rio. The tradition over there is to always give standing ovations at the end of a performance, it's just a done thing, so having that and the audiences go absolutely wild out there, not just at the end of the show but all throughout really spurring us on, was a real pleasure."

"I would really love to go to Thailand," Mills replied when asked if there was one country she would love to take the show. "There's a very small possibility that the show might actually go there too," she added. "But me personally, I've always wanted to go to Iceland. I just find it such a fascinating country and I want to go and experience it. I feel like the Odyssey would be a really good thing to bring over there too," she concluded. 
"It's easy to take overseas internationally too, considering there is no language barriers," Mills went on to explain. "That's one of the good things about the show, as it's not reliant on written language to communicate to an audience. There are the odd bits of writing that we will get translated if we go to a non English speaking country, and some of the places we've gone to like Georgia & China where it's a completely different alphabet... it's actually really beautiful to see it written. Their alphabet is almost art in itself," she described.

Nearing the end of the interview, Mills lastly went on to fill me in on what her next project is, once touring ‘Odyssey' comes to an end. "When I go back to the UK, I'm basically recording an album with my band at the moment, so we'll be getting on with that," she laughed. "It will be our debut," she added. "We have two singles released already and the last one was produced by Adrian Utley from Portishead. So we've been working with him a fair bit which has been really great actually and we might get his input in again for the album," she concluded.

"In terms of our songwriting process, it's quite a collaborative thing now," Mills went on telling me. "It did steam from my own solo project, which gradually moved away from the 60s psychedelia and more into the post punk, 80s electronic, new wave kind of thing and as it was making that transition we realised this is a band, this isn't a solo project, so we re-branded it and it's very much a collaboration now," she remarked.

Lastly, finishing up talking about ‘Odyssey' once more, Mills informed me of what we can expect from the show tonight in Auckland. "On top of what I've said already, expect to be moved in some way," she laughed. "Expect to have a lot to look at, because it's definitely something new," she laughed again.

"We try make it one ensemble, so we've got the puppeteers and the musicians all facing the one screen in a kind of horse shoe shape, similar to a semi circle. Then we all meet in the middle, I say all of us, but there's really only three musicians and two puppeteers," she chuckled. "We're sort of one unit, so it's very much a small kind of intimate affair," she exclaimed, drawing the interview to an end perfectly, leaving me in great anticipation for the show which is on tonight at Auckland's Aotea Centre.


Wednesday 29 October - Saturday 1 November at 7.00pm
Live at the Lower NZI | Aotea Centre
Running Time: 80 minutes
Tickets: $25-48 *service fees apply
Bookings through Ticketmaster - or 09 970 9700