Helen Marriage: How Can Large-Scale Performance Art Inspire Wonder And Creativity?

May 10, 2019
Originally published on May 28, 2019 11:16 am

Part 3 of the TED Radio Hour episode Jumpstarting Creativity.

About Helen Marriage's TED Talk

In 2006, Helen Marriage convinced London officials to let a 40-foot elephant puppet parade through the streets. The result? Four magical days that sparked the imaginations of one million people.

About Helen Marriage

Helen Marriage is the co-founder and director of Artichoke, a London-based company that produces large-scale street performance art.

Previously, Marriage served for 7 years as director of the Salisbury Festival and an associate director of the London International Festival of Theatre (LIFT).

She was awarded a Loeb Fellowship at Harvard Graduate School of Design in 2012 and an MBE for services to the arts in the New Year's Honours list in 2016.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.


On the show today - ideas about jump-starting creativity. And sometimes what you need to spark that creativity is something completely out of the ordinary...


RAZ: ...Which is what Helen Marriage...

MARRIAGE: Pleasure.

RAZ: ...Tries to do on a pretty ambitious scale.

MARRIAGE: I mean, I think what we do sits at a very strange junction of the arts and transformation of place. So you can see that the audience, who aren't necessarily the kind of people who would ever go into a gallery, are moved by the way the imagination of an artist can transform their daily experience.

RAZ: Helen works as a director at a company called Artichoke.

MARRIAGE: Based in the U.K. And we create extraordinary art events in the public realm.

RAZ: Basically these large-scale art installations that exist to ignite creativity, to spark joy, to create moments of wonder in the every day.

MARRIAGE: You know, if I say moments to you, you'll think falling in love or your first child being born or disastrous things or funny things. It's the moments. It's not the routine that you remember.

RAZ: And Helen and her team had an idea in mind to really disrupt the routine in one of the busiest cities in the world, London. Helen Marriage picks up the story from the TED stage.


MARRIAGE: Imagine, it's a world city. Like all our cities, it's dedicated to toil, trade and traffic. It's a machine to get you to work on time and back. And we're all complicit in wanting the routines to be fixed and for everybody to be able to know what's going to happen next. And yet, what if this amazing city could be turned into a stage, a platform for something so unimaginable that would somehow transform people's lives? We do these things often in Britain. I'm sure you do them wherever you're from. Here's Horse Guards Parade, and here's something that we do often. It's always about winning things. It's about the marathon or winning a war or triumphant cricket team coming home. We close the streets. Everybody claps. But for theater - not possible except a story told by a French company, a saga about a little girl and a giant elephant that came to visit for four days. And all I had to do was persuade the public authorities that shutting the city for four days was something completely normal.

RAZ: So for people who don't know the story or even the huge sort of large-scale performance that you mounted, tell me what is the story of The Sultan's Elephant?

MARRIAGE: So The Sultan's Elephant is about a sultan aboard a time-travelling machine, which comes in the form of a giant elephant. You have to stop me when it gets ridiculous. You have to imagine me trying to negotiate this with the 25 men in uniform who control London.

So I'd say, well, it's a kind of fairytale. And there's a little girl who arrives in her rocket because she's travelling through time and space. And a sultan has heard about her journey. And he wants to meet her. So he commissions an elephant flying machine. And he arrives with his entourage (laughter) - so you can imagine how well this was going down - his entourage of concubines and eunuchs. And he coincides with her just in London at this amazing moment. And they spend four days meeting each other, but more importantly, meeting the people of London, doing the things that any visitor to a city would do - traveling on a bus, going to a party. And then she decides to leave. Her rocket is reassembled. The sultan and his entourage mourn her departure, and she disappears in a puff of smoke - simple.


MARRIAGE: So that was a two-minute version of a seven-year conversation. Maybe one thing we should say is about the scale. So when you say large elephant, people think of an elephant. But this totally-articulate-moving-in-every-direction elephant was the size of a three-story building. It was - in feet, it was 40 feet high. And aboard it were 14, what were called, manipulator puppeteers, who were moving...

RAZ: Wow.

MARRIAGE: ...The trunk and the eyes and the body and the legs and the tail - all of it moved. I mean, all anyone ever said is, it looks so real, which it didn't. It was obviously made of, you know, wood and steel and hydraulics. But it - like the best puppet shows you've ever seen, you stopped watching the mechanics and just saw this magnificent creature.

RAZ: And do you remember the date that you actually - you were on the streets of London - what date it was?

MARRIAGE: Yeah, it was May 2006.

RAZ: All right. May of 2006 - and where in London was it?

MARRIAGE: So we closed central London. So if any of your listeners have been to London, we closed the area from Trafalgar Square, Horse Guards Parade, the mall, which leads down to Buckingham Palace, Marlborough Road, St. James's, Piccadilly...

RAZ: Wow.

MARRIAGE: ...In a mass - Haymarket, all of that. So we closed the absolute center.

RAZ: All right. May of 2006 comes. The streets are blocked. The center of London is clear. Take me there. Like, do you have - you just gather at a certain place...

MARRIAGE: No, you have to be with me the night before. So the night before...


MARRIAGE: ...Nicky and I - my partner - we stood in the mall. And it was completely deserted. And we - I remember we both looked at each other and said, do you think anyone will come? Because the event is free to the public, you don't have any sense of an audience or who might come or anything. So the night before, we were nervous. And then the show started with the little girl's rocket apparently crash landed into a street outside the Athenaeum, which is one of the big clubs in central London. And if you went there at 6 o'clock in the morning, this enormous rocket - 30, 40-feet high made of wooden frame, looking like something out of a Jules Verne novel; so it was all slightly set in that period - was embedded into the ground with smoke billowing out of the floor as if it had just crashed. And it did nothing. For the day - for the Thursday performance, the rocket just sat there.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Well, no sign of this infamous elephant yet. But what is a lot more exciting is what I'm looking at in front of me. It's a upturned rocket - looks like it has planted itself from the sky - about 20 foot high, this rocket.

MARRIAGE: So 10 a.m. the next day, the lid comes off the rocket. And the little girl - 24 feet of a little girl with a beautiful, flying helmet and her hair trapped underneath it - emerges from the top with the rocket. And...

RAZ: She's a giant puppet.

MARRIAGE: She's a giant puppet. And she walks through Trafalgar Square into the mall, which is the road that leads down to Buckingham Palace, and onto Horse Guards Parade, where, miraculously, a giant elephant has appeared overnight. And the sultan, who's aboard the elephant, gets off the elephant to greet her. And then the show starts. And they, together and sometimes separately, just explore all of those areas of Central London that we had negotiated was their sort of playground. And the first day, maybe 50,000 people came, which we thought...

RAZ: Wow.

MARRIAGE: ...Was great. It was great. I mean, it was controllable. It was, you know, amazing. But by the Sunday, we stopped counting. But the BBC said there were a million people on the streets.

RAZ: Wow.

MARRIAGE: And if you look at the images, you can see that they were a million happy people.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Where we can fly, where we can believe in magic...


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: ...Where we can believe in wonder...


RAZ: When you think about art and the kind of art you do - you know, huge public events - how do they - how do you think they transform someone's ability to think in an imaginative and creative way in their own lives?

MARRIAGE: I think that if you can physically transform a place, you can change forever the experience and the outlook of anybody who experiences that. So after the elephant, I mean, we've done loads of other shows since then. But it's interesting, the elephant, because it was the first and the most shocking, in a way, because it really did - nobody tried to do anything like this before.


MARRIAGE: We got an email. We got thousands and thousands of emails. We got an email from a man who said, I woke today with the most extraordinary feelings of grief and joy; grief that I'll never see them again and joy that I met them. Thank you for teaching me that cynicism isn't a way of life. So just in that one, little email, you can see the extraordinary transforming effect that those few days had on people.


RAZ: That Helen Marriage. She's director of Artichoke. It's an organization that helps produce large-scale art performances in public spaces. By the way, the name of the French marionette company that created The Sultan's Elephant is called Royal de Luxe. You can see Helen's full talk at ted.com. On the show today, ideas about jump-starting creativity. Stay with us. I'm Guy Raz, and you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.