Puppets Up!: Its Place in Canadian Puppet Theatre History

This article was originally published on the Puppets Up! website (25 July 2006) and (with some very slight changes) on the website for the Ottawa Valley newspaper theHumm (27 July 2006). It no longer appears to be accessible via either of those sites. I have corrected a few minor errors.

As Noreen Young, the guiding light behind the upcoming second annual Puppets Up! International Puppet Festival (12-13 August 2006), once told me, the residents of Almonte are highly “sensitized to puppetry,” so the town is a logical choice for hosting a puppetry festival. Of this there is little doubt. I visited Almonte for the first time last summer for the first incarnation of the festival, and for a student researching Canadian puppetry, it seemed to be the Promised Land. Puppets created by Young herself and several other Ontarian puppet artists, such as Kanja Chen of Chensational Puppets (based in Toronto), filled the shop windows, while even more puppets sang and heckled visitors—but always in good humour—from the balconies overlooking the streets. And all this before I even saw a single performance!

While Almonte is certainly a puppet-friendly town, one should not assume that the English-Canadian puppetry festival was born there last year. Perhaps you have heard tantalizing rumours concerning puppetry festivals hosted by our neighbour to the east, Québec, or our friends to the south, the Americans. Many of these rumours are true, of course, but Ontario has its own history of puppetry conferences and festivals. The earliest reference to a large-scale puppetry event dates to 1939, when Hamilton seems to have been the Almonte of the 1930s, while Rosalynde F. Osborne was its Noreen Young.

Osborne, later known by her married name, Stearn, was a driving force behind the Canadian manifestation of the puppetry revival that, as Paul McPharlin reveals in his book The Puppet Theatre in America: A History 1524-1948, swept across much of North and South America during the early twentieth century. Inspired by contemporary artists and writers in Europe but discovering the possibilities offered by this versatile form of artistic expression on their own, Canadian puppet artists, unfettered by an inherited puppetry tradition (such as the Bunraku tradition of Japan), were free to borrow techniques, styles, and ideas from where they wished. They quickly established a tradition of innovation that persists to this day.

McPharlin notes that Osborne staged Punch and Judy of Long Ago, “the first production of the new era,” in Hamilton in 1923, “hoping to bridge the gap between the Punch shows familiar to most British Canadians and the newer puppetry” (348). She was also the first Canadian puppet artist to present a Greek comedy, The Clouds by Aristophanes, which she presented at McMaster University in Hamilton in 1938. She gave a number of practical and historical lectures on puppetry, wrote a puppetry column for Curtain Call, the first Canadian magazine in English—it was published from 1929 to 1941—dedicated to covering the theatre and the other arts, and organized the first puppetry conference in Canada, which was held in May 1939, and once again, the venue was McMaster University. Lastly, she donated a collection of puppets and puppetry books from Canada and elsewhere to the McGill University Libraries in 1953. It now forms the basis of the impressive Rosalynde Stearn Puppet Collection.

Although the conference only lasted for a day, the schedule was ambitious, and it featured both events that one would normally associate with a conference in the academic sense of the term and ones that one would expect to find at a theatre festival. The day began with a formal reception, followed by a three-hour series of demonstrations by visiting companies. Short papers were presented during intermissions. (Do not worry! Although I will be reviewing some of the performances that will be presented at Puppets Up! and posting some other thoughts on puppetry on the website for the festival, I will not bother any of you during intermissions!) McPharlin, a respected puppet theatre artist and scholar, not to mention the first president of Puppeteers of America, gave the keynote address at dinner, which was followed by a performance by Walter Wilkinson, who tramped all over Britain and America with his cart, which could be quickly transformed into a hand-puppet booth, and wrote a series of travelogues about his adventures.

Although this conference must have been exciting to attend, it was intended mainly for puppet artists, not the general public. This would also be true of many of the Canadian conferences and festivals that would follow in the years to come, such as the conference that was co-presented by the Ontario Puppetry Association and Puppeteers of America in late July at Fanshawe College in London, Ontario. Never before in Canada has an entire community embraced a puppetry festival as Almonte has. Adults, children, aspiring puppeteers—all are welcome. There is something for everyone: the family-oriented daytime shows, the evening cabaret for adults, and the daylong puppet manipulation workshop being offered by Tim Gosley and Matt Ficner.

So, come and enjoy Puppets Up!, as some of the most innovative puppet artists from Canada and beyond will be performing; indeed, the number of artists coming from outside of Canada has increased, perhaps the most promising development of all, as it will be interesting to learn what the rest of the world is doing puppetry-wise. And enjoy being part of Canadian puppet theatre history!

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