Not Just for Kids: Adult Fare at the Puppets Up! International Puppetry Festival 2007

This article was originally published on the Puppets Up! website (2 August 2008). It no longer appears to be accessible via that site. I have corrected a few minor errors. 

Along with increasing the emphasis on the international aspect of the festival, the organizers of Puppets Up! have shown greater and greater interest in providing activities and events geared specifically to adult festival attendees. Since the very first incarnation of the festival, there has been a Puppet Jam scheduled for the evening of the first day of the festival. With snacks—actual appetizers the first year!—and a cash bar, each of these puppet cabarets consisted of a series of short sketches. Many of them have been bawdy (who could forget the host of the original cabaret, Nina Keogh’s Dr. Beryl Freud, an aging but sassy and racy therapist and “ecstatic dancer”), some of them have been awe-inspiring (Trish Leeper’s Botticellian swimming sponge puppet, also from the first cabaret, comes to mind), and others rather weird (Jamie Shannon’s The Happy Bunny Show, with its visibly worn and weary host, serving as the perfect example). The audience for the first two cabarets was made up largely of other performers appearing at the festival and volunteers. It was not a “by invitation only” event, but if you had not heard about it from someone else before the weekend of the festivals, chances were that you not be able to find a ticket. Last year, however, was the first year that it was widely advertised. Even the website for the festival openly announced its existence, just as it did this year.

The 2005 Puppet Jam was held in the Old Town Hall, although it was moved to the North Lanark Agricultural Society Hall for 2006 and 2007. The NLAS Hall certainly provided an appropriate cabaret atmosphere, as instead of the rows of seats set up for the daytime performances in the Old Town Hall, large tables were provided for audience members attending this fundraiser for the festival. Audience members could now meet one another and chat more easily during breaks in the programme, creating a sense of community and carnival.

Despite this pleasant ambience, the lack of a proper stage at the NLAS Hall created staging challenges that were difficult to overcome. The space is so large, that those seated towards the back often missed much of the stage action, due to the number of intervening heads, necks, and shoulders; the shortened version of the marionette production Petrouchka, performed by Heather Bishop Taylor and Darryll Taylor of Maritime Marionettes, proved to be especially difficult to see because of this. Although the performing area set up in front of the puppet theatre could have been raised even further, many of the performers nonetheless managed to adapt to the circumstances. Last year, Mike Harding, the “King of Puppets,” in particular was to be commended for quick thinking, for toward the end of his hysterical, if rather loose, adaptation of Robin Hood, Harding invited an audience member to join him onstage and play the part of Maid Marian in a limberjack dance-off between her and the Sheriff of Nottingham. In a funny modern twist on the story, Marian challenges the Sheriff to a dance-off in order to free Robin from the Sheriff’s dungeon. One is usually seated when making a limberjack dance, as the loosely jointed figure, which is at the end of a rod held by the manipulator, “dances” upon a board held under the manipulator’s leg when that board is tapped rhythmically by the operator. Realizing that nobody seated behind the first row of tables would be able to see this hilarious competition (which Harding, as the Sheriff, always loses), Harding instructed his intrepid volunteer to lean to the side while placing the board between his upper arm and the side of his torso and tap the board with the hand of the same arm, leaving the other hand free to hold the rod attached to the puppet. Unfortunately, this bit of business did not come off as elegantly as Harding might have been hoping it would; still, it was no less entertaining—and this author has seen this routine executed “correctly.”

Mike Harding in a limberjack dance competition with his undaunted—and flexible—volunteer from the audience. Photograph credit: James B. Ashby.

Although many of the other cabaret performers similarly succeeded in coping with these staging arrangements, for this year’s festival, “[t]he Puppet Jam has been moved back to the Old Town Hall because it’s a much better stage and the technical facilities there are excellent,” as Artistic Director and Talent Coordinator Noreen Young, a famous television puppet artist, reveals. One hopes that the unpredictable and festive mood of the cabarets held at the NLAS Hall will be recreated at the Old Town Hall. You can help to make this happen by coming to support this important fundraiser!

While puppetry workshops for children have been a part of the festival since its inception, which is certainly laudable, as they enable the children to have a greater understanding of and appreciation for the professional productions that they are also attending at Puppets Up!, puppetry workshops for adults were not added until 2006. The first offering was quite promising if rather modest, given the rapid expansion that the workshop programme has been undergoing. Tim Gosley and Matt Ficner, two experienced puppet builders and operators who have worked in a variety of media, including television, film, and online video, presented a daylong workshop that combined demonstrations of their own work with practical lessons in puppet manipulation and new work development. Stephanie Williams, who, in consultation with Noreen Young, invited the workshop instructors to participate in the festival, suggested that teachers would be a population group that would likely benefit from and be interested in such a workshop, and indeed, the bulk of the twenty-three students who enrolled in the workshop were, funnily enough, teachers.

Last year, however, the workshop programme expanded in several ways. To begin with, it was spread over two days: Thursday, August 9 and Friday, August 10. There were four workshops in total: “Inspiration & Experimentation with Shadow Puppets,” taught by Jim Napolitano, who has studied the various shadow puppetry traditions of the world extensively and experimented with various variations on the form through his company Nappy’s Puppets; “Puppets for Adults: Television Production for Puppeteers,” taught by John Pattison, the creator of Puppets Who Kill, which began as a Fringe show, eventually becoming an award-winning Canadian television show; “Everything You Even Wanted to Know about Punch and Judy,” taught by professional Punchman and Punch and Judy Fellowship member Richard Coombs from England; and a workshop on object theatre presented by Jurij Galin, Jana Galinová, and Lenka Lavičková of Docela Velké Divadlo (Czech for “Quite a Great Theatre”), a theatre company based in Litvinov in the Czech Republic, as well as Lucie Drengubáková, a dance teacher who often works as a choreographer and translator for the company. All of these theatre artists, with the exception of Pattison, were also participating in the festival itself.

Although all of the workshops were both enjoyable and informative, the workshop attendees appeared to be particularly appreciative of the two that were taught by instructors from abroad, as one so rarely gets the chance to learn from experienced professionals from such disparate cultures at the same time. Moreover, while the Punch and Judy tradition, as one might expect of a former colony, has informed the development of Canadian puppetry (to cite three especially relevant modern examples, Bob Stutt of Pembroke, Ontario has a Punch and Judy show, if a rather politically correct one by Coombs’s standards; Ronnie Burkett presented his play The Punch Club, which featured marionettes as actors performing as hand puppets in a Punch and Judy show, for the 1989-90 season; and David Powell of Puppetmongers Theatre in Toronto built a rather older and more bourgeois Punch, complete with reading glasses, a Judy, a baby, and a Pierre Elliott Trudeau hand puppet for a demonstration in Nathan Phillips Square in 1975 organized by a group of women protesting in an effort to win wages for housework), there is most likely no one person in this country with the practical and historical knowledge of the Punch and Judy show that Coombs possesses.

Similarly, although there are Canadian puppet theatre artists who have presented object theatre performances (that is, productions starring found objects instead of puppets wholly created by an artist or company), such as brother and sister David and Ann Powell, who have been sharing the stage with costumed bricks in The Brick Bros. Circus since 1978, the members of Docela Velké Divadlo are clearly masters at it. Company member Lenka Lavičková proved this when staged an adaptation of Little Red Riding Hood using, for example, a simple apple for the title character. Workshop participants also staged their own object theatre versions of this story, but thankfully, Lavičková waited until everyone else had performed before presenting her own performance. She was a tough act to follow to say the least. Interestingly, Jana Galinová (performer, producer, and dramaturg for the company) was the first to play Lavičková’s role, as she created a larger production, The Story for Birthday, which a concerned a bored young girl waiting for her friends on her birthday. In order to pass the time, she tells three stories, including Little Red Riding Hood, using objects, only to realize that her birthday was actually the following day. Galinová originally developed this production because she was going to travel to perform in Russia but was permitted to bring only one suitcase with her. She simply bought the “puppets” that she needed once she arrived there! It proved to be popular, however, and she performed it for eleven years. In 2000, younger colleagues took over for her, and it was performed over three hundred times in total.

All of this is certainly not meant to detract from the two other workshop instructors. As has already been mentioned, Napolitano is an authority on shadow puppetry, while any aspiring puppeteer would benefit from an opportunity to listen to Pattison share his experiences. A number of the questions that Pattison was asked did in fact come from other puppeteers, which reveals another of the ways in which the workshop programme has expanded. Thirty-five individuals were enrolled in the workshops this year (not all of them were present for both days, however), and while many of these were still teachers, puppeteers at various stages in their careers began to attend the workshops last year. This author, at least, hopes that this is a sign that a closer relationship between the festival and the Canadian—or more specifically Ontarian—puppetry community is developing. There is, of course, little doubt that Puppets Up! will remain primarily a festival for the public and not become a festival for puppeteers. Professional organizations such as the Ontario Puppetry Association (OPA) are generally the bodies responsible for sponsoring the latter type of festival. The OPA, in cooperation with the Great Lakes and Great Plains Regions of Puppeteers of America, presented just such as festival, Celebrate the Puppet, at Fanshawe College in London, Ontario, in July 2006, for example. A festival that is as enthusiastically supported by the town in which it is held as Puppets Up! is, moreover, should be open to the public, and a festival targeting family audiences is particularly appropriate to the close-knit community of Almonte, “The Friendly Town,” as it has come to be known.

This is actually our booth from 2008, with an ebullient visitor with the new friend that she made (literally)! Photograph credit: James B. Ashby.

Still, the OPA had a booth set up in town for this first time last year, and it will be back again this year. This author is confident that this new relationship between a growing festival and the primary advocate for the art of puppetry in this province, a marriage that has been discussed in theory since Celebrate the Puppet in July 2006, will continue to develop, which would benefit both parties, as the OPA would receive greater public exposure, while Puppets Up! would be granted greater artistic legitimacy, particularly in the eyes of those connected with the Canadian puppetry community or the wider theatre community. Even the general public would profit from such an affiliation, as the workshops, demonstrations, and performances that the OPA representatives provide at the booth opens people’s eyes to what puppets are capable of doing, and the information that the representatives provide concerning the Association and its members reveals that puppetry is an art practiced by a number of experienced professionals and eager amateurs across Ontario and is therefore as legitimate an art as theatre or dance.

The primary focus of the festival, however, was, just as it should have been, the events that were organized by the Puppets Up! steering committee, both those that were intended for children and those that were intended for adults. The packed houses and bustling streets at the festival were ample testimony to the success of the events for children and families, but the events for adults were on a smaller scale and were less publicly visible. Nonetheless, both the workshop programme and the cabaret at Puppets Up! must be deemed successes, although there is always room for improvement, of course. Indeed, this year, four full days of puppetry workshops for adults are being offered. In fact, although many topics directly related to puppetry will be covered, including marionette and shadow puppet construction and manipulation, this year, the wider world of theatre is beginning to be embraced, as a workshop on costume design is also being offered.

This is undoubtedly encouraging news, as it is evidence that the organizers of Puppets Up! will not but merely maintaining but strengthening their commitment to offering adult festival attendees enlightening and enjoyable, not to mention affordable, options. It would seem that similarly broadening the entertainment options offered to adults might be the next logical step. A second evening cabaret might be a start, but even just one or two longer performances would give audience members a deeper understanding of the variety and richness of the puppet theatre.

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