Orwell the Horse: The Continuing Saga

Well, here we are in the heat of another Toronto summer, and I have been ignoring my blog once again. I had such high hopes! Last year, my stepdaughter and I shared a giggle at my optimistic tone in the introductory section to this website. Although it definitely felt as if I had so much more time on my hands after finishing the PhD, empty spaces have a tendency to fill up, unless you are willing to fight constant border skirmishes. Our modestly sized Upper Beaches apartment is, ironically enough, ample testimony to this.

I actually started writing this post in March 2017, but it was pushed to one side due to more immediate concerns in both my online and offline life. If you look back, you will quickly see that CUPE (Canadian Union of Public Employees) posts took over. I had become the Chair of the Bargaining Support Committee for CUPE 3902 (Unit 3) at the University of Toronto. Like many (most?) part-time, non-tenured university instructors, I have been struggling to cobble together a precarious living by working contract to contract wherever there is work available. At the very least, this usually means commuting between the various University of Toronto campuses, but it also often entails commuting further afield (in my case, to Brock University in St. Catharines at one point, for example).

My background is in theatre, more recently puppet theatre specifically. However, I usually teach in media studies departments. This is not particularly surprising, I suppose, given the evolving priorities of our students, our universities and colleges, and indeed our culture: there is simply more work available in media studies departments than in theatre and performance studies departments. Moreover, there are a number of bridges and overlaps between these two fields: semiotics, communication, “liveness,” human (and inhuman) bodies, and audiences are just a few of their shared obsessions.

Still, the differences between the two fields can make me feel as if I am trapped between two worlds. Enter Police Horse!

I can see into your soul.

The non-googly googly eyes were just placeholders, you may be relieved to know, and will be replaced at some point. Anyhow, Police Horse, a children’s web series being developed by Dimetre Alexiou, recounts the adventures of Police Constable Kathy Skeely and her clever, crime-solving horse Jigs. As you may have already guessed, the puppet pictured above is Jigs. Skeely will be played by a mere human.

Such projects take time to incubate, and this horse was no exception. If you can believe it, I first met Dimetre over lunch at the end of July 2015, but the test shoot was not until November 2016! Of course, we were not working on it steadily for that entire stretch of time. Indeed, due to various scheduling and funding concerns, not to mention a complete redesign, building did not actually begin until May 2016. That said, since the time spent on the project had to be balanced against that spent on other commitments (teaching and tutoring work, family obligations, and so forth), it ended up eating up the entire summer and much of the fall.

I suppose that that should have been expected; although I have considerable design and construction experience with regard to theatrical puppets, the Internet was an entirely new “stage” for me. Moreover, the combined scale and intricacy of the puppet obliged me to push the envelope of my skill set. I was—and still am—grateful that my performance partner Grey Muldoon was right there beside me for much of the redesigning, building, and testing.

There was more to it than developing existing skills and learning new ones, however. This project demanded a personal paradigm shift, the significance and implications of which I do not think I fully appreciated initially. As I have already intimated, I have been designing, building, and manipulating puppets for theatrical productions for several years now. All of these productions have had relatively short runs (a week at the most). In other words, although many of those creations lasted much longer than was required of them—a fact which ironically proved to be heartbreaking in its own way, when several of them had to be thrown out in preparation for my last move, since there was no room for them at our new place—they were not constructed with museums or extended tours in mind.

Even so, I have performed outside the comparatively controlled environment of a conventional theatre space on numerous occasions. For example, Grey and I have performed Fill Me Up!, a saucy object-theatre take on the bar and club cruising and pickup scene, at Pride Toronto in 2011 and 2012 on and above the street in crowded areas. It is worth noting that, while we did not actually build those puppets, they were made completely out of glass.

We suffered surprisingly few casualties that day. In fact, I believe we might have lost more glass soldiers rehearsing it in my kitchen; there are probably still some glass fragments trapped below the heating vent in my old apartment.

Still, while we had the skill (and, let’s be honest, the luck) to get through those performances with most of our cast members in more or less one piece, creating something that is expected to be able to be used repeatedly in currently unknown environments, perhaps even by operators other than ourselves, is a different kettle of puppet mechanisms altogether.

Even with some rudimentary knowledge of materials, however, the courage to ask one’s colleagues for their advice—thank you, Puppetmongers Theatre—and the patience to test things to see if they work (and to redesign and rebuild them if they do not, something that I still need to work on myself), one can make considerable progress towards a much more durable puppet. Of course, it also does not hurt to have a performance partner who has even more experience working with various materials, thanks in part to his studies at the Nova Scotia College of Art & Design (NSCAD) University.

In my experience, adjusting to the idea of “thinking for the camera,” on the other hand, is not unlike attempting to comprehend and interpret a Cubist painting. In one way, live theatre is more unpredictable—and, potentially, unnerving—because you can never be sure where the audience is going to look. You can devise strategies in the hope of directing their attention to where you want it to be, but success is anything but guaranteed. So, not unlike a prisoner in Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon, since you cannot predict with surety where spectators will look, nor (depending on the size of the house) can you always tell where each of them is looking at any given time.

Engagement with the classic and contemporary panopticons. (Image credit: Karen Eliot.)

The potential advantage of performing in front of a camera, conversely, is that you can directly control the gaze of the audience—or at least frame it, as a viewer still chooses where to direct her gaze within the confines of the screen, although she could also, of course, choose to look away or close her eyes entirely. More accurately, and this qualification is important, the director has considerable influence over the gaze of the viewer. Although we were fortunate enough to have been given some helpful guidelines in this regard by the production team, the needs of the production could change—particularly if it proves popular, in which case, additional episodes would have to be written—so we had to attempt to consider the horse from almost every angle (literally) continuously throughout the process. Grey, I must admit, had to remind me of this fact on more than one occasion.

Interestingly, we eventually learnt that the production team had been planning a largely two-dimensional look for the other elements of the show. Thus, we discovered that our independent decision to build much of the structure of the horse up from corrugated plastic sheets—which appealed to us because it was light, inexpensive, and relatively durable, all of which were crucial factors in the context of a puppet on this scale for a production with a limited budget—made even more aesthetic sense than we had originally surmised. It did not hurt, of course, that corrugated plastic requires few tools with which to work, since we do not have a dedicated studio space.

Version 2
One front leg in pieces, one leg with the pieces fitted together.

I trust that my comparison to Cubism is, if perhaps overblown, at least now clear. Our horse, too, was composed of fragments created with multiple perspectives in mind. Even though our fragments were eventually assembled into an abstraction of a horse: not a Guernica horse, to be sure, but still an abstraction.

Guernica (1937) by Pablo Picasso
This horse does not appear to be quite as tortured, but we may still need a third set of hands to help when it rears.

I most definitely can make no claim to being an expert on Cubism from either a theoretical-historical perspective or a practical one. I have taught courses that touched upon it—for a media studies connection, one need only look to Marshall McLuhan, who declared, “Cubism, by seizing on instant total awareness, suddenly announced that the medium is the message” (5). Even so, the comparison has come to mind after the fact, and we were certainly not “inspired” by Cubism in any substantive way. For useful advice as to how to be an actual Cubist, one could turn to Aaron Wemer, someone who is much more skilled in drawing than I am:

Speaking of drawing, in order to demonstrate not only just how humorously rudimentary my drawing skills are but also how thorough our redesign was, here are the initial doodle-sketches that came out of my first meeting with Dimetre:

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And here is the (almost) finished beastie, all those months later:

Like many valiant souls throughout history about to head off to war, we were actually convinced that it would all be over within the span of a few days! Of course, at a very superficial level, “that would have been nice.” Looking back, the thought of a hand puppet for close-ups still has—and I realize saying this may well raise the ire of those who specialize in that type of puppet—a quaint charm. On the other hand, the idea of the horse being ridden around with stiff front legs (since the rider’s legs would actually be the horse’s rear legs) most definitely does not. A modified two-person “costume puppet” would certainly have been amusing (I invite you to search for some examples on YouTube), but it also would demanded considerable coordination of movements, and the individual “supporting the rear” would have necessarily had very limited vision.

Most importantly, however, neither of these hypothetical horses would have been able to rear back very convincingly, and neither would have been imbued with much of the horse’s grace, which is, we ascertained during our research, particularly concentrated in its front legs. Here is a video by animation legend Richard Williams that we found to be especially helpful. We could not hope to meet the standard set by Williams, and while it still humbles me to watch it now, I also find it oddly soothing:

In the end, we eventually stumbled upon what was, as far as I know, a new type of puppet control system: an as-yet-unnamed combination of costume and rod puppet. I remain convinced that the puppet design that we devised was the most effective choice with regard to serving the needs of that particular production, in terms of both addressing as many of the gestures and movements in the lengthy list of requirements that we were sent as possible and providing a single, unified character puppet with which children will identify (or so we hope).

Beyond those immediate concerns and with an eye to the future, the originality of our design will most likely still be the most significant “product” of our design and construction—the two were linked and indeed intermixed throughout—process. Perhaps by-product would be a more accurate term, since we clearly did not set out with a novel articulation and control system in mind as an objective. On the contrary, we initially were all set to fall in line with what I referred to in my dissertation as the Canadian tradition of innovative recycling, that is, the tendency of puppet artists in this country “to borrow concepts and techniques from the more established puppetry cultures” (13), as Jim Morrow, the managing artistic director of Mermaid Theatre of Nova Scotia, puts it, “adapting them to the processes which define our own theatre,” thereby helping to create “an approach which can be identified as truly Canadian” (14).

The horse itself was delivered, tested, and approved at a screen test in November 2016. Of course, as would be expected at such a demonstration, particularly since it was a new type of puppet (not to mention one that had been custom-built), we received a few notes regarding minor alterations that had to be made and details that need to be fixed. The requested changes were not especially daunting, so plans were devised as to how to follow through on them while we waiting for news concerning the crowdfunding campaign for the show.

In April 2017, however, we were informed that the production team had reconsidered their use of the puppet. Our first reaction was one of not only disappointment but also apprehension: it was unfortunate that our horse would not in fact be the star of the show, but due to the fact that it had been designed with such a specific purpose in mind, it was even more distressing to consider what the ultimate fate of Jigs—or “Orwell,” as we had taken to calling him during the building process, in a somewhat ironic tribute, given the number of design challenges that we had to “work harder” to overcome, to the hard-working, if not particularly bright, horse Boxer from George Orwell’s Animal Farm—might be. On the one hand, the Internet was not a medium for which we had collaborated to design a puppet character before. On the other hand, we did not want Orwell to languish in an attic or basement until he began to disintegrate, nor could we face the idea of “disposing” of him outright.

Thankfully, we gradually started to bounce a few ideas off one another, and I eventually came up with the embarrassingly rough sketches below:

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In my defence, the sketches were intended only as memory aids for myself and communication aids for Grey (in anticipation of calling him, as I knew that any attempt to communicate such visual ideas using only words would most likely lead to frustration at both ends). Furthermore, although I could not swear to it, I am fairly sure that I spewed out at least a few of these scribbles while I was riding the subway itself!

So, at the time of writing this, that is where horse-related matters stand. We will continue to exchange ideas and sketches, but we will not be able to begin work in earnest until May 2019, when Grey will again return (temporarily) from NSCAD University. Even though we are not planning our own replacement web series as such, a short video or a limited series of videos on YouTube is probably the next stage in the life of Orwell the horse.

Work Cited

Morrow, Jim. “Mermaid Theatre and Its Place in Canadian Puppetry.” Canadian Theatre Review, vol. 95, 1998, pp. 13-16.

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