Snippets in the Stream

Interview: Rag & Bone Puppet Theatre explore infinite world of possibilities in puppetry

From Apt613.ca

 
By Jessica Ruano on October 22, 2020

 

Rag & Bone Puppet Theatre has toured across Canada and the U.S. since 1978 with over 100 performances a year in schools, libraries, children’s festivals, and theatres. Kathy MacLellan has also written for children’s TV shows including Mr. DressupUnder the Umbrella Tree, and Theodore Tugboat. John Nolan appeared as Jackson on the YTV show Crazy Quilt. In this interview, Kathy talks about the infinite world of possibilities in puppetry — whether live onstage or at a distance on screen.

MASC: You may not know this about me, but I am a total puppet nerd, and in fact dedicated part of my Master’s thesis to deconstructing puppet theory, recognizing puppets as balancing on the threshold between life and death, embodying the qualities of both animate and inanimate objects… Do you think much about the philosophy and theology behind puppeteering, and how does that translate into your work?

The philosophy and theology are, in a nutshell, the magic of puppetry. A puppet is an abstract object. It encourages the audience to use their imagination and suspend their disbelief. This gets them more involved.

I pour my thoughts and feelings into the puppet, audience members project their own thoughts and feelings onto it, and we meet in the middle. As puppeteers, we have control over this little world, but in our approach, it’s a benign and loving authority, “comme des anges.”

Using puppets gives us freedom – a character can fly, jump off a roof, or dance on a teacher’s head. We are also inspired by the way that children play with toys – creatively, imaginatively, and cooperatively. When kids play like that with toys, they learn that they can shape their own stories, and perhaps their own destinies. Maybe change the world into a more loving, co-operative, and benevolent place.

Does the inside of your house look like a magical puppet fantasy land? Otherwise where do you create your puppets and where do you house all your creations and materials?

We live in a wonderfully normal-looking house in Orleans, with a two-car garage and an unfinished basement. The garage has shelving on three sides, full of sturdy boxes containing sets, props, and puppets for twenty different shows.

Various creative projects are always on the go in the main part of the house – sewing, knitting, design sketches, creative writing ideas, and the computers that help run the business. The basement is action central for John’s woodworking, sculpting, and bicycle maintenance. It’s also home to a lot of storage for items that could make it into a show some day – fabric, costumes, hats, interesting antique objects, and old toys. We love toys! Toys from our childhoods, toys that our kids have outgrown, and toys from thrift stores. And lately, the basement has also become a surprisingly well-equipped studio for recording, streaming, and hosting online events.

With your live performances, you present intimate and innovative theatre experiences for school and family audiences. How has this changed with your online programming? What new discoveries have you made about your art form and how you connect with audiences?

With our new basement studio, using close-ups, eye contact, and live interaction, we can be even more intimate and innovative! Our first event was the livestream of Felicity Falls, through the National Arts Centre’s #CanadaPerforms program. With one camera in a fixed position, we took a week to figure out how to move into close-ups and long shots, keep all the props organized, and keep going for the whole show.

We had over 3,000 views, and many heartwarming comments. Since then, we have taught drama classes online with Ottawa Children’s Theatre, performed online for a Montreal library and, thanks to Ottawa Community Foundation, launched Snippets — staged readings with special guests. Our first guest was Nadia Sammurtok from Iqaluit, and the audience included people from as far away as Vancouver and Mexico! Schools and communities can book a whole show from us — like Felicity Falls — or one story, like Peter Rabbit, from “Hippity Hoppity Snippets.”

 

As a member of MASC, what do you gain through offering your workshops in schools and in the community?

Some of my most poignant memories feature work with kids who have special needs: one girl who had never spoken before suddenly found her voice to make her puppet talk; another boy joined a group in one of our workshops and, for the first time ever, made friends at school.

I love the roar of the crowd when something is funny, and the absolute silence in a moment of tension. I also love how MASC connects us with other artists who work in schools and communities like we do. It’s great to share and learn from their experiences and approaches.

I value the input, advice and friendship I’ve had for many years with MASC staff, brainstorming solutions, fleshing out ideas, and sharing laughs. As Chair of the MASC Board of Directors for many years, I am very proud of things that were accomplished during my tenure.

Why do you think it’s important for our local community to have access to professional artists?

Art experiences and communal events are essential to any community’s quality of life. When a school group meets in the gym, staff and kids laugh together, think about new things, learn a bit about empathy and caring, see things from another point of view, and talk about it afterwards.

It’s also important that people see artists who live in their own city, that it’s possible to make a living in the arts, find a job that you love, work at something meaningful, and feel that you are making a difference. Some kids love sports and find a place to belong in that world. Others will only thrive and survive if they can find a way to express themselves through the arts. In our small way, we are throwing a lifeline to those kids. Life is beautiful and worth living, we say to them, and so are you.

Monarch of the Birds…Zoom!

“A long time ago, in a green wooded valley which faced the blue sea, all of the birds got together for a meeting.”

So began yesterday’s drama presentation of The Monarch of the Birds. The speaker was about 10 years old, a lively lad sitting alone in his bedroom. In attendance were nine other performers, John and I, and any number of parents, grandparents, friends and family—all of them in various conditions of lockdown.

“Unfortunately, at that meeting, the birds all made their noises at the same time. Everyone wanted to talk, and no one wanted to listen.”

Teaching and directing a play on Zoom has its challenges. Just getting everyone to class feels like a major victory. You never know when someone will have to leave and come back due to technical problems. Acting in unison is tricky, but possible. Some drama games are impossible unless everyone is in gallery view. Sending people into breakout rooms is difficult if everyone has changed their name to “Poop”. And sitting quietly in the frame of the camera takes real effort for active ones who have a hard time sitting still in any class.

But there are some surprising benefits. Voice projection isn’t as big a problem as it is when kids perform live—the microphone hears everything, from dramatic whispers to idiosyncratic bird voices. Gender and age biases don’t seem to matter as much —the kids were happy to work in small groups with any team members. Props and costumes can very effective on camera—and for us, working in our puppet studio, many things came easily to hand.

The kids loved the drama games, working in small groups in the breakout rooms, and making new friends. They didn’t want to go away from each other in the 10-minute recess. They did a great job—learning lines and gestures, supporting each other, and getting at the heart of the story. They were also happy to help each other with computer problems.

We loved spending time with the kids, of course, and watching the story come to life. It was good for us to learn this new skill, and to feel more confident about being able to teach and work online. We appreciate the encouragement and guidance of the Ottawa Children’s Theatre team, Amanda Lewis, Nick Miller and Emily Poulsen, who shared what they’ve learned from online teaching, and facilitate discussions with other drama teachers David Hersh, Emmanuelle Zeesman, Molly Reisman and Clayton Briggs, who are discovering more every day.

“Chirp, chirp chirp!”

Felicity Falls…live streaming

On March 30 we got an email from the National Arts Centre: we had been chosen to participate in their #CanadaPerforms program, offering us support for our live stream presentation of Felicity Falls. After the disappointment of having to postpone the opening of our new show, Hat Trick, having a lot of other bookings cancelled, and not knowing when we’ll be able to do live performances or workshops again, this was welcome news. Our live stream was scheduled for April 6. We had a week to get ready.

We knew the show. We’ve been performing Felicity Falls for years, since our own children were little. But doing the show for a camera instead of a live audience involved a lot of questions. Where should we set it up? What kind of camera? How can we manage to show the whole set in a wide shot and other scenes in closeup without anyone to work the camera? And would the joy and humour of the live presentations work on video?

We decided to set up a studio in our basement. Our basement is a busy place. A lot of props, toys, fabric, tools and other supplies are stored there. Things don’t always get put away when we are busy planning a new show. Luckily, we had spent the first few “social distancing” weeks organizing things. It still looks pretty crowded, but at least we now know where everything is. And there’s now some floor space—room for a pared down version of the Felicity Falls set at one end of Kathy’s side of the basement, and for lights, camera, computer, monitor and recorder at the other end. And in between, we set up a stool that we could sit on, just the right height for head and shoulder shots (which we use for narrations and short one or two puppet scenes), and a step ladder closer to the camera for extreme close-ups (when we want to zoom into the Rabbits’ tiny kitchen).

Thanks to a grant from the City of Ottawa, we had recently acquired new video equipment. In the picture you can see our camera (a Sony A6500) and our new monitor/recorder. (It’s a Atomos Ninja V, since you asked!)

We spent a few hours every day in our new studio. We had to figure out how each scene would be seen on camera. We had to change our blocking. We made new plans for where we would stand, and how we would hold the puppets. This meant that the puppets and props had to be in different places, so that they were easy to pick up and keep track of in their new places.

When the big day arrived, we were a little nervous. But friendly comments and names started to trickle in. People were watching! More than 200 people watched the live stream, and since then, there have been so many views, likes, loves and comments that we felt that we actually did connect with people. It was fun. 

We still miss those smiling faces, but we enjoyed learning about this new medium. It was another chance for us to work—and play —together. And in this Brave New World (to quote our friend William Shakespeare), who knows what opportunities this might lead to?

We are very grateful to #CanadaPerforms, Facebook, Slaight Music, RBC and the National Arts Centre for their support of this event.

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