“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.
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?
An interview with Rag & Bone Puppet Theatre by Karen Scott-Gagne, reposted from Shenkman Arts Centre’s Facebook page.
Everybody’s staying at home these days, even the family of puppets at Rag and Bone Puppet Theatre Company. We’ve checked in to see how they are doing.
Don’t miss the (free) live streaming of Felicity Falls on Monday, April 6 at 11 am.
What are the puppets doing to keep busy while they’re home?
The puppets are getting used to staying at home and it helps that they have been very busy. Several of them have roles in Felicity Falls so they have been practicing regularly. And because they have had to cancel their in-person performances, they have been building a new set so they can live stream their show from home. Mostly Kathy and John have been using the hammers and other tools, but the puppets get to help with organizing things.
Do the puppets have anything they’d like to say to their friends in other houses?
Yes! The puppets have really been enjoying hearing from all of you through their Facebook page. They want to thank you for your messages.
It can get a little lonely not being with their friends from the schools, and the families who normally go to see their live, in-person shows. They especially miss your reactions, like your laughter and applause. That kind of feedback means the world to a puppet!
Tell us a little about Felicity Falls, the show that you will be live streaming on Monday.
The show is about a community of animals living right here in the Ottawa Valley in a village called Felicity Falls. Like all families, they’re each in their own homes, and like all families these animals have a few small problems, like when Little Girl Rabbit loses her brother’s teddy bear and he finds it difficult to get to sleep without it.
When the roofs start leaking in their houses, they all go to Rabbit’s kitchen, because it doesn’t have any holes in the roof. Now all of the animals are squeezed into one small space. Imagine standing shoulder-to-shoulder with a porcupine! That’s very prickly problem.
We don’t want to spoil the show for you though, so be sure to watch us live on Monday for the whole story.
What’s the best thing about Felicity Falls?
Joy! Felicity means happiness, which is what these friends find in each other. Joyfulness is one of the most important feelings. The show reminds us that even though we all have little problems from time to time, everything turns out okay. Like sunshine after a storm, there is always joy after a challenge.
You had two shows scheduled at Shenkman Arts Centre before we all had to stay home. Will we get to see them?
Yes, you will! Hat Trick and Enchanté are both new shows that were to debut at the Shenkman Arts Centre this spring. The puppets were disappointed because the shows had to be postponed until the fall or winter. But just like in Felicity Falls, they remain joyful, knowing they will see their friends again. We will let you know the new dates soon.
How do we watch the live stream of Felicity Falls?
Visit our Facebook page for the live streaming of Felicity Falls on Monday, April 6 at 11:00 am.
What if we want to buy tickets to your future shows?
Normally we sell tickets from our website, but that’s on hold until we can see each other again. If you would like to give a gift to a friend so they can see a Rag & Bone show in the future, gift certificates are available on our website.
Every year for the past 20 years (or so), we have spent two weeks at The School of Dance, teaching drama for the Dance Delights Integrated Arts program. We wrapped up the latest of these adventures on Friday August 16 with a performance for friends and family of Hat Trick, three stories with the word hat in the title.
What’s it like spending every day with more than forty kids? Amazing! Being with them—getting to know each other, playing together, working together, and learning from each other—is fun. It’s important for artists, especially artists who create work for young people, to stay in touch with their inner children. We have to remember what being a kid was like. We need to know what today’s kids are thinking and feeling. But the biggest thing we adults need to learn from children is to laugh and have fun more often.
The stories included two from Jon Klassen: This is Not My Hat, and We Found a Hat. We absolutely love these picture books. We also love the third one in his trilogy, I Want My Hat Back, but for this project we wanted something a bit longer for the older groups, so we chose Madeline and the Bad Hat for the third story. We wondered how the young people would react to the antics that the young boy in the story gets up to—like making a guillotine to chop the heads off chickens—but the group did a great job of bringing this crazy story to life with humour, empathy and lots of energy!
The School of Dance is a magical place for creative work. We have so much respect and admiration for Merrilee Hodgins and her fabulous team: Kiyoko Makimura, ballet teacher, Lisa Brooks, contemporary dance teacher, Erin Robertson, visual artist, and all the other artists and teachers in the building. TSOD is a place where kids are taught to be supportive, inclusive and friendly while working hard to high professional standards. It’s an inspiration.
And we are thrilled that our partnership with TSOD now extends year-round, with performances of our own work in Studio 1 throughout the year. This year, we will present four different stories: The Wind in the Willows, on Saturday October 19, The Last Polar Bears on Saturday Jan 25, Hat Trick on Wednesday March 18, and The Tempest on Saturday, June 6. All shows are at 1:30 pm. More info on our season here.
So excited to see our family featured in the local “Neighbours of Chapel Hill” magazine! Here we are, from left to right: our son Harry, Me, John, our daughter, Rosemary, and our son-in-law, Billy Ballik, who is completing his PhD in Astrophysics at Queen’s University in Kingston. John and I are holding Ratty and Toad from The Wind in the Willows, the first show in our upcoming season of public shows.
No Strings Attached: Puppeteers celebrating four decades of love
By Matt Day
Inside Kathy MacLellan and John Nolan’s garage are 25 penguins, a family of
rabbits, and a wide array of woodland animals.
No, they don’t operate some sort of zoo out of their
Boyer Road home; for the past 40 years, the married couple has been building
and creating an arsenal of puppets for their acclaimed theatre company, Rag and
Bone Puppet Theatre. Kathy and John have put on thousands of shows,
entertaining children and audiences in schools, libraries, children’s festivals
and theatres all across Canada.
These aren’t your average sock puppets, and the shows
are unlike anything you’d see on Sesame Street. Instead, these puppets are handcrafted inside
the couple’s home garage—Kathy takes care of the sewing of outfits
and creating the bodies while John sculpts the faces out of wood, clay or
fibreglass—before they’re used in original plays based off a
variety of short stories and children’s books, such as Zoom at Sea, a story about a fanciful cat who stays
indoors paddling in the sink or sailing in the bathtub.
“It’s really something special for the kids. The best part
of doing all of this is seeing their faces light up when we bring these
beautiful puppets to life,” Kathy says, adding their performances don’t drill a glaring theme to the audience,
rather they rely on highlighting the joys of life, dealing with feelings and
discovering the importance of friendships in a subtle way.
They’ve been described by the Ottawa Citizen as,
“the company that’s known for delightful and
intelligent puppet shows for kids of all ages,” and continue to perform around 100 shows a
year, including frequent stints at Orléans’ own Shenkman Arts Centre.
Kathy has also written for many children’s
TV shows, including Mr. Dressup, Under
the Umbrella Tree, and Theodore Tugboat while John appeared as
Jackson in YTV’s Crazy Quilt.
They share awards from the Association of Canadian Television and Radio Artists
and were honoured with a Citation of Excellence in the Art of Puppetry from
UNIMA, the international puppetry association.
All of this wouldn’t have been possible if they had never
gotten involved with a group of gangsters on an Ottawa stage back in 1977.
“It was a play called Domino Courts and
I played the part of a wife of a gangster who was partners with (John’s) character. We had a lot of time off
stage together and things kind of snowballed from there,” Kathy says.
They discovered they shared a passion for a
form of puppetry called open manipulation where the puppeteers aren’t hidden behind a curtain and are on the
stage interacting with their puppets and the audience.
“We became closer and we began dreaming of
having out own theatre company. Now, here we are; we’ve created 18 different shows over the past
40 years,” Kathy gleams,
pointing out how she’s been working
with her best friend for the past four decades.
“I know it sounds corny, but it’s all been so great,” John says. “People ask us all the time, ‘How do you do it?’ I think we are both just really lucky.”
He said a lot of it has to do with feeding
off the wondrous attitude of children.
“Even if we’ve had a disagreement, the minute we get on
stage all is forgotten thanks to all the smiling and laughing. It’s a natural pick-me-up.”
Kathy and John got married in 1980 and
after six years of touring—not to mention two bicycle treks across Europe—their daughter Rosemary was born. The small
family moved to Chapel Hill in 1990 and two years later, they had their son,
Rosemary is now a teacher in Kingston and
Harry works for the Treasury Board, but both have lent and continue to lend a
helping hand in the success of Rag and Bone, from acting on stage to putting on
summer camps and helping sell tickets.
“From a young age, they’ve been backstage. Rosemary has been
coast-to-coast with us before she was six months old and we’ve toured the north with both kids,” Kathy says.
When they aren’t performing for live audiences, they like
to unwind in different ways. Kathy enjoys knitting, sewing and frequents the
Orléans branch of the Ottawa Public Library
where she often gets inspired to write new scripts.
John is an avid cyclist, hitting the road
or trails around Chapel Hill almost every day.
“It’s my time. I’m an early riser, so I’ll get up before 6 a.m., even in the
winter. It keeps me active and I just thoroughly enjoy being out there,” he says.
He fondly remembers the two-wheeled tour of
Europe he and Kathy did before the kids came along.
“We had no money, sometimes having to choose
between a croissant in the morning or a coffee at lunch, yet it was the
greatest time. Getting around was so easy back then and their transportation
infrastructure was light years ahead of ours, even at that time,” he says, adding his favourite part of the
trip was touring the Loire Valley in southern France.
They both agree Chapel Hill has been an
outstanding place to set up shop and raise a family all at the same time.
“It’s such a safe neighbourhood and the school our kids
went to, St. Kateri Tekakwitha Catholic, is right by our house,” Kathy says. “I love the little park that’s just west of us with the tiny forest, I
have the library a five minute walk the other way, and just down Orléans Boulevard I can do all my shopping.”
She says her street has seen some changes
over the years as lots with a lot of land are severed to accommodate more
housing and existing homes are renovated, but that the neighbourhood is as
friendly as ever.
“We still love being here. All our close
friends are people our kids went to school with and it’s such a friendly, nice neighbourhood, we’re constantly saying hello to people.”
This spring we made some puppets for a community theatre production of The Wizard of Oz. The Ottawa School of Theatre’s production at the Shenkman Arts Centre will feature over 100 performers—and three puppets. We had a lot of fun making these puppets.
If you’d like to see bigger images of the puppets, we’ve set up a little gallery here.
Can you tell how John used these ….
The Tin Man
A coffee can
A martini glass, upside down with the stem cut off
A bicycle washer (part of a brake)
A fitting from an old lamp
A funnel from Preston Hardware
Aluminum tubing given to us by our puppet mentor Felix Mirbt 40 years ago
Four large jewelry beads
Big lug nut that John found by the side of the road many years ago
A metal truncated cone shape modeled on a paper cup
…. To make these?
Knees and elbows
A way to hold leg parts together
Leg and arm pieces
Hands and feet
I made the Lion puppet from fun fur fabric that was given to us by another puppet mentor, Noreen Young. I reworked the pattern that I used for Moustache, our cat puppet from The Flying Canoe. I made the body the way I make bodies for all of our puppets—cutting out rectangles, first in paper then in fabric: the torso, the arms, the legs, the feet, the hands. I bought the mane at Fabricland – in the ribbon department. They sell fluffy fur in long strips, perfect for making puppet manes!
Scarecrows are often made by stuffing a pillow case with straw, so I sewed a small pillow case shape and stuffed it with fiberfill. I sewed bits of raffia onto long strips of the same fabric to look like straw. The hat is like a witch’s hat, similar to the hat in the original book illustrations. I put the mouth on at an odd angle, so that he could be happy/sad/perplexed depending on the situation. The coat was a Salvation Army Thrift Store find—it’s just like the coat that the actor playing the Scarecrow will wear in the show. It was a child sized shirt, put I cut it down to become a puppet sized coat.
About a year ago, we decided to re-mount The Cow Show.The Cow Show was our first big hit. It created a splash in the puppet world when we first performed it in 1981. Before we knew it, we were touring rural Nova Scotia, Toronto schools and other places far and wide, including a puppet convention in Ames Iowa, where the show earned a prestigious “Citation of Excellence” from UNIMA, the international puppetry association. In 1985, we played the Atelier of the National Arts Centre, the present home of La Nouvelle Scene on King Edward, and the show got a great review in the Ottawa Citizen. The headline was “History Through Cow’s Eyes a Sure Hit”.
We followed up The Cow Show with many other productions and tours, but we always thought we’d get back to it someday. Then one day, about a year ago, we were looking for something fresh for our public series over the 2019 March Break, and it hit us: how about The Cow Show?
The idea for the
show came to us in the back of Felix’s truck. Our puppet mentor, Felix Mirbt
was driving from Ottawa to Nova Scotia to meet with Mermaid Theatre and, on a
whim, we decided to join him. As the countryside sped by, we couldn’t help
noticing all the lovely cows . . . and an idea for a show was born.
Flash forward to 2019. We are grateful to have received a grant from the ARTicipate Endowment Fund. The season is announced, the venues have been booked, tickets are selling well. How long has it been since we last performed the show? John looked it up. 20 years!
Would we still
know our lines? Would we remember the songs and the choreography? What about
the puppets and the quilt? What if a mouse got at them? We were almost afraid
to open the boxes.
I rummaged in the filing cabinet for a script. These days John loves to desktop publish our scripts, and they look pretty good. But the script for this show was written BC—before computers! Typewritten on an old manual typewriter, with notes about blocking scribbled in the margins, it might as well have been papyrus that had to be decoded.
Luckily, we also
had a video. Many years ago, our friend Greg West was looking to get some
experience as a video director, and we had agreed to do the show on Roger’s
Cable. We went into the TV studio, set up the show, invited a group of kids to
be the audience, and the whole show was recorded. There were even some
close-ups. (Although it was a strange experience to watch our 20-something
selves in action!)
We used the video
to transcribe a new script. Then we decided to test ourselves. Without looking
at the script, we stood in our kitchen and took a run at the lines. Oh, my
goodness, they all came rushing out. We still knew those lines after all those
years. Not perfectly, but still. But we needed to re-learn the set-up, the
placement of props, and the actions for the songs.
We opened all the boxes. Everything was still there – except a few items we had “borrowed” for other shows. We set up the whole show in a rehearsal studio at the Ottawa School of Theatre, and for three days, we went over the show, stopping to figure things out, and trying again. By the end of the third day, we were ready for an audience.
We had some worries about the theme. The show has some serious warnings about taking care of the natural world (represented by the docile cow) and the environment (represented by a beautiful hand-stitched quilt). In a humorously dystopian future, the whole world is covered in pavement and stainless-steel buildings. The ozone layer has been destroyed. The people have invented a time machine. They need to go back in time and convince people not to make the same mistakes that they made. But they need a living animal to guide them. In 2019, these things are no joke. The ozone layer destruction seems to have been averted, but the environment is a much more crucial issue than it was 30 years ago. Would it be too much?
We performed the show three times, at Shenkman Arts Centre, The School of Dance, and the Nepean Creative Arts Centre. Two of the shows were sold out. And it was so much fun! The younger kids enjoyed the puppet antics, and the older children appreciated the theme and engaged in a thoughtful discussion in the question period.
The next week, we called up our friends at MASC who book our shows in Ottawa and area schools. The Cow Show will be our lead offering to schools next year. The study guide for teachers is up on our website and ready to go. As the cow says in our opening song, “Moo ma ma moo ma moo!”
Our Zoom puppet is a bit like Dr. Who—every once in a while, he regenerates! We made the first one when the show opened at the National Arts Centre in 1999. About ten years later, after several cross-country tours and many performances, it was time for a new one. And now, with 20 performances of Zoom at Sea coming up at the Meridian Theatres @ Centrepointe and the Shenkman Arts Centre, it was once again time for a fresh new fur on a dear old friend. But it’s hard to step into the same river twice.
To begin with, fabric has evolved. The first two incarnations were made with Arctic Fleece – a fairly new and innovative material in 1999. It’s soft, strong, flexible, and lovely to work with. But the fabric tends to pill after a while. And one day, our friend, well-known puppeteer Noreen Young introduced us to Antron fleece, sometimes known as Muppet Fleece. I had previously used Antron fleece for Roo, the opinionated dog in The Last Polar Bears, and the fabric stands up very well to a lot of use. The other big advantage that Antron fleece has over other kinds of man-made fabric is that you can dye it.
The fabric that Noreen Young gave us was a pure, bright white, and we wanted Zoom to be a bit more cream coloured, so we dipped the fabric in tea. After a few experiments, we discovered that the strength of the tea matters more than the soaking time. So we brewed up a pot of half-strength tea, stirred the fabric in for about a minute, and left it to dry overnight.
The next step is to lay the fabric out on bits of pattern that I move around for different characters – this head, that body, that tail. Then I cut it out, pin the pieces together, sew it up – and turned the whole thing right side out.
That’s the moment that feels like a new creature is being born. First comes the head, then legs, arms and tail.
For some reason, the neck seemed a bit too long in this one, so I bravely cut off the head, to reposition it later and sew it on by hand.
But first, it was time to add eyes and shape the head, pulling stitches right across from the front of the face beside the nose, all the way to the back of the head. And embroider the features. It’s a bit tricky to copy the original embroidery design, and at the same time let a new expression emerge. This Zoom seems younger and perkier than the old one. (Well, I guess that’s not surprising!)
Knitting a new sweater was also fun. I found a pattern online and brought the old sweater to my local Michaels store, where the knitting consultant, Heidi, helped me choose the right yarn. I loved getting back into knitting. Previous projects included many penguins for The Last Polar Bears. I really enjoy knitting projects that involve creating 3D shapes, like the little sleeves and the hood. The hemp cord for the whiskers we also found at Michaels, on the very day that hemp products of all kinds became legal in Canada.
I have quite a large selection of buttons in my collection, but finally found the perfect ones for Zoom at Fabricland. If you look closely, you can see the anchors. Anchors away!
Zoom can hardly wait for his debut at Meridian Theatres @ Centrepointe November 20–26 and the Shenkman Arts Centre Dec. 5–9. Each show will feature a different school choir—20 in all! More information about the show is here, and tickets are available online here.