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.
One of the greatest joy of Snippets of Canada 150 was working with so many wonderful guests! Thanks to all of you for joining in the fun.
Guest Readers Andrew Leslie is the Member of Parliament for Orleans.
Pamela Sweet, Steven Begg, Kathy Fisher and are OPL Board Trustees.
Marianne Wilkinson is the City Councillor for Ward 4 –Kanata North
Penelope Gould and Josephine Norton are Friends of the Ottawa Public Library volunteers.
Margaret Kirkpatrick, Catherine Seaman, Evelyn Housch, Anna Basile, Shannon MacGilvray, Kristina Roudiy, Kirsten Partanen, Heather Ashe and Valerie Jorgenson are OPL staff.
Professional Artist Readers
John Koensgen, has acted in more than 100 plays, and many films. Since 2006, he is the Artistic Director of New Theatre of Ottawa. In 2001, he received the Ottawa Critics Circle Award for Contribution to English Theatre.
Kate Smith is a well-known local actor currently touring her play Hootenanny to Fringe festivals across Canada. She is also the Artistic Director of the Acting Company and Director of Skeleton Key Theatre.
David daCosta is an actor and musician, who will be seen this summer in Bear and Co’s Romeo and Juliet and Rag & Bone’s A World of Stories at Odyssey.
Brittany Johnston is a young indigenous actor, dancer, and theatre administrator currently getting her MA in theatre from U Ottawa.
Jacqui Du Toit is an international theatrical and movement storyteller from Kimberley, South Africa. Since graduating from the University of Cape Town with a BA in Theatre and Performance in 2005, Jacqui has worked extensively as a professional actress, storyteller and dancer for the past 10 years.
Here’s the flexible lineup for Snippets of Canada 150. We add and subtract depending on the library, the guest reader, and the audience response.
Russell sings a song.
Kathy: Hello everyone and welcome to Snippets of Canada 150, a collection of songs and stories celebrating Canada’s 150th birthday.
We are Rag and Bone Puppet Theatre: Kathy, John, Russell and guests.
We want to thank all the librarians across Ottawa who suggested books and songs for this event. There were lots of ideas for books about animals.
In the end, we decided that we should start off with a book about a moose. A big moose, because Canada is so big. And moose live all across it.
Guest: Ernest by Catherine Rayner.
Russell sings a song.
Kathy: And now, a book about a bear and other animals.
Guest: I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen
Kathy: The First Nations were the first people in Canada, and one of our favourite Rag & Bone shows is A Promise is A Promise. And this is how that story begins.
Guest: A Promise is a Promise by Robert Munsch and Michael Kusugak
Kathy: Some of the first newcomers to Canada came from France, and here’s a song they sang.
Song: Ah! Si Mon Moine Voulait Danser
Kathy: And here’s a story about some French-Canadian trappers, from a book called The Talking Cat by Natalie Savage Carlson. It’s one story in a show we do called The Flying Canoe.
John, Kathy & Russell: The Bear in the Canoe
Kathy: Jean Marc and René were also loggers.
Russell sings a song.
Kathy: Then there were farmers and settlers, and there are always new people coming to Canada, and this next story is from another Rag & Bone show called Felicity Falls. It’s about learning to get along and work together to build a great place to live, like Canada.
John & Kathy: Felicity Falls
Kathy: And here’s a song that celebrates farming, and one of our most famous vegetables.
Russell sings a song
Kathy: We’ve celebrated Canada’s animals, people and vegetables, but what about our birds? We have lots of birds in Canada. They all have different personalities. The next story is about one that is Grumpy.
Presenting the stories – with puppets, props and playing around!
We’ve narrowed down the list of books and songs for Snippets of Canada 150, our series of staged readings, and now it’s time to think about how we’re going to present the stories. How can we get these characters to jump off the page and come to life? What kind of voices do they have? What puppets, props, masks or hats do we have? What can we make, buy or borrow?
Let the scavenger hunt begin!
In the house, we found a big sheet of paper, a white cloth, a sock snake, a rabbit mask, and some stuffed toy puppets, including a snake, a loon, a duck, 2 cows, a pig, a beaver, a moose, a bat, and a rabbit. Also some paint, flexi-firm, and a hoodie for the Grumpy Bird.
In the garage, we went through the boxes that contain props from various shows:
Felicity Falls: backdrop, table cloth, table, Rod Rabbit, kitchen, mini puppets, water can & tub, fabrics, branch, pillow, kalimba, houses
The Last Polar Bears: Sheep, slide whistle;
A Promise is A Promise: Qallupiluit mask, Allashua mini puppet, blue pillow; rainstick
The Flying Canoe: Limberjacks, board, step stool, René hat, moustache, puppet; J-M hat & puppet, Canoe, Bear mask, water sprayer
Our good friends at OYPTS loaned us: Antlers, skunk ears, frog hoodie, potatoes
And we made: a mask for Grumpy Bird, consisting of a hoodie with hand painted feathers, and a beak sewn onto a pair of glasses.
We spent a lot of time rehearsing, just the two of us, and then with Russell. We figured out how to use each puppet or prop, rejected some, found others, and then rehearsed with the music.
Now, to get all those props organized for the presentations!
We decided that we needed a backdrop (to run around for those bear chases!), a table, and some chairs for our guests.
Under the table are four large bags, and each one contains a book and all the props we need for that story:
A Promise is a Promise, Hat, Ernest, Grumpy Bird.
Backstage: All the props for The Flying Canoe; tambourine, vibraslap, Limberjacks, board, siren
Leaning on the backdrop, behind the table: everything we need for “How the animals came to live in Felicity Falls.”