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, Harry.
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.”