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.

At home…

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.

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