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.