Let me introduce you to the newest member of the Small Pond menagerie: Bacchus. Bacchus, meet our blog readers.
Bacchus is a giant puppet – 10 ½ feet tall when I’m wearing him – and today he made his first public appearance at Picton’s Canada Day celebrations.
And who is this ruddy-cheeked, swaggering giant? Bacchus is none other than the Roman god of wine, theatre, and agriculture; all most worthy domains to preside over. We thought he’d fit right in around here with all the wineries and farms in Prince Edward County… as well as with the tribe of theatrical heathens here at Small Pond.
I’m going to give a basic step-by-step of how we made Bacchus… but first you might be wondering why on earth we would put so much time and energy into creating such highly impractical, nonsensical things like giant puppets. I can really only blame one person: David Anderson.
Four years ago, Milé and I moved in together into the tiny third floor apartment of a house in Toronto (the aforementioned shoebox). As it turned out, David lived on the main floor. I knew him to be the Artistic Director of Clay & Paper Theatre, and being a playwright and fledgling puppeteer myself, I naturally suggested that we have dinner and talk theatre. Thus it was that a few days later we rendezvoused on the front porch for a barbecue. David was in a right state. He had a show going up in a month and his producer had just quit. As luck would have it, I’d just quit my job. By the time we were tucking into our meal, I’d been hired.
David Anderson toasts a cabeçudo (giant head puppet)
in the first production we worked on together
This month-long contract at Clay & Paper turned into four crazy years of writing, producing, performing, workshopping, stilt-walking, and yes, building all sorts of puppets, both great and small. I have to thank David for teaching me almost everything I know about puppets. He was a great mentor and I have many fond memories of working with him in the years before starting Small Pond. In addition to my puppet pedigree from Clay & Paper, I also had the great fortune of doing a 5-week internship at Bread & Puppet Theater in Vermont, an experience that not only further informed my knowledge of puppetry, but in fact inspired us to start a ‘puppet farm’ of our very own.
Bacchus was born from the outhouse, in a sense. When we dug the pit for the Small Pond outhouse, we were happy to discover a vein of clay which we hauled away in buckets for later use. The first step of the process involved reconstituting the clay by adding water to it. Once it had returned to a fairly squishy state, I dumped it out on a big table and started sculpting with my hands.
It took a while for me to get a shape I was happy with, and I often had to stand on a ladder above the sculpture to get a sense of what it looked like. I then had to let the clay dry out for a few days– once it had solidified I smeared the whole thing in Vaseline and started papier-mâchéing with the assistance of Nel, a visiting playwright, and our friend Guy.
Nel and Krista papier-mâché
Meanwhile, in Oshawa, my sister Caitlin and my grandmother Marion had been sucked into the puppet vortex, and in between cups of tea and games of Scrabble they were cutting out 175 grape leaves based on the template I provided them. I love you two!
When the papier mâché was dry, I popped it off the form, the Vaseline forming a barrier to prevent the paper from sticking to the clay. I reinforced the edges of the face with wire. Guy and I screwed some cross beams into the head, then I primed the face, inside and out, and handed it over to Milé for painting.
Bacchus is nothing without his grapes. I made each grape individually, sewing little bundles of stuffing into two colours of purple fabric. The grapes I sewed into bunches, the bunches I sewed onto leaves, and the leaves I stitched onto the head. I filled in some gaps with strips of dark green fun fur – I feel they look like vines and it really works well in adding another texture. I also used a bit of gold highlighting throughout – ribbons, sequins, gold leaves – which I thought would lend itself to his godliness as well as providing a bit of good old fashioned sparkle.
All this time I was debating what to do with the hands. Sculpting them in clay would take too much time, so I opted for my patented Frankenstein technique. The hands are made out of a cut-up pool noodle found in our woods and a bit of junk Styrofoam. It’s all held together with masking tape and a couple layers of papier mâché. The wine bottle is similarly made of some cut-up plastic pop bottles and a cardboard tube, again covered with masking tape and papier mâché.
Bacchus is a backpack puppet – this particular backpack I found on the street in Toronto (I'm an avid freecycler). It is a Pioneer Indian Pack Board No. 3. Not totally comfortable by modern standards, but I enjoy the design of it. Its wooden frame made it easy to bolt it to two pieces of 2” x 2” wood which go straight up and bolt onto the cross beam in the head. The key to keeping control of the puppet is a snug strap across the waist and the chest. This particular backpack didn’t come with such straps, so I bought some 1” buckles and some strapping at Canadian Tire.
Milé designed the Small Pond Estates wine label
For Bacchus’ costume I decided to try something a little different; instead of the traditional giant puppet costume consisting of a large tube of fabric covering the operator and two tubes for the arms, I decided to go more conceptual and use fabric strips. I knew that I was often going to be the one carrying the puppet, and chose to make my own costume part of the larger costume – really, I was just looking for an excuse to wear gold combat boots!
Bacchus is the first of many giant puppets we’ll be building at Small Pond. If you’d like to get involved in helping us make one, please get in touch – they are big projects and volunteers are always welcome. Until next time, may Bacchus continue to watch over you, and may your cup runneth over!