11 December 2011

How I Got Into Puppetry

"How does a puppet come into being?  It happens when someone sees an image of himself, or some aspect of the world, in the crooked glass of his imagination and gives it form, movement, and sound. Someone has the urge to bring his drawing to life and make it move and talk.  Or maybe he thinks of a sound first and gives it shape and movement.  Or it may be an intangible, like the force of the wind, that inspires him and he gives it a shape and character.  The primitive urge still applies." - Bil Baird, The Art of the Puppet

Yeti puppet by Krista Dalby
Bil Baird's attempt to explain how a puppet comes into being could just as easily be a response to how a puppeteer comes into being. "How did you get into puppetry?" is a question I'm often asked. I usually give a short answer, one that is not very truthful but is efficient for cocktail parties or classroom conversations. I say that I tried out regular theatre and found it boring. It's not much of an answer. What follows is the rather long but far more accurate response.

From my Dad: "This is Krista's first puppet performance - she was about 4 years old - I  brought kit called DUSO (Developing Understanding of Self and Others) home from grad school [he was studying Psychologyand the world has never been the same."

Like  many other North American kids in the 1970s, I grew up with the Muppets, who were as famous at that time as any other celebrity.  When I watched Sesame Street or The Muppet Show I completely bought in to the fantasy,  rarely considering that the characters were puppets, objects being manipulated by humans. These oddballs clearly had an influence on me, as I named my first pets after them; a trio of goldfish I called Ernie, Bert and Big Bird (epic misnomer).

I grew up in Calgary, and in high school our drama class took a field trip to Lunchbox Theatre, where we saw marionettist Ronnie Burkett perform one of his first shows, Virtue Falls; I've seen many of his other shows in the 20 years since.  I loved drama class, but hated high school, so I dropped out.

Punch and Judy puppets by Krista Dalby

A few years later, I found myself in the theatre program at Mount Royal College, where I took classes in costume- and set-making, stage management, and a variety of others on the technical side of things.  For an assignment in our props class, my class partner and I built an evil wasp marionette; it was pretty well-made, from what I can recall.  
I graduated from college and decided that I never wanted to do theatre again, and proceeded to spend a whole bunch of years working dead-end jobs, traveling, and partying.  I wasn't doing a whole lot creatively, but I was writing.

Even sock puppets like to get their drink on.

Eventually I went to Concordia University in Montreal and got a degree in Creative Writing.  I wanted to be a novelist.  No, a short story writer.  No, for real this time, a screenwriter.  Or maybe a tv writer? Who was I kidding?  Resistance was futile.  The theatre dragged me back and I started writing plays.  Most of them were pretty terrible, but then they started getting better.

After university I moved to Toronto, where I got a Real Job and paid off my student loans. One day I heard that artist Lisa Pijuan-Nomura was holding a puppetry workshop. I had no idea what to expect but soon discovered her beautiful vision: a flock of puppeteers would create small portable puppet shows in cardboard box theaters. During one of the famously fun Red Cabarets, we would simultaneously descend on individual tables and perform short puppet shows. I had never heard of anything like it but I'm adventurous and I was eager to give it a try. My show was about two formerly conjoined twins; one was about to depart for space camp and the other was having severe separation anxiety. The performances began and the cacophony was unbelievable, the delighted surprise of the audience and the energy of the puppeteers were a potent mix. I'd never considered myself much of a performer, but when I performed my puppet show, I was delighted to discover that it wasn't about me at all. My audience was watching these two freaky little dolls being moved around in a cardboard box. And they were riveted.

This was awesome.

The possessed look on my face says it all.

That was the night I fell in love with puppetry.

Milé reads a book to Little Milé (puppet by Krista Dalby)

Some time before this I had fallen in love with a man.  
 Two years later, Milé and I moved in together.   He was living in a tiny third floor apartment (which we called The Shoeboxin Toronto's West end, and the day I moved in with him I met his downstairs neighbor, David Anderson.  I knew that David was a theatre person, so I suggested that we have dinner and get to know each other.  Our dinner date rolled around, and when Milé and I showed up, David was totally distraught; his producer had just quit, and he had a show opening in just a few weeks.  As it so happened, I had just left my Real Job and had no immediate prospects, perhaps I could help him out for a few weeks?  I was hired over dinner that night, and wound up working with David at Clay & Paper Theatre for the next four years.

David Anderson of Clay & Paper Theatre

Clay & Paper creates outdoor theatre, parades and festivals using a myriad of puppetry styles, from giant puppets to hand puppets, and everything in between.  David and I wrote four plays together (soon to be five!), and I produced all of the company's shows and events from 2006 to 2010.  This was where my true education in puppetry took place.  David had been creating public space performances since the sixties, and there was no idea that was too crazy.  Turn a wheelbarrow into a puppet herd of race horses?  No problem.  Form a bicycling-oriented puppet squad?  Sounds perfectly reasonable.  Burn twenty-foot skeleton sculptures in the park?  Terrific!  I wrote, I produced, I built, I performed, I led workshops, and over the years organized hundreds of people.

That's me walking my dead frog in a baby carriage,
representing The Fear of Species Extinction,
At Clay & Paper's annual Night of Dread

Thus it was that puppetry conspired to take hold of me.  Meanwhile I had met young performer and producer Guy Doucette, who invited me to attend one of his shadow puppetry plays.  I was instantly fascinated by the art form. Guy and I became fast friends and soon we were collaborating on shadow plays.  I also met teacher Craig Morrison through Clay & Paper; he's a kick-ass designer, and soon he started collaborating with us, too. Over the last four years we've created half a dozen shadow puppetry plays, which have become increasingly complex and refined.

Shadow puppets from The History of Shadows,
designed by Craig Morrison and Guy Doucette

When I made a brief foray into the world of opera with Tapestry New Opera Works, of course my puppet-brain came with me, and I wrote two operas for puppets: The Shaman's Tale (composer Kevin Morse) with giant puppets and shadow puppets, and sock puppet opera The Perfect Match
 (composer Anthony Young) which was eventually made into a Bravo! short film.

Scene from The Perfect Match

I can't seem to quell this madness for puppets, and now spend a good deal of time doing puppetry workshops through ArtsCan Circle, the Ontario Arts Coucil's Artists in Education program, and at Small Pond Arts.

So there's the long answer to how I got into puppetry.  Or perhaps, how puppets got into me?

Scary Clown says "BYE BYE!"
Puppet by Krista Dalby

01 November 2011

Pecha Kucha

A few weeks ago, I made a presentation about Small Pond Arts at Kingston Arts Council's Pecha Kucha. Pecha Kucha Night originated in Tokyo, Japan, as an event for young designers to meet, network, and show their work in public. Drawing its name from the Japanese term for the sound of "chit chat", it rests on a presentation format that is based on a simple idea: 20 images X 20 seconds. Artists show 20 of their images, for 20 seconds each. It's a format that makes presentations concise, and keeps things moving at a rapid pace.

It was an evening of presentations devoted to theatre, and I felt a little like the odd one out as the other 6 presenters hailed from more traditional theatre backgrounds; but everyone was very friendly and responsive to my presentation. It was a lot of fun and the fast pace really kept things snappy. A tip of my hat to all the artists featured in my presentation, including those I (doh!) didn't name: Trevor who puppeteered Punch, and musicians néGar, Kori, Shawn, Graydon and Lara.

You can watch my presentation below.

BONUS DRINKING GAME: Take a drink every time I say "Um." You will be loaded by the halfway mark.

29 October 2011

What is an Artist Residency?

Small Pond Arts is, amongst other things, an artist residency.  "Now what," you might ask, as many people do, "is an artist residency?"  At a minimum, residencies provide artists with space to create new work.  At Small Pond, we hope to give artists much more. 

"Supporting today’s artists in the creation of new work is essential to human progress — not as a luxury, not as a leisure activity, but as a vital and necessary force in society. Artists’ communities are not about retreat; they are about advancement. Advancing creativity. Advancing human progress. Advancing the way we examine the world." - artistcommunities.org

In the last year and a half, we have hosted more than 60 resident artists.  How they have used their time with us is as different as the artists themselves.

Resident artists are given free reign of our beautiful 87-acre farm, located just outside the town of Picton, Ontario, Canada.  If you have no idea how big 87 acres is, let’s just say you could easily fit a neighbourhood or a small town within it.  Artists are provided with a private bedroom or space to camp.  Starting in 2012 we will also have a funky 1967 airstream-like trailer that will be available for rental.  We have a barn that can be used as a studio or rehearsal space from spring through fall; we also use the barn for performances and exhibitions.  We have a workshop full of tools and supplies that is often a hive of creativity.  

Plus, we have more fresh air, green grass, wildflowers and butterflies than you can shake a stick at.

The Small Pond vibe is casual and creative.  We have few rules, relying on mutual respect and common sense to lead the way.  We eat our meals communally, making room for camaraderie and conversation to blossom.  We ask our residents to contribute one hour of chores per day – and other than that, their time is their own.

Some artists paint paintings.  Others take photos.  Some write plays, some make music, some create sculptures.  Puppeteers create and perform shows.  Students make short films. Lots of our visiting artists do more than one thing.  Many of them try something new.  When they need a break they ride bikes, bake cookies, swing in the hammock, scope out Picton’s thrift stores, take naps, walk in the woods.

We invite resident artists to play an active role in our festivals and productions; we have at least one event per month between June and October.

They are welcome to contribute artwork and installations to our artists’ trail.  There are no creative limits – our farm is an expansive outdoor gallery to which anyone may contribute.

Milé and I are both artists ourselves, and our goal with Small Pond was to create the type of place that we’d want to run away to for an artistic escape.  

Judging by the responses from our residents, I think we've succeeded.   Here are what a few of them have had to say:

“I couldn’t have possibly imagined what this place would be like, and it blew all of my expectations away.  The talented, awesome people who are drawn here fit perfectly into the amazing mould for community you have here.” – A.G.M.

“We had an absolutely amazing time here, we will definitely count it in among our favourite trips.  We don’t want to leave!” – N.M. & K.N.

“I’m so appreciative to have had this experience and get to see the beauty & love you all put in to this home/center/haven.  It was a beautiful week that felt so comfortable, warm & open – like being at the most familiar place I’d never been.” – R.K.

“This has been an inspiring experience for me.  The love and hard work that you’ve invested into Small Pond is fantastic and really left a great impression.  Thank you for having me!” – I.L.

We’re currently booking artists for future residencies.  Want to count yourself amongst them?  For more info, please visit our website:  http://www.smallpondarts.ca/residencies.htm... and start dreaming about the possibilities.

14 October 2011

Scarecrow Festival

This year Small Pond Arts took over the annual Prince Edward County Scarecrow Festival, previously run by our friends at Galloping Goat Gallery.  Each year the festival's proceeds benefit a charity, and this year we chose ArtsCan Circle, an organization that I volunteer with.

We held the event on the Saturday of the Thanksgiving weekend, and the weather was absolutely glorious. 

There were a lot of things I loved about this event. 

I loved the family vibe, so evident at Thanksgiving when families come together.

I loved the way people worked together.  Making a scarecrow is just one of those things that is hard to do alone (and not nearly as much fun!).  Nobody was crying or rushing or complaining or fighting – everybody was just getting it done, in their own time.

ArtsCan volunteer David Joyce (L),  makes a scarecrow
with Executive Director Carol Teal (R)
I loved seeing people exercise their creativity.  I don’t think there were too many in the crowd that would call themselves artists, but everyone was forced to flex their creative muscles to make their scarecrow.

No two scarecrows were the same, but each had its own kooky charm.

How can a barfing pumpkin be so damn cute?!?
There’s something kind of primal about building these life-size images of ourselves, something that we all just know how to do…

Time to get topical: #Occupy Wall Street Scarecrow
And of course I loved raising money for ArtsCan Circle.  If feels really great to have so much fun AND get to make a contribution to an awesome charity.

A huge THANKS to our supporters this year: Picton Home Hardware, Second Time Around, County Photographer Phil Norton, Andrew & Emily’s No Frills, Honey Wagon Farms, George Emlaw, Galloping Goat Gallery, City Revival... we couldn't have done it without you!

See you next year!

SAVE THE DATE: Saturday October 6, 2012

27 September 2011

Stickfest 2011

This year's Stickfest was nothing short of amazing, having even more sticky content than last year.
I absolutely love being part of something that brings communities together worldwide to celebrate and enjoy something so simple and common yet obviously beloved by nearly everyone...all for the low price of One Stick.

I designed the poster for the Picton event (once again proudly held at Small Pond Arts) this year and you can read about its creation on my own blog here.

Now on to the highlights:

The weather this year was gorgeous and there was as much going on outside as inside. Gathered outside (Canada's first!) Museum of the Stick.

This zebra (featuring a stick tail and legs) was brought all the way from Africa to be shown for a limited time in the museum.

There was also a pair of x-rays from a Macedonian hospital revealing stickbones in someone's left and right hand.

This is what a cactus skeleton looks like. These sticks come from the Arizona desert.

This breadstick log cabin was built by Elizabeth Brandeis specifically for this year's Fest from breadsticks she baked herself.

Recently discovered, this poster from the 1996 Stickfest in Montréal, QC (designed and illustrated by Peterson Joseph) was included in the museum's gallery which showcased returning work by Niall Eccles, Carl Wiens, and children from around the world.

Speaking of children's art, this wonderful piece is by local budding artist Mylène Sayers.

Guy Doucette created a shadowy image that folks could literally get into and have their pictures taken.

Above is a kinetic sculpture by local glass artist Vanessa Pandos, which she created using sticks, glass, and a mirror.

Sticky notes! People wrote (and drew) their favourite stick and stuck them on the wall.

The Paint-A-Stick stations were a big hit with families again this year.

Hanging above this painting station is a colourful new stick mobile made by Krista Dalby.

Colin Frizzell, author of The Glory of the Stick, was unable to attend this year, but Guy Doucette performed a reading of that beautiful piece which has now become a mainstay of Picton's Stickfest.

Here I am setting a World Record for the Most Hickory Sticks in the Mouth. It was a gruelling challenge, but with a crowd of over 40 people enthusiastically helping me count the sticks as I placed them gingerly in my mouth one by one, I managed to insert a grand total of 93 hickory sticks. Next year I have to beat 100 (and maybe get the folks from Guinness to officiate).

Belleville chef Kenny Leighton brought his fryer and cooked up some tasty drumsticks and English sausages (served on sticks) for all. The sauce for the drumsticks was pretty awesome.

Here's Guy expertly helping out with the first-time stilt-walking adventure of artist Lisa Morris.

Tammy Thompson facilitated the piece above made by people in the Life Skills Program at PECI.

So that was a small sampling of the visual elements of this year's Festival of the Stick. What's a little difficult to show is the camaraderie between participants and attendees alike that is encouraged by this event. People from all kinds of different walks of life come together to celebrate something as old as trees and realize that, much like sticks, which, although they may be shaped differently from each other, behave differently regarding flexibility and strength, grow differently, sometimes appear strange and twisted, they're all still sticks...and we're all still people and we can come together to be creative and have some fun.

Now we look ahead to next year's grand Silver Jubilee as the International Festival of the Stick celebrates its 25th Anniversary*.

*Like the artwork above says: "That's our story and we're sticking to it."