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

Puppets Cool for School

I've just wrapped up two weeks of working at Ossington Old Orchard Public School in Toronto.  I worked with two elementary school classes each week, creating shadow puppetry shows that we presented at the end of the week.  But the first puppets that we made together, our warm-up-the-imagination puppets, were monsters.  I told the kids that these puppets were for the show Grandma and the Electric Sasquatch.

Shadow puppet monsters

And what, they asked, is Grandma and the Electric Sasquatch?
I belong to a shadow puppetry collective, and each year we create shadow plays that feature hundreds of puppets.  Inevitably, not every puppet makes it to the final show.  The abandoned puppets are collected into a folder with others of their kind.  One day in the distant future our collective will stage the theatrical masterpiece Grandma and the Electric Sasquatch, featuring each and every one of these misfit puppets... and the monsters these kids made are now part of this mythology.

Bird puppet from Wolverine Invited the Birds to the Drum Dance, an Innu tale
The real shows that we presented were a little more curriculum-oriented: tales of early Toronto, pioneers, First Nations, and two Innu stories that I heard from elders in Sheshatshiu, Labrador.  No sasquatches to be seen, but we did have dancing vegetables, flying houses, and long-legged hunters chasing giant beavers.

Beavers being hunted to extinction in Europe, driving the exploration of Canada

The Three Sisters: Corn, beans and squash, doing a little dance number for
a captive audience of First Nations people and some livestock
My two weeks at Ossington Old Orchard were made possible because I received an Artists in Education grant from the Ontario Arts Council.  I'll be bringing shadow puppetry to four more schools in early 2012, tailoring my lessons to meet the classroom goals of each school.

Spot the Lieutenant-Governor of Upper Canada:
 that's John Graves Simcoe on the left

Doing puppetry workshops in schools is immensely fun, but there is no mistaking that it is hard work; putting on multiple shows with up to 30 kids behind the shadow screen in under a week is kind of a crazy idea!  But I love it, and these school workshops are a good fit for me as I have a lot of down time during the off-season at Small Pond Arts.  Being an Artist in Education means I get to make my own schedule and visit other communities.  I get to meet hundreds of kids, teach a form of theatre that is new to them, and infuse them with the love of puppets.
The Future: a flying house and a flying car, of course
The Artists in Education program is invaluable; it allows the kids of this province discover different art forms, provides professional development for teachers, and gives artists the chance to share what they love while making a living.  Arts funding in Canada is increasingly under threat, and I am more thankful than ever that this program exists and that I can be a part of it.

21 November 2011

I left a piece of myself behind (and a whole lot of puppets)

I just returned from my second trip to Labrador with ArtsCan Circle.  ArtsCan Circle sends teams of volunteer musicians and artists to remote Canadian Indigenous communities to make art and music with First Nations kids (you can read about my first trip here)...  And I feel like I left a piece of myself behind.

Self-Portrait with Stick
My travel mates were David Anderson and Mike Stevens.  David is the Artistic Director of Clay & Paper Theatre, where I worked for 4 years before starting Small Pond Arts with Milé. The stories David told me over the years about his trips with ArtsCan were the reason that I wanted to get involved.  Mike is a musician and the founder of ArtsCan; he’s such an interesting guy that a documentary about him, A Walk in my Dreamis premiering December 2, 2011 in Toronto.

In the days before the trip, I was sewing like crazy, turning the fabric from this year’s silo banner into dozens of hand puppets.  

While sewing I listened to Thomas King’s CBC Massey Lectures, The Truth About Stories, A Native Narrative.  It is some of the most compelling writing I've ever experienced: hilarious, political, personal, and profoundly moving.  It touches on the plethora of issues faced by First Nations people: racism, poverty, a cruel and deeply unfair history… and was a perfect reminder of why I was volunteering to spend the week in Sheshatshiu.

King writes, "We maintain and tolerate poverty not because we believe adversity makes you strong, but because we're unwilling to share."  I’m no saint, but I do know how to share.  So off I went.

We pulled into the school parking lot on Monday morning and there was a certain comfort in returning to this place.  I knew where I was.  I knew why I was there.  Teachers remembered me, kids remembered me.  I quickly fell into the routine.  The kids loved the hand puppets I’d brought, making them into fairy tale and comic book characters, affixing buttons, fabric and the assorted bits that I'd brought along with me.

Arrangements were made for an elder, Carolyn Andrews, to come in and tell a traditional story, in both English and Innu-aimun; David and I would work with a Grade 6 class to turn the story into a shadow puppetry play.   The grade 9 students who were her audience fell dead silent while the old woman spoke.  This class had been making music with the looping equipment that Mike had brought with him, and they would be creating the score for our shadow play.

Mike makes music with some kids using looping equipment
We brought along with us a couple of Flip video cameras.  I'm not really one to endorse products, but these cameras are so simple and sturdy that I had no qualms about handing them to even the youngest kids and saying "Go make a video.".   The cameras have a USB key that pops out so you can plug it right into your computer and watch videos back instantly.  

The sixth graders had been out swimming when the elder had come in, so we showed them the video I'd taken of her telling the story, Kautitikumat: The Caribou Hunters.  

We made a list on the board of the images from the story, both characters and things, and we let the kids choose what they wanted to make.  I love doing puppetry with kids because it is so playful.  It exercises the imagination and kids of all skill levels can succeed.  And by succeed I mean have fun.

The art teacher at Sheshatshiu Innu School, John Foster, is a great guy.  I spent a few lunch hours at his place in nearby Northwest River.  His house on the shores of Lake Melville is a beauty of a spot.  

David, Mike and I were staying in Goose Bay, about 45 minutes away.  The days went a little like this: Hotel to school.  Puppets puppets puppets masks puppets puppets puppets.  School to hotel.  Occasionally hotel to restaurant, or school to grocery store.  Groceries in Goose Bay are expensive, but they do come with complimentary bingo cards. 

Driving driving driving.  Well, Mike was driving.  I was the backseat passenger, an hour and a half each day.  Backseats are confining.  You can see, but not see really well.  Kind of like spending a week in someone else's community – you can only see so much, and most of the reality is hidden from view.

The trees whizz past me.

The week is so busy that it’s hard to even process it as it’s happening. 

We performed the shadow play on Friday four times, presenting it to every other class in the school. I was really impressed by the kids' level of focus when rehearsing and performing the show, I know the repetition of rehearsals and shows can get boring.  But these kids were totally on, totally present. I loved seeing them work together, helping each other to remember their cues.

And before I knew it, it was all over.  The final bell of the week rang, students and teachers dispersed.  As we were getting ready to leave the school a girl from the third grade came up to me with the puppet she’d made earlier that day.  We talked about puppets; she wanted to know what other types of puppets there were in the world, and when I would be coming back so we could make more. She hugged me a few times and we said goodbye; then as I was getting in the car she appeared again, waving and yelling across the parking lot, “Goodbye, Miss!”.  I waved back.  A ticker tape parade and twelve marching bands couldn't have given me a more magnificent send-off.

The trees whizz past me.  I’m leaving, I’m leaving, and I’m leaving a piece of myself behind... 

... and a whole lot of puppets: 

I can't wait to go back!

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