11 December 2011

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.

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