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Puppets

Puppets + Shakespeare = The Canadian Way?

By | NAC, Shakespeare | No Comments

People keep asking what possessed us to combine Shakespeare and puppetry; as we head into the final week of rehearsals for ‘Macbeth: Walking Shadows’ (Aug 13th-30th), we thought we’d pass the buck, and ask someone else that very question. When we heard about Jillian Keiley’s decision to bring puppets to the world of ‘Twelfth Night’, next season at the NAC, we were very excited (and relieved), that we weren’t the only ones who thought puppets and Shakespeare would make a great combination. We’ll get around to answering this question ourselves, but for now, back to rehearsal. -SitR

Programming Shakespeare at Canada’s National Theatre – by Jillian Keiley

Even though I was raised on and have directed, acted in or assistant directed eight different Shakespearian productions, I have always felt kind of politicized about the sheer amount of Shakespeare that Canadians produce. Don’t get me wrong – I love Shakespeare. But I’m also a nationalist. And it strikes me odd that the primary storyteller in our theatres is a man from another continent who had never dreamed of knowing Canada.

I believe in that good kind of nationhood: shared ideals, pride of place, together we are better. And so I believe that when a Hannah Moscovitch play slays a new audience or when Robert Lepage makes the world believe that Canada (or at least a part of Canada) is at the cutting edge of the craft – I think that’s good for us, not just as an arts loving community but as a country: our stories, well told. So I do believe that Canadians and Canadian artistry should have priority in our National Arts Centre space.

However, when I took over the reins at the NAC I didn’t want to restrict the programming to only Canadian writers. I am from the school that believes that the writer is a very important key creator in identifying the ‘nationality’ of a play, but I also believe that the director or ensemble of artists can interpret a play in such a way that is so unique to that artist or to that community that the play becomes a Canadian expression, if not an entirely Canadian play. I think Raoul Bhaneja’s Hamlet is uniquely his version. I believe The Electric Company’s No Exit was as much about the art of that company as it was about Sartre. I saw Modern Times’ Macbeth several years ago and it was as unique a piece as I could imagine, using Shakespeare’s Macbeth as the primary of many layers.  Chris Abraham’s gay wedding Midsummer Night’s Dream belonged more to the backyards of Toronto than anywhere else.

At the NAC, we have two ways of programming. We select six or seven shows a year to present from the multitude that we see live or on video. For our in-house productions, we bring together a group of actors from across the country to build that year’s Ensemble. The Ensemble inspires the choice of plays for the season.   Often times, even though the Associate Artistic Director Sarah Garton Stanley and I pride ourselves on knowing as much as we can about the Canadian canon, we hit on a combination of people that seem to call for a classic which happens to be from somewhere else.

This coming season, for example, we happen to have the perfect alchemy of artists to do Twelfth Night. (Incidentally the other five shows for the Ensemble this year are Canadian.) I was very interested in how they would tell that story and hear that music. But also I wanted to see it envisioned by uniquely Canadian dreamers.   So I went to a team of the most unique Canadian dreamers I know – The Old Trout Puppet Workshop. This group visiting-trout_lof guys, who started out in a shed south of Calgary performing for Hutterites, had the kind of vision that could engage visually with all of the textual delights in Twelfth Night. So we moved forward with the plan to do a Shakespeare as imagined by The Old Trouts. It won’t be with marionettes or hand puppets so much as it will be visually animated using the Old Trouts’ signature style.   The Old Trouts for years have done interpretive works that have blended quite animate inanimate objects with quite animated humans to great effect.

The last Shakespeare the NAC produced (outside of presenting the visiting Raoul Bhaneja’s Hamlet) was Peter Hinton’s all Indigenous King Lear. It too was a very Canadian interpretation. I believe this Twelfth Night in the hands of the great artists in our Ensemble and the Old Trout Puppet Workshop, will offer audiences an entirely new theatrical experience; and a uniquely Canadian one at that.

Twelfth Night runs January 20th-February 6th, 2016, in Ottawa at The National Arts Centre.

2015 Season Announcement

By | Macbeth, Uncategorized

Macbeth + Puppets = MacWhat??????  

Ruff’s Artistic Director, Brendan McMurtry-Howlett, explains our most adventurous production yet.

I love Macbeth. It’s one of my favourite plays to read, to speak, or to perform in (I played Malcolm under the direction of Nick Hutchinson in theatre school). The visceral imagery that Shakespeare uses in his writing is unparalleled anywhere else – it’s incredible. And now, this coming summer, I couldn’t be more excited to be directing it with Shakespeare in the Ruff. But ironically, as an audience member, I’ve often had a hard time watching it. The play asks us to watch the fall of a tyrannical, blood-thirsty, Evil-with-a-capital-E madman. I’m often unsure if I’m meant to enjoy the blood bath as I would in a horror flick or be disgusted by the tyrant’s inhumanity. In either case the result is that I disassociate with Macbeth’s character, and lose the point of the play. So what are we going to do differently? ENTER THE PUPPETS!

My first introduction to puppetry was 8 years ago, by a great man named Zach Fraser who directed me in a show about WWII called “…and stockings for the ladies” by the ever inventive RustWerk Company. One component of the show featured three puppets speaking to their survival of the concentration camps. Yes, I was thinking the same thing: puppets + concentration camp = this is not going to go well. But their moving monologues were what the audience connected with most. Something about the simplicity, fragility, and naivety inherent in those puppets made them immediately sympathetic. A puppet, unlike a human actor, is clinging to life every moment they are on stage. The audience is directly responsible for that puppet’s existence – it’s their imagination that allows the puppet to live, and a unique bond is formed between them. Kind of like watching your child take its first steps. 

It’s this aspect of puppetry that I want to explore with the story of Macbeth. I’m interested in a figuratively and literally fragile Macbeth built of wood and paper. A man, filled with naivety, exposing his doubts and fears to an audience who is responsible for giving him life. I would be more willing to go on a journey with Macbeth if I could see both his emotional and corporal fragility through everything he does. That’s exactly what we get with puppets. 

And I haven’t even mentioned all of the supernatural stuff in the play that’s way more fun in the world of puppetry. Puppets aren’t bound by the laws of physics, and so can do all sorts of inhuman things. Witch puppets?! Are you kidding me?!

The real challenge is going to be bringing together the worlds of puppetry and Shakespearean text. Luckily we got to spend a week developing ideas thanks to funding from the Ontario Arts Council. We already have some exciting things up our puppet sleeves and we’ve embarked on a rather drastic adapting process, letting the aesthetic choice of working with puppetry guide our approach to the text. 

And the secret weapon that I’m most excited about: I’ve brought on Zach Fraser, the man who taught me everything I know about puppetry, to build our puppets and work with us as a puppet choreographer throughout rehearsals. 

And now, a word from the man himself:

Ok. Confession.  I don’t always understand Shakespeare!

His words can be poetic & powerful, but at times, I get over-whelmed by the language. Through the years, I’ve seen many Shakespeare-in-the-Park productions. In Toronto… In Montreal… In Halifax… Each has its own charm. But I often leave the performance feeling like I don’t understand the story as well as I should.

This summer, with Shakespeare in the Ruff, we intend to create a truly accessible, visceral production that touches the soul and transports the spirit…

…using puppets.

I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a production of Shakespeare as unique in its vision as that which we are venturing to create this summer in Withrow Park. Shakespeare’s language can be exquisite. The plight of puppets can be absurd, splendid, and heart-wrenching. Puppets are the masters of high comedy & deepest drama, so partnering them up with Shakespeare makes perfect sense to us.

There’s a reason why most theatre companies avoid puppetry: they add a LOT of extra work to a production. But there’s also a reason why some of us keep getting drawn back to puppets; because they are spellbinding, seductive, magical, and they have the power to win our hearts instantaneously! They appear to be naïve, but their power is great.

Ruff is an ambitious, motivated, slick young company of talented & bold artists. I applaud the company for their willingness to respect, revere, and yet reinvent Shakespeare’s plays. It’s an honour to join forces with these Ruffians this summer.

Zach Fraser