Cultural Divides, The Immigrant Experience and the (non) Limits of Puppetry
by Gaëtan L. Charlebois
Zach Fraser is an actor, director, puppeteer and teacher. A graduate of École Philippe Gaulier (London/Paris) and Dalhousie University (Nova Scotia), he also completed an advanced diploma in puppetry at the Université du Québec à Montréal. Recent performances include Trench Patterns (Infinitheatre); The Game of Love and Chance (Canadian Stage/Centaur Theatre); The Hanging of Francoise Laurent (Stranger/Blyth,On); and Luna (Casteliers). Recent directing credits include Coma Unplugged (Talisman Theatre); Gogol's Le Révizor (Université de Montréal); and ... and stockings for the ladies (Rustwerks, Qc). Of late, Zach Fraser has been busy building puppets, including those recently featured in Scapegoat Carnivale Theatre's The Heretics of Bohemia at the Segal Centre. As a movement and mask teacher, he is on faculty at John Abbott College and has also taught at McGill University and the National Theatre School of Canada. He was recently invited as guest teacher to École Philippe Gaulier in France.
CHARPO: I'd like to start with something quite specific to your interpretation. Let me present this: that puppetry is like mime, musicals, clown and opera - it appeals to a very special kind of theatre audience. First, would you accept that premise? Is this limiting or liberating?
FRASER: Hah! I do agree that puppetry has a bit of a niche following, but at the same time this is something I try to fight against a bit. Quebec is lucky to have an extremely vibrant puppet community, more than elsewhere in Canada. I try to feed off this wealth of diversity as much as possible. In the world of puppetry there are so many variations on the theme. And yet, how often do we see puppetry in mainstream theatre? Puppetry thrives very well on the fringes and among younger audiences but we tend to resist, or simply not consider puppetry as an option for adult theatre productions. (And when I say ‘adult’, I simply mean for grown-ups, not necessarily X-rated, though that can be interesting too!) Remembering that puppetry can be an option in any production is very liberating to me. By its very nature, puppetry breaks the boundaries of realism and pushes us toward metaphor, magic, and heightened theatricality. Puppetry can be limiting only in the fact that it almost always requires additional production time and funds.
CHARPO: The Aeneid has come to us from Virgil, possibly from oral history, through time, through an initial translation, through an adaptation, through another translation to you - that's a lot of sources! How do you see yourself through to lucidity or do you just work with the text in your hands?
FRASER: This is very true; there are several layers of adaptation in this work. I see Virgil and Olivier Kemeid as the shared authors. I did read an English translation of Virgil’s Aeneid about a year ago. And though I was taking notes and comparing throughout, I have chosen to use Olivier’s version of the tale as my prime source. Judith Miller’s translation is very true to Olivier’s work, and that is why we chose that version. With Olivier’s approval, we have made several edits to the script, in order to make the text more accessible to puppet staging. And while puppetry is new to the equation with our production, I believe we remain truthful to Olivier’s vision of the tale.
CHARPO: We are being told this will be disturbing - how so?
FRASER: Our production is not disturbing in the sense of excessive violence or horrific gore, but in the reality this story reflects. What I find disturbing is the tale itself, the human hardship, the abyss of misunderstanding and fear that exist between peoples.
CHARPO: Now the theme of the refugee experience has even more resonance with this Charter business. Is that affecting your work?
FRASER: Absolutely. I saw Olivier’s original French-language production at Espace Libre in 2007 during the debate surrounding ‘reasonable accommodations’. By no means can I compare my life with the hardships experienced by Aeneas and his family, but I have experienced a small window into the immigrant experience. My wife is Italian and is now in the process of applying for Canadian citizenship. We have it easy compared to so many others, but even so, it has opened my eyes to many of Quebec’s and Canada’s policies regarding immigration. There is a natural cultural divide that exists between settled and new citizens of a country. That is a point of richness that we have yet to embrace as a society. The Aeneid is extremely topical in our current political and social climate.
CHARPO: Veering away...you are on staff at John Abbott College (I was both student and teacher there) and this exposes you to new aspiring artists every year. Seeing raw talent is both a blessing and a curse: it excites for the future of the art while reminding that these people are heading into a hellishly difficult world. How do you break it to your students?
FRASER: My sense is that nowadays there is no surefire route to a stable career in any field. My philosophy has always been to choose what you love, then find a way to make it work. I encourage my students to follow whatever path energizes them the most. Some will decide to work in the arts, some will not, but I believe all will grow as artists, art-lovers and citizens, when studying in a theatre program. For those students who do choose to make a career in the theatre, I want to give them as many tools as possible to facilitate their journey. The best advice I can offer them is to find ways to empower themselves. The life of an actor can be extremely stressful if you are always at the will of others for work opportunities. As a result, I encourage them to be their own creators, their own producers, their own business people. I often work in contexts that allow me to retain my artistic voice and freedom. I probably would have quit this profession ages ago if I was always waiting for others to hire me. Instead, I think it is healthy to initiate projects, learn to hire yourself, and learn to generate and foster your own artistic voice. It makes the tough days easier to swallow if you know you are working toward your own artistic goals. That said, theatre is by its nature a communal art, and that sense of community is a tremendous gift that makes the work that much more satisfying.
Mar. 6 - 15
See also a behind the scene video for The Aeneid
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