Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Bonus Feature: First Person - David Powell of Puppetmongers on Tea at the Palace

Tea (and cookies) at the Palace!
Historical references loaded with innuendo are not usual lines in children’s theatre pieces, but all part and parcel of a Puppetmongers’ show. 
by David Powell (photos by Dahlia Katz)

Puppetmongers Theatre presents the work of the Canadian brother and sister team of Ann and David Powell, who are internationally recognized as leaders and innovators in the field of puppetry.  They have developed a dozen new plays for both young and general audiences, which have earned a combined total of 11 Dora Award nominations.  They have been short-listed twice for the Chalmers new Canadian Play for Young Audiences Award and received four Citations of Excellence from l’Union International de la Marionette (US).  They have also received the Award for Artistic Excellence from the Puppeteers of America, and the President’s Award, a medal which has also been awarded to Jim Henson (Muppets), Julie Taymor (Lion King) and fellow Canadian puppeteers Ronnie Burkett and Coad Canada.   

Puppetmongers was founded by my sister Ann and me as a continuation of our complex childhood play.  The Christmas Ann was 8 and I was 7, our parents gave Ann a marionette as a gift.  We used our Christmas money to buy another each, and we were off to the races.  Puppetry became the focus of our time together during all our holidays home from separate boarding schools. We were doing small shows by the time we were 14, but certainly did not conceive of it as a career.  Eventually, we ended up at Ontario College of Art & Design simultaneously, where we were generously given a room for our puppetry experiments.  We formally incorporated in 1974, and we were soon performing in over 100 Toronto schools a year, touring widely across Canada, regularly performing at festivals around the world and winning international theatre awards – but we were completely unknown to the Toronto general public.  So we approached the late Urjo Kareda, then Artistic Director at the Tarragon Theatre.  He knew our Brick Bros. Circus from those wonderful Tarragon Theatre Spring Arts Fairs (we do miss them so!), and he generously ushered us into his Back Space theatre to run a show during their downtime over the Winter Holidays.  Thus was started a Toronto Theatre Tradition that has endured for almost 25 years. 

We have been fortunate to have the opportunity to work with so many of Tarragon’s wonderful theatre artists and administrators through this period.  A short list must include Andy McKim, Mallory Gilbert, Camilla Holland, Tim Chapman, Roger West, Scott Sutherland, and Natasha Parsons.  Nowadays there is but one member of the original Tarragon team from those far off days of our first run:  the always happy-to-see-us Building Manager, Louis Berenguer.  And then of course there are all the extraordinarily capable Extra Space Technical Directors, with many of whom we still occasionally have the good fortune to work:  Rick Banville, accompanied us as our TD on a tour to the International Festival of Puppetry in Iran in 2004, and this year our light designer will be Kevin Hutson, another ex-Extra Space TD.  Of the many good people we have brought in as our stage managers, Fran Accinelli, our very first, is now the president of our board of directors! This year our stage manager Bonnie Thomson (with whom we have had many adventures) is the sister of the current Tarragon TD John Thomson – so we will be doubling up on the sibling ribaldry!

We also have several fine shows for family and adult audiences in our repertoire that we are keen to revisit, improve and remount for Toronto audiences.

This December we are presenting a final run in the holiday slot of Tea at the Palace, the show that started it all back in 1990. The other two shows in our Winter Holiday cycle are Cinderella in Muddy York, a fairytale for Toronto, and Bed & Breakfast, an 'Upstairs-Downstairs' re-telling of The Princess and the Pea set in a giant dollhouse.  For us, these are not the last performances of this grand show, but the last performances of Tea at the Palace in our Toronto Winter Holiday Tradition, as we turn our focus once again to touring further afield, beginning with a tour to the Calgary International Children’s Festival with Tea in May. We also have several fine shows for family and adult audiences in our repertoire that we are keen to revisit, improve and remount for Toronto audiences. We will begin that process this spring with The Miller and his Wife – the show that really began our professional puppetry journey.  And we have a new show percolating that we are itching to develop.  We are not winding down, we are winding up!

We are often asked about how we have managed to create shows that have enjoyed such longevity.  This is a tough question to answer:  we tend to use source material that has already stood the test of time. For instance, in Tea at the Palace we intertwine two Russian folktales:  in one story, a Russian peasant is shocked when he is dragged to the Tsar’s court, and charged with treason for simply making tea;  in the second tale, the Tsar becomes smitten with a clever peasant girl, and his meddlesome servants try to thwart the budding romance. We also tend to make use of familiar objects in unfamiliar ways. For Tea, our sets are inspired by antique Russian furniture and pop-up books, and the puppets by traditional toys. In another nod to tradition, David Anderson and Nuno Christo arranged and recorded some very exuberant music based on our favourite Russian melodies using traditional folk instrumentation. Our own careful research in developing the play seems to have helped us capture a Russia that is true to the Russian experience: on several occasions, at the end of a performance we have been approached by audience members who want to speak to us in Russian!

At the same time, we also tend to highlight modern concerns and pre-occupations.  For example: 
A peasant about to harvest her tree:  “One year we had so many apples.  Enough to feed the whole invading army”. Historical references loaded with innuendo are not usual lines in children’s theatre pieces, but all part and parcel of a Puppetmongers’ show. 

There is rich gratification in developing continuity between generations of theatre-goers.

And that’s a major choice we have made with our work:  creating plays that include a broad range of understandings, from the very visual acting and puppetry work that mesmerizes the younger audience members, through the rich and multi- leveled storyline and ingenious staging, to the embellishing references to a deeper, more complex world.  

We also get a lot of questions about our own creative longevity. Making art, and making-a-living-making-art, is undeniably challenging. But based on our experience, we would advise our younger peers (and that’s just about everybody) to stick with it. There is rich gratification in developing continuity between generations of theatre-goers. When we are schlepping gear in the cold or rain for yet another school show, and we overhear a parent tell their child, 'That’s Puppetmongers! They used to come to my school when I was your age. Oh you are going to have a great day', we feel it’s all worth it.

A lot of change has happened since we began playing with puppets. The world may have gone digital, but we mammals are still analog and still need a sense of connection. Rather than everyone glued to their own private screens, we think it is has become even more important that live performance create those moments when people slow down and experience something together at the same time.  Perhaps this is why every working day, we stop periodically and have tea with our collaborators.  Everybody who works with us knows that tea and cookies are the real motivators of our creative process!

Tea at the Palace runs Dec. 26 - 29 at Tarragon Theatre Extra Space

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