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Deviant By Design: Celebrating World Puppetry Day With Clay And Paper Theatre

Deviant By Design: Celebrating World Puppetry Day with Clay and Paper Theatre

Interview by the Arts in the Parks team

“Whether we realize it or not puppets are always guiding us to see the world in different ways.” – Tamara Romanchuk

Puppetry has always been a powerful tool for storytelling and community engagement and for over 20 years, Clay and Paper Theatre has been producing stunning large-scale puppets for plays, pageants and parades in public space. Their work has always been inspired by the community and more often than not, their performances have been created and produced in collaboration with the communities they’re working in. While the work Clay and Paper Theatre produces is undoubtedly breathtaking, they’ve never shied from embracing a socially engaged, activist approach in producing narrative theatre, even if it means creating performances that deal with socially charged themes. 

Clay and Paper recently collaborated with Jamii Esplanade on their Looks Like Us series of winter performances in the Davenport neighbourhood. LuminUS, “an exploration of the interconnectedness of beings, filled with light, music and movement“, is meant to reflect on the challenges that have come with the recent pandemic and celebrate the resilience of people in the face of hardship. You can watch their live stream from Feb 25 here.

Photo courtesy of Clay and Paper Theatre

In celebration of World Puppetry Day on March 21, our Arts in the Parks team was lucky enough to speak with Tamara Romanchuk and David Anderson, the co-artistic directors of Clay and Paper, and talk about their experience in the exciting world of puppetry theatre. 

Arts in the Parks: Tell us about the history of the organization.

In 1994 as the Friends of Dufferin Grove Park began to envision a park that was “a community centre without walls”, Clay and Paper Theatre was invited to establish its residency in the park’s field house. That same year, inspired by the newly built park bake ovens, Clay and Paper Theatre produced the play The Resurrection of Fornax, and thus the company’s penchant for telling local stories with giant puppetry, as well as building and rehearsing in public space, was born.

This is how Clay and Paper Theatre became a “theatre without walls”, the vision that still lies at the heart of all of our work today.

Arts in the Parks: What made you fall in love with puppets? Why should everyone fall in love with puppetry?

Tamara: Firstly, I love them because “puppets are deviant by design,” as Jane Taylor* likes to say. Whether we realize it or not puppets are always guiding us to see the world in different ways. Puppets are sneaky that way. At the same time puppets are metaphors, as David likes to so eloquently describe them. They can be a type of poetry that helps lead you to the deeper parts of yourself or the world. Equally, their material nature keeps them otherworldly, uncanny, transcendental. After all, their roots are in ritual. And then, there’s the fact that puppets are a type of technology. I think people are just curious about how we make them work in all of their many simple or complex incarnations. All of these aspects of puppetry are utterly fascinating to me and I simply love to think about how puppets make meaning. 

David: Puppetry also has the capacity to instantaneously spark a universal recognition of common experience.  I love when audience members have come up to us after a Clay and Paper Theatre show and said, “Oh, that reminds me of something I saw at home in Poland”, or “It’s just like the raucous shadow plays of Karagiozi,” or “I saw a hand puppet show on a street in New Dehli like that,” or “that giant puppet is like the Gigantone at the Carnival in Podence in Portugal for Festival.”

*Jane Taylor is a South African writer, playwright, academic, and the Director of LoKO – Laboratory of Kinetic Objects.

Arts in the Parks: You don’t shy from challenging themes. What does the statement “Clay and Paper is not funny but never serious” mean and how do you achieve this tone in your work?

Tamara: In any works of activism, we have to be both critical and celebratory. So when we say “Clay and Paper is not funny and is never serious” we are definitely trying to make fun of ourselves, send up others and also play with the audience. We do want to get the audience a little off balance too. For that, we use satire A LOT, as well as live music played by some of the best musicians in the city. We want people to dance while they wipe away their tears so that they can take heart, keep moving and work at making the world a better place.  For example, for the Night of Dread 2012 pageant we created a giant papier-mache gravy boat with the heads of the Ford brothers as the spouts to embody the community’s “Fear of the Year” that year, which was the Fear of Bad Government (and a nod to the then Mayor’s use of the term “gravy train” to describe what he saw in local government). In Animal Nature (2015), when the animals of the world are being pushed to the edges of the earth itself, the natural resource miner sings a very jaunty tune that almost sounds like an old music hall ditty, “Let me make the case for the complete destruction of the human race.”  In Fables for the Future (2015), our examination of technology as an illusion for progress, the giant robot puppet, the Xtractor 3000, is about to start sucking people’s hearts out and give them virtual ones so that they can become more efficient workers. The robot sings, “Listen carefully, you know what’s best / It’s time to trade in your heart / Bare your chest / Let me vacuum the rest / You’ll be ready for your virtual start.” 

Arts in the Parks: What about puppetry makes storytelling a different experience than traditional theatre?

Tamara: When you see a show with puppets or object puppetry there are always three stories being told: the story itself being told in the play; then the meta-story of the actors expressing their discovery of the puppets and what the puppets are capable of; and then the experience/relationship that grows between the audience and the puppets. I think that’s why people are drawn to puppetry. Puppets are always shifting the way we see the world. They live outside of time, or at least the way you and I experience time. They have the ability to go places human actors can’t go, to push us outside our comfort zone before we’ve even realized we’ve gone somewhere we didn’t expect to go. Puppets also help us dream. Because of their imagistic, metaphorical quality, they have a different conversation with our consciousness and they even offer a direct, fast track to our subconscious. 

David: In a sense, puppets are also very Brechtian, in that they point to actions that can be questioned.  As well, with puppetry, we have the ability to shift between forms and scale very quickly. As in one Clay and Paper Theatre show, Lilith Unfair, the same character appeared as a half-masked person, as a hand puppet, a rod puppet, an 8-foot tall lolly-puppet, and as a 16-foot tall three-person puppet. And so they gave us the possibility of five different aspects of the same character, played by different performers for each instantiation. And yet, they were one. 

Photo courtesy of Clay and Paper Theatre

Arts in the Parks: We know that working with community in a community-engaged arts practise can be both challenging and rewarding. Can you speak a little to what those challenges and rewards are?

Tamara and David:

Challenges:

  • Wildly escalating costs of studio workshop space in which to build puppets and hold community workshops. Our practice encompasses making things and making big things and inviting the community in to share our space and process. We cannot go without a consistent, sustainable home studio/arts space as a result. Unfortunately, more money is going into the pockets of commercial property owners and not artists. My commercial property owner makes more in a year’s rent from us than I am making as a co-artistic director of a 27-year old theatre company.
  • Lack of resources, being chronically underfunded. Both of us work and live at the poverty line. (Sorry, can’t sugar coat this.)

Rewards:

  • Finding out how to make the connections during the pandemic has led us to new pockets of audiences because of our street to porch program we are developing called LuminUS.  As a result, we’ve connected with half a dozen new groups of people housed in various buildings (TCH buildings, shelters, seniors homes, townhouses, small condos) that have courtyards or other space to accommodate our performances.  The challenge has become a reward.
  • Thinking with others in the community. Listening and learning from others. It only makes the work and connection for both artists and community members richer and more relevant to the art making and performance experience.
Photo courtesy of Clay and Paper Theatre

Arts in the Parks: As the world changes, whether it be pandemic or the rise of social media, how do you ensure that your practice remains socially engaged?

David: That’s best answered by illustrating what happens during C & P’s annual Night of Dread. We always ask our community, both informally and formally, “What is the fear of the year for this year, 2021?” for example.  Not my fear or your fear, but the big fear that encompasses the whole world as we understand it.  And then a two-month long conversation begins while we zero in, from all the suggestions, on the one which will become the big image for N of D.  It’s not the “correct”, or “right” fear (that doesn’t exist), but the process ensures that it is a compilation/expression/decanting/distillation of a general understanding of our contemporary state. 

This point of view is applied to all our practice, intentionally asking at each moment of development, ‘What does the world need now? Or Canada, or Ontario, or Toronto, or Dufferin Grove. What is needed here right now? Of course, this often leads us to the place where our social engagement points us to historical, political, environmental, and spiritual engagements with our work. 

Arts in the Parks: What’s coming up for Clay and Paper Theatre this season? 

Tamara: Depending on health and safety restrictions and park permits of course, we hope to take Art Ambulance out to parks across the city this summer, especially around Dufferin Grove Park, Amos Waites Park and Parkway Forest Park. Art Ambulance is a free, street performance inspired and commedia dell’arte styled, series of short, sharp shows with puppets, crankie movies and plenty of satirical twists, to challenge the hoaxes, quackery and bad medicine (socially and politically) that abound in our modern day lives . This flexible show format pops out of custom built bike trailers/art ambulances, and is an all ages, mini variety show of 15-minute long performances. Performers work in pairs only and the show is meant to move around and play to tiny audiences. 

As well, if Covid restrictions ease, Clay and Paper Theatre will continue to develop LuminUS, a parade and pageant experience that seeks to remind us of the interconnectedness of all life, using giant glowing luminous animals and life-sized human lantern puppets. We like to call this type of performance a parade-in-place where we bring the show to YOU. You can then safely watch from a distance, from your windows and balconies, front doors and lawns. LuminUS is part of the City of Toronto’s #ShowLoveTO programming and will culminate with lantern making workshops and performances in the Parkway Forest park neighbourhood in November and December of 2021.

However, if Covid conditions really get challenging again this summer, we’ll turn back to our virtual programming, The Third Eye. It’s a free online community experience in paper theatre storytelling. Paper theatres are also called toy theatres because they’re small-scale (think computer screen or shoe box), made of paper and everyone can make one. Through paper theatres, we’ll invite community members to share their view from where they are, to share the wisdom from their third eye.

Whatever the future holds, especially during this phase of the pandemic, there’s still going to be a lot of puppetry coming out of Clay and Paper Theatre. We promise!

Make sure to check Clay and Paper Theatre’s Facebook page for updates about their programming!

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