Watching puppets and the world of Old Man and the River

Theatre DirectAs part of my Professional Theatre Training Program grant (made possible through Theatre Ontario’s PTTP, funded by the Ontario Arts Council) I have had the pleasure of watching the rehearsals for “The Old Man and the River”, Theatre Direct’s new play for young children age 3+. Created by Artistic Director Lynda Hill, in collaboration with longtime associate artist Thomas Morgan Jones, the story follows three days in the life of a grumpy and lonely old man who lives on a hill near a river. Every day he walks to the river to fish and every day he comes back empty handed. But one strange day, a magical creature bursts out of the river and attempts to befriend the terrified old man.

I’ve been involved in a lot of rehearsal processes over my life, but never one solely devoted to puppets. It is precise and imaginative work, where each moment must be carefully choreographed to ensure that every movement and gesture is guided and supported. It is magnified world – a simple step tells us a whole story. Adjust the angle of the step, and you tell a different story.

Puppeteers Mike Petersen, Eric Woolfe, Seanna Kennedy and Kira Hall create the table top play, manipulating a series of puppets and performing without words. Thoughts and feelings are communicated through gesture, inflection and sound. Nicky Phillips has created music to underscore and support the action and the emotional journey. The visual world has been created by designer Kelly Wolf and production manager Kaitlin Hickey. The Old Man’s spartan house sits on a rocky outcrop, the trees in the forest grove are animate and opinionated, and the river is alive with magical surprises. Even the sun and the moon take an active and personal interest in the Old Man’s story.

Watching rehearsal, I am aware of the constant interaction between the puppeteers. They must breathe and move as an ensemble, at all times aware of each other’s position, focus and attention. Mike talks about listening to each other, by which he means that they must be close enough to anticipate each shift. “Complicité”, says Lynda.

I watch in fascination as the puppeteers integrate the Old Man’s physical character into their bodies and then translate it into the inanimate puppet. Except the puppet never seems inanimate. He’s always alive. I become convinced I can see the Old Man breathing. I believe his face changes from a constant scowl to a full, joyous laugh.

Because there is no script, creating this is similar to devising a dance piece. For the first week I struggled with trying to notate the action. But the moment I looked away to write, someone shifted position to control a different limb, or the intention shifted to an animate leaf. When Stage Manager Elizabeth McDermott cames on board, I poured over her cryptic symbols and shorthand notation for blocking notes. Being a stage manager is a hard enough job – being SM for puppets seems a herculean task.

Tracy Thompson, an early years educator with the TDSB said this about the show:

“What a delightful show! I was so impressed with the elegance, sophistication and gentle humour of this piece. I was watching the audience very carefully and seeing how they responded to the emotional and magical world that was created by your ensemble. The music, design, creativity and commitment of the performers captivated them from beginning to end. 

Difference, fear of unknown, habits, loneliness, trust, our relationship with our environment and each other and the power of friendship are all beautifully woven.” 

Nancy Brown, a retired professor from the Early Childhood department at Seneca College, saw the piece as exemplifying a developmentally perfect piece for young children.

“It was stunning. The pace, the use of repetition and the introduction of symbolic representation is exactly what we want for three and four year olds. You are encouraging them to develop a fluency in non-verbal communication.”

Entertaining, artistically precise and pedagogically sound. A perfect TYA piece. And a piece that can be enjoyed by any age. A group of students from Humber College’s acting program watched a rehearsal last week. Twenty-somethings, they completely entered the world of the Old Man. They laughed at his crankiness, gasped at moments of magic and hugged each other as the man found friendship. The Old Man and the River reminds us of the importance of play, at every stage of life.

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