All of my life, I have believed in the power of arts education. I know that we develop empathy and understanding through the arts. We strengthen our all-important, intuitive right brains. We learn specific and tangible skills that benefit every aspect of our lives. As an artist instructor, I have taught calligraphy, writing and theatre arts and in each discipline, I’ve witnessed a tangible difference toward making the world a better place.
I’ve worked in theatre arts education in Ottawa for over twenty years. In 2013, I began the Ottawa Children’s Theatre with four classes on Saturdays at The Avalon Theatre on Bank Street. We had 28 students. In 2017, the school found a wonderful home at Carleton Dominion Chalmers Centre. Over the years enrolment grew, we expanded our role as representative for Trinity College London, we learned how to teach online during the pandemic, then bounced back from the pandemic and celebrated live performances. This past spring we had 211 students, ranging in age from 5 – 17, in 25 different classes. A few of those students have been with us since 2013, many were with us pre-pandemic, and all are now part of the wonderful OCT family.
Through it all, I have had tremendous support. I have come to know parents, students, and instructors and to develop friendships that have deeply enriched my life. I have watched young people grow, solve problems, and thrive as they embrace the world of drama. It has been enormously gratifying, and I am deeply proud of everything OCT has accomplished.
But these years have been busy for me personally, aside from OCT. Over the course of the last eight years, I produced a play that went on to be produced at The National Arts Centre (Up to Low), I did an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults, I published three novels and have another three books under contract. And I have happily entered the world of grandparenthood.
I’ve decided it is now time for me to pass along the torch at Ottawa Children’s Theatre and focus on my family, my books and my garden.
I have worked with Nick Miller for 18 years. When I was Artistic Director of The Ottawa School of Speech & Drama, Nick was one of the first new artists I hired. He came to OSSD with exciting ideas about drama, clowning, improvisation, and circus skills. Over the years I have deeply valued his collaborative spirit, generosity and creativity. As I began to look for a successor to the work that I have done, I realized that Nick was the perfect person to take on this role. He has already had a tremendous impact on the development of OCT, and I am thrilled to announce that he will be taking over the reins. While it is very hard to leave, I know I am leaving OCT in wonderful hands.
This is not “retirement” as some people label it. It is a new phase. It’s been a great run and now it’s time to exit this particular stage.
These Are Not the Words is a semi-autobiographical novel.That means there are real people in it who do imaginary things, and imaginary people who do real things. I am not Miranda Billie Taylor, but we share a lot of history.
I started writing the story from a memory. I was taking the Picture Book Intensive at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, Writing for Children and Young Adults program, and we had been given the prompt to write from an early childhood memory.
What came out was a memory of walking through the living room late at night to get a glass of water. The dark stillness, the flicker of the TV light, the sound of the record, the smell of cigarettes and marijuana are vivid. I was probably about four years old.
Nothing “happens” in that memory, but the assignment was to turn it into a picture book.
Because it was a picture book, the language was spare, evocative, and poetic. It didn’t work as a picture book, but it inspired me to begin writing vignettes, initially as prose poems and then as verse. As I began to drill down, more memories began to bubble up. I found myself writing a novel in verse.
Although I was writing from personal memories, I wrote in third person. I made the character older, and distanced her from me so I could tell, I thought, a larger, more interesting story.
It took a couple of years and many re-writes, but finally I started sending the book out on submission. The reactions were positive –– editors and agents told me that they thought it was beautifully written. (“Heartbreaking and lovely.”) But it wasn’t for their list, it was historical fiction and hard to sell, the character seemed too sophisticated. But one response really stuck out. An editor I respect they said that it felt as though the story was told from the perspective of an adult, not the child. It was verging on nostalgic. Clearly, I wasn’t “in” the story.
Out of frustration, I decided to try to write one chapter in first person. I’m not a big fan of first person and feel it is easily overused. But I chose the first chapter, the one that had started the process, just as a writing exercise. I was totally unconvinced that it would be possible. “I hate writing in first person,” I said to myself.
I remember starting to shake as I re-wrote that first chapter. Suddenly it was real, vibrant and alive. And suddenly it was a bit close for comfort.
I’ll confess to a lot of tears in the months that followed. But being a writer is not about being comfortable.
I created a book trailer forThese Are Not the Words. I used some photos that my father took and a recording of Billie Holiday singing Tell Me More, recording it from a vinyl LP that belonged to my parents. I recorded myself reading a chapter of the book and then worked with a technician friend, AL Connors, to bring it all together.
Putting the trailer together was hard. The photos pull me back to those years. The living room is the one where that first memory came from, where I hear Billie, always. It’s the image and the sound that started me writing the book.
I am not Miranda Billie Taylor. But we share a lot of history.
…the really exciting and unexpected benefit is that not only can our students come from all over the world –– we have students from Europe and across North America –– but our instructors aren’t tied to a location…
Recently, I was asked to do an interview with theHumm. theHumm is a great journal, both in print and online, that is dedicated to the arts in the Ottawa Valley. The questions that they asked gave me a chance to think about the process that we’ve gone through at OCT to make our conversion to online programming. Below is a transcript of the interview, but you can also read it online at: https://mailchi.mp/thehumm/h9si4v29uh-2052385?e=fb3712bb99
Dramatically Different: an interview with Amanda West Lewis
theHumm is reaching out to members of our Ottawa Valley community to ask how they are finding ways to use their gifts and skills in these challenging times. Today’s subject is Amanda West Lewis — actor, author, and founder of The Ottawa Children’s Theatre (OCT). We contacted her to find out how the OCT is rising to the challenge of providing creative instruction to kids during this time of social distancing.
theHumm: You live in Brooke Valley but have been active in the Ottawa youth theatre scene for many years now. Are you finally getting to work from home? If so, what have you enjoyed about it, and what are you missing?
I’ve been lucky to have Brooke Valley as my base for the last 30 years. But I’ve also lived in Ottawa off and on, which has allowed me to be part of the vibrant arts community in that city. For the past six years running The Ottawa Children’s Theatre, I’ve worked from home during the week then gone to Ottawa to work in the studios with the kids on the weekends. It’s really been the best of all possible worlds.
Now, with isolation, my schedule is basically the same, except that everything happens from my Brooke studio. I’m not travelling anywhere. I love that I’ve lowered my environmental footprint and that I have a bit more time to get into my garden.
But I do miss being in the same physical space with people – I miss the spontaneity and energy that is generated by the live space. Before Covid, we had twenty-seven classes happening every weekend. The studios buzzed with energy! I loved seeing what all of the different groups were doing. There is nothing more inspiring than watching kids create and share their stories! But now that the courses are taking place on virtually platforms, I don’t get a chance to pop in and watch what others are doing. I’m excited by the classes I am teaching, but there is that sad moment when I hit “end meeting for all” button, and everyone disappears.
I also miss talking to parents. We were very much an extended family, all dedicated to giving the children and youth the best experience we could. I miss those personal interactions.
You and your team of instructors have been busy pivoting from live classes to “LIVE Online” classes. What can people expect from this new format?
I’m working with the same core team of dedicated instructors that I’ve worked with for many years. We’ve developed a really strong curriculum that is both fun and teaches specific skills. None of that has changed. Converting to online has meant we’ve made the class sizes smaller so that we can focus on each child as an individual. We’re making sure to take time to listen to each child’s needs.
We’re running Musical Theatre, Drama, Acting, Improvisation and Writing camps this summer. We’ve designed the camps to be really interactive. There is a lot of physical and vocal activity. There is a lot of ensemble and shared work. Even the breaks keep kids occupied ––we’ve designed off-screen breaks where campers do theatre crafts. No one is just sitting and watching.
How has the technology been treating you? Have there been unexpected benefits, or major challenges you and your team have had to overcome?
The great advantage of teaching drama from home has been how personal it is. I have weekly Zoom meetings with my instructors, and it’s made us really close. We are sharing all of the joys and frustrations of our lives in isolation, as well as brainstorming how to teach drama online. It’s pushed us to be really creative problem-solvers. Also, the virtual medium is more intimate –– we’re talking to each other from our homes, with our art on the walls, our books on our bookshelves, and our pets, children, and partners in the background.
Some of this immediacy carries over to our relationships with students. You need to be attentive at all times when you are teaching online. There isn’t a moment of downtime. So the classes take on a different kind of bonding.
But the really exciting and unexpected benefit is that not only can our students come from all over the world –– we have students from Europe and across North America –– but our instructors aren’t tied to a location. I have some fabulous actors, writers and composers from New York City teaching for us this summer! They are inspiring all of us with their talent, passion and commitment.
The technological challenge in Lanark County, however, is bandwidth. I get my internet via a satellite and as those of us who live in the country know, it isn’t exactly a consistent signal. I cross my fingers every day that there won’t be a storm while I’m teaching. I’ve also had to make a decision to buy a new computer. I’ve been working on a 10-year old laptop which was fine for admin but not the best for online teaching!
Why is it important to try and keep young people engaged in artistic activities and pursuits even when we can’t physically get together?
Oh, my goodness, where do I start? Drama is all about communication. We work with language and gesture. We work with our voices, bodies and our minds to tell our stories. Is there anything more important for young people than the ability to communicate their ideas, fears, hopes and dreams? Especially now, when their voices are diminished because of isolation, young people need the opportunity to be seen by someone who isn’t a parent or teacher. Someone who can hear them and give them tools to express themselves. Someone who can help them to keep their heart and mind open.
Do you think that both children and adults will continue to perform (and watch others perform) while we are not allowed to gather in person?
I think that stories are more important than ever. I think we will always need to watch and listen to other people’s stories. Through story, we come to understand who we are. Story gives us a way to put the puzzle pieces of life into some kind of coherent whole. And I think that people will always need to share their stories, as they have done since the beginning of human times. We became a story telling species the moment we created language, the moment that we understood the concept of time, of birth and of death. I don’t think that isolation will stop that. In fact, I think the need has been exponentially increased.
What are you personally most concerned about at this time?
I’m concerned about the children who have fallen through the cracks. There are countless children who have no access to computers, let alone the kinds of opportunities I am talking about. When we were on site, I was able to give scholarships and bursaries to kids of need. But now? Who is looking after those children? Who is enriching their lives? There are so many children whose isolation is a nightmare. They are falling behind socially and academically. It is taking a terrible toll on their formative years.
There is a huge disparity between people in terms of how they are able to navigate the pandemic. This inequality in society will, I think, become even more apparent as we transition to the next phase, whatever that phase is.
What are you optimistic about in terms of what happens to the arts during and after the pandemic?
As I’ve said, I think the arts are necessary to give people the skills to understand and appreciate the world around them. I’m incredibly moved by what artists are doing online right now – the kinds of things that are being shared are powerful testaments to the resilience and empathy of human beings.
We are going to have huge challenges coming out of the pandemic. We won’t be going back to the way things used to be. Covid and the deep inequalities of our society require us to make major changes. Re-imagining our lives is not going to be easy. But I think that the arts will give us a voice to build that new world.
We’ve just finished our first week of Online Spring Semester classes at The Ottawa Children’s Theatre. What a whirlwind! In the past 3 weeks we’ve designed new programming, got it up online, offered it and filled it! There are 183 creative and energized children aged 3 – 18 taking drama classes, acting classes, musical theatre, writing for theatre, theatre criticism and more.
I’m learning so much! It’s been really exciting to see which of our drama exercises translate onto the Zoom medium. The artist/instructors are doing warmups: breathing, articulation and resonance. We’re playing “Pass the Face,” “What am I Doing?”and the “Tableau Game.” We’re teaching dance moves, character development, scene studies and vocal techniques. We’re re-imagining our spaces and creating individual set designs. Most importantly we’re laughing, and we’re moved to tears by the power of theatre.
It isn’t all working perfectly. Sometimes the internet goes down. Sometimes someone gets accidentally shut out in the waiting room. Devices behave differently and sometimes in mysterious ways. The time delay makes teaching singing really challenging! We miss being together and miss the way that we were able to create stories with our bodies and voices in the same space.
But we’re doing this together – artist/instructors and students – helping each other. Our students have great ideas. They are getting to know each other and to trust this new way of working. We are all learning and playing, experimenting and discovering.
“Theatre people are trained to be flexible, resourceful and resilient. We know how to improvise when our scene partner forgets her lines, know how to step in when the leading man breaks his leg … The show, indeed, must go on …”
It’s been a while since I’ve written a blog. My life fluctuates between my role as the Artistic Director of The Ottawa Children’s Theatre, and my life as a working writer. I get confused sometimes on how much I should, or shouldn’t, mix my worlds. But right now, in the midst of self-isolation, I am trying to work on wearing multiple hats at the same time. So with that understanding, I am going to publish my Ottawa Children’t Theatre blogs here, on my Stepping off the Treadmill site. Granted, OCT can be a bit of a treadmill for me, but it’s my treadmill and it is decorated just how I would want a treadmill to look.
For those of you who don’t know that part of my world, here’s a taste of the transitions that have encouraged me to dig deep and find a new approach to my creativity.
On March 16, when I realized that we had to postpone, or perhaps cancel, our studio classes, I wanted to curl into a ball and stick my fingers in my ears. We’d just finished fabulous open house presentations and were looking forward to a spring with the highest enrolment ever. My immediate response to the Covid crisis was that I wanted to give up.
“Well, you could do that mom,” said my eldest son, “OR you could get together with your instructors and see if they have any ideas.”
And thus, our first Zoom instructor meeting took place and OCT Online was born.
Theatre people are trained to be flexible, resourceful and resilient. We know how to improvise when our scene partner forgets her lines, know how to step in when the leading man breaks his leg, know how to give our best performances in the middle of a snowstorm with only two people in the audience. The show, indeed, must go on, and we spend our lives training for these moments. So, it should have come as no surprise to me that our instructors were ready to leap in with new ideas and new approaches.
None of us had ever taught online before, but within a week, we had 11 trial classes up and running. The stipulation was that they had to be interactive. I thought that it was important that kids stuck at home in isolation see familiar faces, sing familiar songs and do familiar drama games. We basically approached our Zoom studios as we do our on-site studios. We soon discovered that we could “Pass the Face” from Zoom window to Zoom window; we could throw and catch imaginary balls; we could meet everyone’s pets and stuffties and act out animal scenes; we could write and perform monologues; we could teach choreography, songs, scene study and improvisation. In short, we could run our regular drama classes, albeit with new ways of working.
This week, we’ve launched 30 online courses filled with dramatic fun. We’ve adapted existing courses and created entirely new ones. In the space of 3 weeks, we’ve reinvented our business. And best yet, we’re still able to continue to work with our students!
Our online classes will have the same qualities that you’ve come to expect from Ottawa Children’s Theatre –– professionalism, empathy and creativity. But we’ll have something else, too: a renewed excitement about the value of drama skills to teach adaptability. We and our students are the proof.
“Nothing vast enters the world of man without a curse.” Sophocles.
I think of this line often when I work on my computer. Like everyone else, I am oppressed by the Internet. I am burdened by a constant stream of emails and by the overbearing sense that I “should be doing more”. More tweeting, more blogging, more adventuring in to the virtual unknown.
For the most part, I try to resist these impulses. My life is rich, and seldom improved by spending more time on my computer.
But that said, there is the occasional surprise, something that could never have happened without this wonderful and terrible invention.
Recently, I received an email from a woman in South Africa named Zerilda Wessels. Zerilda lives in Stellenbosch, which is about 50 kilometers west of Cape Town. She is a painter and studies at the Marie Stander Art School.
Every year, students from the school are invited to exhibit at Muratie, a winery in the Knorhoek Valley north of Stellenbosch. The Stellenbosch area has been at the centre of South Africa’s wine industry since the eighteenth century – the first wine was pressed in 1659 – and Muratie is on one of the oldest estates in South Africa.
Sales from the Art School exhibit raise funds for local charities. Last year (2013) they raised over $20,000 CAD and the funds went toward various educational institutions, helping with the purchase of school clothes, educational books and material, music instruments, sport equipment for children of need in and around the Stellenbosch area.
For the 2014 exhibit, Zerilda wanted to paint a picnic, something in the style of Renoir, thinking in particular of his “Luncheon of the Boating Party”. So she searched the Internet for images of picnics. Somewhere, amidst the mass of Google images, she found a photograph that I took 3 years ago when Tim and I were canoeing on the Loire. We were with a wonderful group of French friends, enjoying a mid day picnic of exquisite excess.
I had blogged about the adventure, and, in the way that things work on the Internet that I don’t entirely understand, the photograph I took was out there waiting for Zerilda to discover it.
“Your photograph appealed to me due to its beautiful composition, ” Zerilda wrote to me. “The similarities between your photograph and the Renoir painting was to me that no one seemed to be making eye contact, yet there seemed to be an enjoyment of each other’s company and a comforting ease of closeness.”
Zerilda worked with the image to recreate it in oil paint, developing it in an Impressionist style, enhancing the sense of occasion and camaraderie.
I am totally enchanted by the idea that a moment of my life has inspired this lovely painting. It’s a thrill to see Tim, Peta, Bryan and Matt in the foreground, to remember our delight at the food, wine and company that afternoon. Somehow the painting makes the memory more permanent. I love seeing us as a Renoir moment.
It is amazing to think that a little part of me, and my memories, exists on someone’s wall on the other side of the world. I doubt that I will ever have the opportunity to travel to South Africa, but I know that if I do I will have a friend there, someone who has spent time trying to see the world as I saw it one sunny afternoon in France. And, at the risk of being entirely too sentimental, I am thrilled to think that I have a small connection to helping a child toward a better educational life, courtesy of Zerilda.
OK, maybe there are some redeeming qualities to the Internet.
“Red Kite” is the title of an exciting series of multi-sensory theatrical experiences for children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), developed by Jacqueline Russell, Artistic Director of the Chicago Children’s Theatre. Red Kite performances are created for small audiences of no more than 10 children and encourage direct interaction between the audience and the performers. You can find out more about Jacqui and Red Kite at http://www.theredkiteproject.org/about.html
In the fall of 2013, Theatre Direct Canada partnered with The Chicago Children’s Theatre to bring Jacqui Russell and production manager Dawn Akelis to Toronto with the aim of creating a workshop performance for children with ASD. The project was made possible through funding support from the Arts Education department of the Ontario Arts Council, an agency of the Government of Ontario. I was the project coordinator and dramaturg on project, and as such was able to help to create one of the most moving and important theatrical events I have ever experienced.
Children with autism rarely have the opportunity to experience artwork that is created especially for them. Both Jacqui and Lynda Hill, Artistic Director of Theatre Direct, site Article 31 in United Nations Charter on the Rights of Children: “Children have the right to relax and play, and to join in a wide range of cultural, artistic and other recreational activities.” All children have these rights but there are few people creating artistic activities for children with ASD. Our goal was to bring Jacqui and Dawn from Chicago to train a group of Toronto artists in the methodology behind creating a Red Kite play.
A complex and multifaceted disorder, autism presents differently in each person who is on the spectrum. “If you’ve met one child with autism, you’ve met one child with autism” as the saying goes. One generalization that can be made is that children with ASD usually respond to sensory experiences. Because of this, Red Kite projects are built of sensory events, with little dialogue or narrative story.
In the weeks leading up to Jacqui and Dawn’s arrival, our designer Andy Miller worked busily collecting materials to respond to Jacqui’s artistic vision. Jacqui wanted to explore a theme suggested by the children’s book “This is Not a Box”, by Antoinette Portis. Emails flew back and forth between Andy and Jacqui. How can boxes be a starting point for the imagination? What could be in the boxes? What could they become? Andy didn’t need to come up with a set so much as she needed to think creatively about what possibilities boxes offer.
Because this piece was to be based on sensory experiences, the designer’s role became primary. Andy’s sensibilities immediately gravitated toward textures and tactile responses. There would be only 4 performances, so she didn’t have to worry about the longevity of supplies. She could create things from cardboard boxes, knowing that they only had to last for a brief time. But she also was going to have to work fast. It was to be a week of intense collaboration, a quickly devised piece in which every member of the creative team was involved. Andy would create the physical presence of the piece as ideas were generated. This gave an incredible vibrancy and immediacy to the project.
A cast of four actors was assembled, chosen for their physicality, musical abilities and honest playfulness. From their perspective, they were going to be building a show with no script and few words. There were no characters – each actor was addressed by name and brought his or her personality into the world they created. They were themselves, singing, moving, guiding, communicating.
We had five days to create a unique piece of theatre for a group of children who manifested a wide spectrum of ASD behaviours.
When Jacqui and Dawn arrived at Theatre Direct they immediately engendered an open and generous environment, one in which everyone was encouraged to contribute. Few on the team had any previous experience with autism, however, so the first day was spent in trying to learn about our audience.
Beverley School is a Toronto public school dedicated to supporting the needs of children with developmental and/or physical disabilities. Working with teacher Linda McLaverty, we arranged for the creative team to go to meet some of their children with ASD. At Beverley, Jacqui led the children through a drama class. The project became specific. We now knew who we were designing the piece for. They were individuals and we and busily learned their names, their likes, their dislikes.
Back in the rehearsal hall, Jacqui began to flesh out a framework for the show. The boxes became packing boxes. The premise: a family has just moved into a new house and the children in the family are having a hard time going to sleep – they want to keep exploring the boxes and find treasures.
A series of sensory events were developed, each bracketed by “Papa Tim” trying to get the children to sleep. A pillow fight, dance party, flashlights in a tent, a car wash – all created with textures, sounds, lights. The culmination was a lullaby, when the whole theatre space filled with stars – points of light gentle moving outward. It was a calm, dream-state event that filled everyone with wonder. Red Kite, Brown Box began to take shape.
“September 17: A novel” has just been published by Red Deer Press. It’s my first novel, and I’ve had been doing launches and readings in Toronto, Kingston and Ottawa.
The book is based on true events. I came across the story when I was at an exhibit called The Children’s War in the Imperial War Museum in London, during the fall of 2011. In the exhibit, I saw a photo from 1940 of a group of young boys, about 10 years old, with huge grins on their faces. They were wearing oversized sailor’s hats and waving from the deck of a ship.
I think the caption might have read “Children Back from the Dead.” It went on to explain that the boys had been in a lifeboat for 8 days, after their evacuation ship, the SS City of Benares, was torpedoed by a German U-boat in the middle of the Atlantic. I looked again at their faces, at their smiles. I was hooked. I started to read everything I could about these boys and the terrible fate of the SS City of Benares.
I spent many happy hours in the archives of the Imperial War Museum, where there are audiotapes of some of these boys and other survivors. As I listened to their accounts, and as I learned more about the 100 children who were aboard the City of Benares, I knew I needed to tell their story. More than that, I wanted to get as close to them as I could so that I could tell the story from their point of view.
In March of 2012, Tim and I stayed in Salcombe, Devon. We found a perfect cottage by the sea and spent a blissful month writing, walking and immersing ourselves in town life. The photo at the top of this blog site shows the view from my writing desk. It was at that desk that I began the first draft of the book. If you look at the picture closely, you’ll see the book on the desk is “Miracles on the Water” a great resource book about the City of Benares by Tom Nagorski.
As I wrote I realized I wanted to try to capture the story from the children’s perspective. I thought that might be easier to bear, because they didn’t know how horrifying their situation was. For the longest time, the boys thought it was the best adventure in the world. Sitting in the lifeboat one of them asked: “Which would you rather be? Bombed in London or torpedoed in the Atlantic?”
Writing the book is a tangible result of Stepping off the Treadmill. The bookhappened because I had stepped out of my regular life. I was somewhere else, open to new ideas, new people, new possibilities. It happened because I had the time to be curious, to do research and to fall in love with a group of children.
Now, I am able to share the story. I have been reading segments of the book aloud, and every reading reconnects me with the children. I’m reminded of their bravery, their humour, and their strength. But of course I can’t help but be aware of the enormity of the tragedy, and the loss of so many young lives.
An amazing coincidence happened when I went to Kingston with the book. John Lazarus, one of Canada’s foremost playwrights, came to the launch. He was excited that I had written a book about this almost forgotten piece of history. His uncle, who he is named after, was the deputy radio officer on the City of Benares. His uncle John went down with the ship as he tried to radio for help for the children.
A portion of the proceeds from the sale of September 17 goes to the charity Save the Children. Save the Children is the world’s leading independent organization for children, delivering programs and improving children’s lives in approximately 120 countries. Save the Children ensures that the health, education and rights of children are protected worldwide. For more information visit www.savethechildren.ca
As 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.
My second week at Theatre Direct was focussed on meetings between Rhona Matheson (from Starcatchers in Edinburgh) and Toronto area artists, educators, policy makers, theatre directors and theatre creators interested in Early Years Theatre. One of the highlights of Rhona’s visit was a trip to the new Fraser Mustard Academy, a school entirely dedicated to Junior and Senior kindergarten children.
Fraser Mustard Academy is an outgrowth of Thorncliffe Park School, the largest elementary/junior school in North America. Housing 2000 students, Thorncliffe Park needed to expand, and they built an addition designed around the needs of children 3 – 6 years old. They opened their doors this September to 700 children. The school is still under construction, but the passion and enthusiasm for young children is everywhere in evidence.
The school is built on a philosophy of respecting the child, and everything is built for their perspective. There are large open spaces for physical activity, dance, and even riding tricycles. You can see the inner workings of the building. Pipes, tubes and electrical wires are left visible because “we want kids to see how things work,” says principal Catherine Ure.
One of the first things that struck me as we toured the halls was the sparseness of decoration. Most elementary schools that I have been in are overwhelmingly filled with pictures, alphabets, notices, words. Here, the walls are deliberately bare. “We want the children to decorate their own space. We are following their interests,” says Catherine. Art and supplies are organized carefully, and everywhere there is a feeling of order and calm. “When we show respect for the environment we are also showing respect for the children,” says Catherine.
Thorncliffe Park and Fraser Mustard Academy are in a part of the city that has little in the way of safe outdoor space, so providing the opportunities for developing gross motor skills is essential. It is a school that challenged my assumptions. Coming as I do from a natural environment in the middle of the woods, my first response was that the school was in a horrifyingly desolate wasteland.
But Catherine made me question and completely re-think my assumptions. This is where these kids live, this is the community they know, this is their environment. Catherine pointed out a large floor to ceiling window that overlooked a parking lot and loading dock of the neighbouring mall. “The kids can sit here and watch everything that is going on. They can count cars, watch deliveries, see the tree – there IS a tree—change colours.” Where I had seen desolation, she saw a world of activity to learn about, a lesson plan about the world right in front of their eyes. Inside, the school is calm and orderly, focused and welcoming. It feels safe and welcoming. It feels like a very good place to be.
Literacy plays a huge role in the planning of the Fraser Mustard Academy. Even before the move into the new space, they were educating kids to a very high reading level. Their aim is that children graduate from senior kindergarten with the reading ability of a 10 year old. But none of that is at the sacrifice of play. Play is fundamental to learning. Play that is artistically motivated and designed stimulates children to be curious and explore the world around them.
“Scientific evidence demonstrates that neural pathways in the brains of children are built through the exploration, thinking, problem solving and language expression that occur during play.” (Ontario Early Years Policy Framework 2013)
Artists well understand the role of play in creativity, and increasing they are being asked to incorporate creativity into play-based learning. Theatre Direct is partnering with the Fraser Mustard Academy to offer a series of artists’ residencies that will bring creative drama and story telling into all of the 24 kindergarten classes in the school over the course of the year.
With new works in development for babies, toddlers and 3 – 5 year olds, it is a really exciting time for me to be at Theatre Direct. Just as young brains are developing, Theatre Direct will be there with inspiring and creative sounds, colours, movements, textures and wonder.