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.

The Importance of Play

The outer wall of the new Fraser Mustard Academy. There's a hidden message in the letters...
The outer wall of the new Fraser Mustard Academy. There’s a hidden message in the letters…

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.

http://www.thestar.com/yourtoronto/education/2013/08/29/thorncliffes_allday_kindergarten_school_offers_bright_purposebuilt_space_for_700.html

 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.

A ramp surrounds the bright central atrium
A ramp surrounds the bright central atrium. It’s perfect for tricycle riding.

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.

The old portables and construction site at the back of the school
The old portables and construction site at the back of the school

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.

Classroom filled with art supplies and plants
Classroom filled with art supplies and plants

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.

Theatre for the Very, Very Young

I’ve come to Toronto this fall to work with Theatre Direct Canada as an Associate Artist on Special Initiatives. It’s a position made possible through Theatre Ontario’s Professional Theatre Training Program, funded by the Ontario Arts Council. It’s a great opportunity for me to get some professional development and be mentored by Lynda Hill, Artistic Director of Theatre Direct. Theatre Direct has been developing new and engaging theatre for children and youth for 37 years. They are leaders in the field of Theatre for Young Audiences (TYA) and their award winning work has influenced the development of TYA in Canada.

Theatre DirectFive years ago, Theatre Direct entered into an exciting new phase of their existence, partnering with Artscape to work out of the Wychwood Barns (St. Clair West and Christie). http://torontoartscape.org/artscape-wychwood-barns The Artscape Wychwood Barns is an exciting project in and of itself. Formerly a repair facility for streetcars, the Barns have been renovated to house various artists and arts groups. The Stop, a food centre that works with the community to provide garden spaces and food education, uses one side of the Barns as a greenhouse.

Tibetan Garden at the Barns, a large squash hanging from the tree
Tibetan Garden at the Barns, a large squash hanging from the tree

There’s also a fabulous market at the Barns every Saturday.

Saturday market at the Wychwood Barns
Saturday market at the Wychwood Barns. Even cloudy days are wonderful food adventures

Theatre Direct has an office, studio and a 100-seat theatre in the Barns. In the five years that they’ve been in this space they have actively worked with the neighbourhood to bring thousands of children to their theatre. They also run projects throughout the city, engaging children of all ages in a variety of drama activities and working with artist/educators to bring drama into schools.

I’ve arrived at Theatre Direct just in time to help welcome visiting artist Rhona Matheson, from Scotland. Rhona is the head of Starcatchers, an Edinburgh based organization that specializes in theatre for children 0 – 5 years old. http://www.starcatchers.org.uk

Yes, that’s right. Theatre for infants and toddlers.

“Early Years” is defined in Ontario as birth to six, and in Scotland as pre-birth to seven years old. 90% of a child’s brain is developed in the first three years, and with this in mind, Starcatchers focuses on theatre for the very, very young. Actually, they start with pre-birth theatre projects, working with expectant mothers on creative engagement. “If a mother is creatively involved she will be less stressed. That means the baby in her womb will be less stressed. So already the baby is benefitting from the arts,” says Rhona with her broad smile.

The Scottish government has stated an aim to be the “best place to grow up. A nation which values play as a life-enhancing daily experience for all of our children and young people…” The Play Strategy for Scotland is based on cutting edge research on the importance of play for the developing brain.

“Play creates a brain that has increased flexibility and improved potential for learning later in life.” (from “Play for a Change” by Stuart Lester & Wendy Russel, 2008)

“Play” is considered a basic human right, as is the right to enjoy art. Article 31 of the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child states:

Children have the right to relax and play, and to join in a wide range of cultural, artistic and other recreational activities.

Starcatchers works from that basic right, the right to play and to enjoy artistic activities. In fact, who better than artists to create inspiring works that use play? And with 700 new neural connections being built per second in the first year of life, offering artistic experiences for babies has become a mission for Rhona.

Theatre for babies and toddlers is not just for the children. Early Years theatre is, by its very nature, holistic – babies, caregivers, grandparents, teachers, childcare professionals, family and friends enjoy it all at the same time. Starcatchers has done extensive documentation of their innovative performances, showing that these experiences strengthen the bond between caregivers and children, encourage social development and enhance the quality of peer and sibling relationships. So when Rhona’s artists create a piece, it has to be something that appeals, quite literally, to all ages.

The Starcatchers work exhibits a stunning level of artistry. During her visit, Rhona showed us videos of work that included The Incredible Swimming Choir, who sang in a swimming pool as they moved amongst infants and toddlers held in the water by caregivers. In Baby Chill, babies, toddlers and carers moved in a soft pillowy world, their eyes following hanging shapes and gentle movements. In Oopsa Daisy, three ballerinas danced and sang their love of their daisies, surrounded by wide-eyed toddlers. It is inspiring work. http://vimeo.com/user6724872/videos

It is exciting for me to be at Theatre Direct during this time as they are working on developing their own work for this age group. Next year, Theatre Direct is hosting the first festival of work for the very young in English Canada, The Wee Festival. It promises to be a joyful and playful time for all.

Theatre Direct at the Wychwood Barns
Theatre Direct at the Wychwood Barns