An interview with Rag and Bone Puppet Theatre’s Kathy MacLellan and John Nolan, puppeteers extraordinaire
On the set of THE WIND AND THE WILLOWS with Kathy MacLellan, John Nolan, and Russell Levia
|“…the most important thing we all get from the arts is the joy of creativity, personal satisfaction, and the deep certainty that the world is a wonderful place.”|
Kathy MacLellan contacted me a few months ago to let me know about the Rag and Bone Puppet Theatre’s performances at the Shenkman Arts Centre in Orleans (the east end of Ottawa). She had asked to be included on our calendar of events. When I went to their website to read more about the Rag & Bone Puppet Theatre, I was instantly intrigued! I ended up putting together a page about their work and am excited for the opportunity to go check out their show.
When I started the Faces of Ottawa series, Kathy and John instantly came to mind as possible interviewees for the series. Happily, they agreed to an interview!
Kathy MacLellan and John Nolan came to puppetry through theatre. They were both in school plays in high school, and both studied theatre at university. They worked as actors in Ottawa, but wanted some other artistic outlets. Kathy was interested in writing and John liked stage design.
Getting to Know Rag & Bone Puppet Theatre
How did you end up in this profession?
Rag and Bone Puppet Theatre: We saw some amazing, thoughtful, shows created by Felix Mirbt, a puppeteer from Germany. He became our mentor and puppetry became our way to work together, have our own business, and to be involved in so many other aspects of theatre.
What is your educational background?
Rag and Bone Puppet Theatre: Kathy has a BFA in Theatre (performance) from York University. John studied theatre at York, the University of Ottawa, and the University of Alberta.
Where did you study how to make puppets and how to perform with them?
Rag and Bone Puppet Theatre: John worked with Felix Mirbt for a year through a Theatre Ontario apprentice grant. We also read lots of books and regularly learn from other puppeteers.
|Kathy MacLellan of Rag & Bone Puppet Theatre||John Nolan dressed as Badger from THE WIND IN THE WILLOWS|
How did you two meet and how did the Rag & Bone Puppet Theatre get its start?
Rag and Bone Puppet Theatre: We were at York at the same time. Later we were both cast in a play at Penguin Theatre Company here in Ottawa. John got a job from the NCC doing a Punch and Judy show in parks that summer. Kathy helped him create the show.
Why the name “Rag and Bone”?
Rag and Bone Puppet Theatre: The name comes from The Circus Animals’ Desertion, a poem by William Butler Yeats. The poet is searching for an idea for a new poem, but superficial ideas keep coming to him like circus animals. Finally he decides that important, true ideas are in the “rag and bone shop of the heart”.
Your puppetry style is fairly unusual in Canada even if it is a popular style of storytelling in Japan. How have Canadian audiences reacted to this style of storytelling?
Rag and Bone Puppet Theatre: We first saw our mentor, Felix Mirbt, using this style of puppetry in a show at the National Arts Centre. Later we read about the Bunraku style of puppetry in Japan. In Canada, it’s called open manipulation: working in full view of the audience. We call our style “puppet-theatre“: a combination of puppetry and theatre in which we are also actors and storytellers. We interact with each other, the puppets, and the audience.
You offer quite a variety of different workshops using different styles of puppetry. Tell me about your favourite workshop.
Rag and Bone Puppet Theatre: One of our favourite workshops is the scrap wood rod puppet workshop. The students play with scraps of wood until they see a face. They glue the scraps together, add construction paper features like eyes and ears, and choose fabric for the body. We drill holes and add dowels and help them attach the fabric. Then they make up stories for their puppets in small groups.
What kinds of stories or specific storytellers/stories are particularly well suited to puppetry?
Rag and Bone Puppet Theatre: The best stories are stories with a lot of action and drama. Stories with animals work very well. Kathy writes or adapts the stories for all of our shows. We like a story with a challenge. For example, in THE FLYING CANOE, a magic canoe carries the lumbermen home to Montreal to see their girlfriends on New Year’s Eve. We had to think of a non-realistic way to show that, and that’s where the magic of puppetry comes in.
What is/was your favourite story to perform? What are some of your favourite puppets that you have made?
Rag and Bone Puppet Theatre: Right now, THE WIND IN THE WILLOWS is probably our favourite, because it’s the newest. The puppets are real characters to us, and the show is very funny. Although we love FELICITY FALLS, and THE FLYING CANOE . . . it’s hard to say. It’s almost like asking which of our children we like the best!
|Rod & Jack from FELICITY FALLS||The lead character from THE LIGHT PRINCESS||Toad from THE WIND AND THE WILLOWS|
How long does it take to put together a production?
Rag and Bone Puppet Theatre: About two years from start to finish, because we usually continue with all our other activities: touring, performing, teaching workshops etc., while we give the current project gestational time.
Can you outline the process of taking a story and turning it into a puppet theatre performance?
Rag and Bone Puppet Theatre: Choosing story or theme takes a long time. It has to be a project that will feel relevant for a long time. Then Kathy writes the script, which we “workshop” or test in the rehearsal hall with proto-puppets and props. After that we begin making puppets and props, which will take a few months. We have meetings with our musician, Russell Levia, and decide about the musical style. We finally rehearse for three or four weeks, continuing to make and refine the puppets, props, and set. We book the tour by contacting schools. Schools can also contact us or they call MASC in Ottawa or Prologue in Toronto. Then we’re off!
As performing artists, you understand how important music and the arts is for children. What are some of the skills and characteristics that children will develop with extended participation in the arts?
Rag and Bone Puppet Theatre: Children can learn discipline, focus, and co-ordination from the arts. They can also learn to express themselves, share their feelings and empathize with the feelings of others. But the most important thing we all get from the arts is the joy of creativity, personal satisfaction, and the deep certainty that the world is a wonderful place.
How have your shows and workshops helped educators in developing interest in the arts?
Rag and Bone Puppet Theatre: Some of the teachers we’ve worked with over the years have become good friends. We’ve been very inspired with their dedication to the arts, and the creativity and energy they bring to their work with the kids. The most dramatic moments are often when children who are differently-abled suddenly accomplish the unexpected in an arts project. All children learn in different ways. Some children absolutely need arts experiences as a way in to learning and participating.
Some thoughts about Ottawa
What are some of the things that you like about living and performing in Ottawa?
Rag and Bone Puppet Theatre: We love how friendly Ottawa is. We love visiting the same schools over and over again and developing a bond with teachers and school populations. We love Ottawa’s size – not too big, not too small. We love the Shenkman Arts Centre: a state of the art facility staffed by wonderfully professional, creative, and dedicated people.
What does the Nation’s capital have to offer performing artists and audiences?
Rag and Bone Puppet Theatre: Ottawa has many wonderful theatres, galleries, and museums. We think we’ve played in most of them! Audiences aren’t as aware as they could be of the fantastic, vibrant culture at their doorstep. With our “On a Sunday Afternoon” series at the Shenkman Arts Centre, one of our goals is to get the word out to young families! Going to the theatre is a great way to spend quality time together, we’re easy to find, parking is free, we have lots of shows, the kids will enjoy it, the parents will enjoy the kids’ reactions. It’s even a great way to include the grandparents in a family outing!
Is there anything else that you would like to add?
Rag and Bone Puppet Theatre: The word is getting out. We’re seeing more and more people at every show. We particularly love to see faces that we recognize – people who’ve come to more than one performance. We usually have a question period after the show and often take time to talk to the kids individually afterwards too. It’s great to get their reaction to the show and to hear what they think. We’re so honoured that they are willing to suspend their disbelief and enter into a world of imagination with us!
If you’d like to check out more about Rag & Bone Puppet Theatre, or read more about Kathy MacLellan or John Nolan, visit their website at www.ragandbone.ca Tickets for their upcoming shows (see the Calendar of Events) are available on their website and at the door (cash only).
You can also read more about the Rag & Bone Puppet Theatre in the “Ottawa Performing Arts” section of our website here.
This interview was completed in February 2012. Photos courtesy of Rag and Bone Puppet Theatre.