Music and Beyond: Full-body puppetry and Sleeping Rough with Noreen Young

Noreen Young made this puppet for use in the opera Sleeping Rough. The character is of a homeless man named Ted.

One thing about the new Roddy Ellias opera Sleeping Rough: Puppets are at centre stage and for Noreen Young, that’s just great.

Young, of course, is a well-known puppeteer, TV producer and personality, who is responsible for shows such as Under the Umbrella Tree.

The Almonte resident is just tickled by this project too because it is so different.

“I can’t think of another thing exactly like this. I have seen operas with puppets but usually the puppeteers are hidden. In this production, you’ll see the puppeteers.” There are five, including Noreen. There are also singers Ian Tamblyn (Ted), Helene Brunet (Anna), Felicity Williams (Emily) and Kellylee Evans (Chorus). Then there are 12 musicians. It tells the story of a homeless man named Ted and his journey from dysfunctional childhood to the street.

They’ll all be inside the Arts Court Theatre Tuesday night for the first of three shows.

“Roddy has mixed the music up too. In his orchestration he has a string quartet along with all the other musicians who are bluesy and jazzy guys.”

When Young spoke with ARTSFILE the final push of rehearsals had not yet begun so she hadn’t heard the final orchestration.

“I can’t wait to hear it.” Nothing like a deadline to get the adrenalin going.

Young’s background is mostly in children’s television. She did do some political satire on television as well. So when Roddy Ellias called her up “and asked me if I’d like to do this, I just jumped on it because it’s so different and such a challenge.”

The young version of the character Anna, who is the woman Ted marries.

She got to work quickly and early on decided she would make full body puppets instead of the hand puppets she usually constructs.

“I brought in troops to a puppet festival in Almonte for 12 years and I got a lot of chances to see what other people were doing theatrically. Those 12 years really opened my eyes to what is possible.

“You have to be seen if you are doing full body puppets. That is a kind of style from Japan called bunraku. In Japan there would be two and three puppeteers on each character. The puppeteers were dressed in black and would have hoods over their heads with the exception of the master puppeteer who did the head. He got to show his face.

“We are not going that far. We decided to dress ourselves as a kind of street gang to fit in with the homeless theme. We’ll all be wearing black hoodies with hoods up. Our faces will be visible.

“I did some drawings of the characters and showed them to Roddy and Sandra (Nicholls who is writing the libretto) and they got very excited and picked a couple of options. Then I went back and I started to build.”

Noreen Young with two of her favourite puppets.

She built some puppets before this past Christmas and showed them. They were approved and she did the rest. A friend of hers in Almonte, Ingrid Harris, made the costumes.

Then she recruited puppeteers including two old friends Bob Stutt and Stephen Braithwaite who worked with her on Under the Umbrella Tree.

“I’m the one who helps out. If there is a need for an extra hand or foot that’s me. We have been rehearsing in my basement.”

The opera travels back and forth in time and that means there are different versions of the three main characters. There are two flashbacks to Ted as a little boy with his parents and another with him as a young man when he was courting his future wife. So Young built a lot of puppets.

The puppets are on tables. There is a large one centre stage for the main action and a smaller one for the flashbacks. The singers are in the wings except for Kellylee Evans, who serves as a Greek chorus and a conscience for Ted. She interacts with the puppets.

Young makes the heads of her puppets out of latex rubber. But she sculpts and shapes the faces in plasticine. The rubber is poured into a mould mde from the plasticine and the resulting faces are flexible. That means the mouths and other features move and when the singers sing, it looks like the the puppets are singing.

“This is a technique I have embraced because I love to sculpt and then put fine detail into the heads. That has been my signature.

“It is a simplification of the human face. I also do a lot of caricatures of real people. I grab onto something notable such as a nose or a chin and work around that.”

Ted’s parents. They appear in a flashback.

Young spent 12 years on the Puppets Up! festival in  Almonte.

It ended, basically because “it had run its course. And it had become a bit scary financially, to be honest. People were cottoning on to the fact that there was good free entertainment on the street and they wouldn’t buy a ticket. That was a hard decision but you can’t go on forever.”

The end of the festival has freed Young up to do other things, such as this opera. In addition, the Mississippi Valley Textile Museum will be showing a retrospective of 150 of Young’s puppets, 10 from Sleeping Rough this summer.

Her career began after Young graduated from what was then called the Ontario College of Art.

“I was doing fine art, painting and drawing at art school. But when I got out, I realized I didn’t want that kind of lonely life.” As a teenager she had started doing puppetry and went back to it.

“I made some puppets and started banging on doors at CBOT and CJOH and I was able to get some work. I found that I really loved TV and fact that the faces moved appealed to producers. They were good for closeups.”

Those early jobs led to a gig with one of the most famous public affairs shows in Canadian TV history This Hour Has Seven Days  doing caricature puppets.

Patrick Watson was very patient with me. There were times when I would arrive without my puppets and they had to send a taxi back to get them. I was a little bit of a flake.”

Emily is the daughter of Ted and Anna.

She also worked extensively with the folks at CJOH-TV.

“I was an independent producer for a lot of years and did a lot of projects at their beautiful studios before they all burned down. Max Keeping had a puppet that I built of him and it was burned in the fire. I made him a replacement.”

She even worked with Rich Little back in the day.

“I never know what’s coming next, but people still come knocking and that’s really neat. That’s how I always got my work. The telephone would ring and somebody would be on the phone with an interesting project, that would take me off in a different direction.”

Young believes puppetry might be making a bit of a comeback.

“I think people are now sick of computer graphics and coming back to puppetry. With puppetry, odd things can happen. It’s unexpected and spontaneous. People think it’s for kids, but in fact it’s an art. Every culture has it. It’s a folk art.

“I know a lot of young people who are intrigued and getting into it and making a career of it. A young woman from Carp who works with us on Sleeping Rough for example has a troupe called Rock the Arts that travels across Canada. Her name is Sarah Argue and she started with me in a puppet class.”

Sleeping Rough
Music and Beyond
Where: Arts Court Theatre, 2 Daly Ave.
When: July 10, 11 & 12 at 7:30 p.m.
Tickets and information:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.