Kim Kilpatrick could hear passersby chuckling as she walked home from the pet store, having just bought some food and other necessities for her new guide dog, a black Labrador named Gwenny.
Unbeknownst to the blind Kilpatrick, Gwenny had carried home, in her mouth, a dog toy, still in the package and with the price tag dangling.
Reality set in: “Gwenny was a kleptomaniac.”
Guide dogs, it turns out, are not always the angelic, obedient helpmates most of us see as they help their masters negotiate their way through life. Some compulsively chase squirrels, like Gwenny’s successor, Margaret. Some develop strange phobias, like the fear of steps afflicting Margaret’s successor Gia. And then there is Tulia, the black Labrador that engages in a “charm offensive” to coax coffee shop customers to vacate the dog’s favourite table so Kilpatrick can get a seat.
These, my friends, are the tales from the secret life of guide dogs and they are all revealed in a unique multi-media performance and art exhibition running at GCTC until Aug. 5.
Raising Stanley/Life with Tulia is funny, heartwarming and educational without being saccharine. Kilpatrick, a music therapist, educator and radio personality is a seasoned storyteller and performer at the National Arts Centre. She can suddenly and convincingly speak like a child. She knows how to modulate her voice, ever so slightly, to convey a range of emotions. She is never boring.
Kilpatrick is on stage throughout the 80-minute show. Behind her we see large projections of paintings by Ottawa artist Karen Bailey depicting her adventures raising the future guide dog Stanley. A recorded voiceover from director Bronwyn Steinberg describes the action in each of the paintings for anyone blind in the audience. Sign language interpretation is available for some performances.
Bailey’s actual paintings are on view in the Fritzi Gallery on the second-floor of GCTC. Audio descriptions are available – ask about that at the box office. Labels beside the paintings are in Braille. In the paintings, we see Stanley in a variety of activities — shopping, at the theatre, playing with other dogs and, while a pup, being carried down the steps the animal refused to negotiate until he matured. Stanley eventually became a guide dog and was partnered with a blind man in Sudbury. But Stanley developed a phobia against busy traffic and, as the program notes state, had to undergo “a career change” and resume being an ordinary dog
Kilpatrick’s monologue is more than a recitation about her guide dogs. It is also includes insight into the life of a blind person. As a child, Kilpatrick had to participate in art classes, despite being blind. She didn’t create conventional pictures. She would chose colours based on their smell. So, if a crayon smelled like a lemon, it was used to draw the sun. Needless to say, her pictures were incomprehensible to the sighted world. Art class was not exactly a confidence builder. We also learn about the strength of partnerships between the dogs and their blind masters, and the heartache that comes when a dog becomes ill and must be replaced.
Raising Stanley/Life with Tulia was funded by arts organizations at the federal, provincial and city level and may go on a national tour.
Raising Stanley/Life with Tulia continues at GCTC until Aug. 5. For information, visit raisingstanley.com.