Who knew that the unassuming village of Wakefield harboured a smouldering ambition to be ground zero for puppet making?
Not Nadia Ross. The Wakefield-area founder of STO Union, an adventurous indie theatre company that works with live performance, video and other disciplines, put out a call a couple of years ago for local residents to make puppets of themselves or their alter egos for an as-yet unwritten creation.
Fifty folks showed up at her studio with an equal number of puppets. “There was the entire range, from something drawn on a toilet paper roll to a piece of art that’s just mind-blowing,” she says. “There was the entire range of ages as well. I think the youngest was 6 and the oldest 85.”
From that spirited response, Ross fashioned The Twilight Parade, a large-scale community engagement project which recently premiered in Wakefield and is part of Ottawa’s upcoming 8th annual undercurrents festival of theatre.
Inspired by and starring those locally crafted puppets, Ross’s all-ages production is a feature-length film about a community theatre company performing their play, The Twilight Parade. Eight actors – some professional, many not — perform live voice-overs of the film’s cavalcade of characters.
“It’s a play within a play within a film. There’s lots of layers,” says the boundary-nudging Ross, who won the prestigious $100,000 Siminovitch Prize for theatre in 2016 and has never been at home in the mainstream theatre landscape.
Her newest show tracks residents of a village as they wrangle over the future of their community well and learn about the larger forces threatening the community fabric. The story includes an other-worldly being who’s visiting the village bar in his own search for clarity on ownership and belonging.
“The storyline at the deepest level is looking at power, who has it and what do they do with it,” says Ross. “You’re looking at power issues within the village and the power of the group when people come together.”
She says it’s also about everyone’s desire to feel part of something bigger and to feel valued. When people don’t feel valued, she adds, trouble erupts.
Ross views shows like this one as a chance to ignite individual creativity and to launch a commitment to theatre among non-theatre goers.
“We had people do puppets who hadn’t done anything creative in years. They were shocked at the experience; they’d forgotten what it feels like to be carried away by a creative feeling … you need it for your sense of community and sense of self.”
For those who don’t normally attend theatre, in part because of cost, “STO Union is an entry level to experience the medium – you can afford the ticket. If you get the community engaged in the creation of the project from the start … people feel they’ve had a hand in it and feel proud. These are the audiences of the future.”
Also in this year’s undercurrents festival of original, independent theatre from Ottawa and elsewhere in Canada (most shows at Arts Court):
The Pipeline Project (Savage Society, ITSAZOO, Neworld Theatre, Vancouver). A comedic look at the political conflicts swirling around the Canadian oil industry. Creators/performers include Kevin Loring, artistic director of the nascent Indigenous Theatre at the National Arts Centre.
Forstner and Fillister (Forstner and Fillister, Ottawa). Two woodworker brothers use demonstrations and hands-on participation to teach you how to build a dining room table in one hour or less … if they can agree how to proceed. World premiere.
Little Boxes (Little Boxes Collective, Ottawa). Highly educated, underemployed, distracted suburbanites confront a moral dilemma as they drive home. World premiere.
The Shit Show (Emergence, Ottawa). Our attitudes about our own excrement say a lot about who we are.
How to Disappear Completely (The Chop, Vancouver). Performer/lighting designer Itai Erdal uses video footage and storytelling to reflect on events following his mother’s request that he take her life.
Indigenous Walks (Jaime Morse — formerly Koebel, Ottawa). Guided walk-and-talk through downtown Ottawa showcasing local landmarks through an Indigenous lens.
Snack Music (SNAFU, Snack Music Collective, Toronto). Audience participation piece involving storytelling, puppetry, music and food.
There are also staged readings of new works in progress including Coach of the Year (working title) by Pierre Brault.
Undercurrents runs Feb. 7-17 in downtown Ottawa venues. Information and tickets: http://undercurrentsfestival.ca