Bello is about accepting outsiders: a new Vern Thiessen for kids

Onika Henry, Zak Tardif, Julia Seymour in Vern Thiessen's Bello. Photo by: Kim Clegg

Onika Henry, Zak Tardif, Julia Seymour in Vern Thiessen’s Bello. Photo by: Kim Clegg

By Liz Nicholls,

For 16 of its 27 years Concrete Theatre has been inviting people of every ethnic and cultural stripe, every calling, career or colour, to plant a Sprout.

All they need, these playwrights or poets or painters, musicians or  novelists, singers or seamsters or stage managers, is a story to tell. One that could start small and sprout from 15-minutes into a full-length play for kids.

That’s how Bello started in 2011, at Concrete’s annual Sprouts Festival, launched to enhance diversity in a kids’ theatre repertoire that pretty much defined white bread. As Concrete’s Mieko Ouchi puts it, our community is diverse; “we want to reflect that diversity back, in writing, in casting, in stories!”

And now, Bello, a first kids’ play by Vern Thiessen, the accomplished, much-awarded playwright who runs Workshop West Playwrights Theatre, is touring to young audiences everywhere. And it’s playing schools far and wide in both our official languages — thanks to a debut collaboration between Concrete and L’UniThéâtre, Edmonton’s francophone theatre. Ouch’s production arrives at La Citè francophone this weekend. 

When the Concrete invitation to tap his cultural roots came, as Ouchi reports, Thiessen went back to his home town of Winnipeg to consult his Mennonite immigrant parents — and hit them up for a story .

“They each told a story,” says Ouchi. “One was about an old woman everyone thought was a witch. The other was about a little orphan boy who got lost in a snowstorm and was never found.” Which seems very dark but then, hey, consider the grimness of Grimm.

“And kids love it! Some of our favourite characters are orphans,” Ouchi muses. “They have to rely on their own fortitude and self-reliance.”

Originally called Little Bern and Old Nettie, Bello sets forth the former’s situation. “His aunt and uncle, who have 10 children, take him in, and he feels a bit lost in the crowd and misses his parents.” Every day Bern and a cousin walk to school, past a burned-out old barn, and tell scary stories about the outcast who lives there, widely assumed to be a witch.

Zak Tardif, Onika Henry in Bello. Photo by Kim Clegg

Zak Tardif, Onika Henry in Bello. Photo by Kim Clegg

In a huge snowstorm one day, they get separated as they walk home. Little Bern is saved by the old woman. Discoveries ensue, led by the realization that she isn’t a witch, but a parent haunted by bereavement.

“Little Bern brings her back to the community,” Ouchi smiles. “A boy without parents and a woman without her child who find each other. And the kid is the moral hero.”

“It’s a really rhythmic, very physical kind of storytelling,” says Ouchi. “And the kids are loving it.” Not least because Patrick Beagan’s set, “which looks and feels homemade,” is an invitation to imagine. The canvas backdrop, for example, “is a cross-stitched tapestry of a town and surrounding fields.”

And the hut, which turns, and the burlap trees, have an old-fashioned homespun storybook flavour. Similarly, with the sound effect, “we see the actors building the sound, with xylophone, orchestral chimes, a ‘thunder cannon’ (a cylinder with a drum bottom and a coil that vibrates),” says Ouchi.

They crinkle water bottles; they create the storm with silk and a turn-of-the-century wind machine. The stage accoutrements? three wooden boxes and three galvanized tin buckets.

“Hey, we’re re-discovering those old-style radio plays onstage,” Ouchi laughs. “We’re pushing the idea of imagination , of hand-made effects that are within reach. We’re telling kids ‘you could do this!’”

Working in French, with three bilingual actors, has let Ouchi return to her now-rusty French immersion student days in the ′80s.  L’UniThéâtre artistic director Brian Dooley has done the translation. “Vern thinks the French version is funnier,” grins Ouchi. “Maybe it’s the animal sounds in French.”


Theatre: Concrete and L’UniThéâtre

Written by: Vern Thiessen

Directed by: Mieko Ouchi

Starring: Onika Henry, Julia Seymour, Zak Tardif

Where: La Cité francophone, 8627 91 St.

Running: Friday 7 p.m. (English), Saturday 11 a.m. (English) and 2 p.m. (French).

Tickets: at the door   

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