O, to be a kid again: yes you can! The Kids’ Fest is back

The Man Who Planted Trees, Puppet State Theatre Company. Photo supplied by St. Albert International Children’s Festival.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Imagine a world where a real live man unzips a suitcase — from the inside — and climbs out.

Where a big-mouth wiseacre Dog breathes life into a gentle story about tree planting, one acorn at a time, across the span of two world wars. Where a mouse named Marvin takes us on a glow-in-the-dark cosmic adventure to Mars, aboard his homemade rocketship.

You can get to that world from here. It’s just up the road, in fact, on the banks of the mighty Sturgeon. That’s where six-day festivities devoted to the power of the imagination are to be found, starting Tuesday and running through Sunday June 4.

Johnathan Burns. Photo supplied by St. Albert International Children’s Festival.

With the return of the International Children’s Festival — for a 36th annual edition that’s a day longer than the usual five — St. Albert is where you can locate Jonathan Burns. He’s a ridiculously supple pretzel of a guy from Pennsylvania, whose feats of contortionist comedy, starting with that suitcase, have no respect for the laws of probability, as Leno, Letterman, and James Corden audiences have discovered.

It’s where you’ll find the Puppet State Theatre Company of Edinburgh, and their captivating production of The Man Who Planted Trees, first seen at the Kids Fest in 2010 (I can personally recommend this enchanting show). And it’s where you’ll find Moon Mouse: A Space Odyssey, a return visit by New Orleans’s ingenious Lightwire Theatre.

These are three of the eight MainStage shows in festivities that attract an annual audience of some 55,000 people to put down their clickers and fire up their imaginations instead. The proportions get juggled, year to year, but the mix of theatre, dance, puppetry, storytelling, comedy, music — and permutations and combinations of all of the above — remains in place.

Sangja (Boxes) by Pangaea Arts and ArtStage SAN. Photo supplied by St. Albert International Children’s Festival

Sangja (Boxes), for example, an unusual collaboration between Vancouver’s Pangaea Arts and ArtStage SAN of Seoul, uses puppetry, live actors, physical theatre, projections, and music from East and West, to tell the moving story of a boy adopted from one culture to another, a world away, and displaced in both.

In an era where cultural diversity and identity are scrutinized from every angle, Sangja could hardly be more topical. Pangaea artistic director Heidi Specht explains that the genesis of the story was true life. Her brother David Warburton was adopted from South Korea at two-and-a-half by a Vancouver family of artists — their mother is a composer, an uncle runs a Vancouver theatre company.

He arrived in Canada as a Korean. It was as an adult of 28 that he went back to Korea for the first time, to the very orphanage where his story began. 

“Everything about Korea I had to re-discover,” says Warburton, whose search for identity was complex and emotional. “I had rejected my Korean identity” but his life as a Canadian kid was a struggle, full of anxieties.

“We didn’t realize his struggle at the time,” says Specht. “But as a child you’d be fearful about sharing your feelings, and hurting your adoptive family.”

As Specht explains, “in Korean society adoption is a stigma, it’s hidden, secret, tabu….a national embarrassment that Korea, on the one hand, ‘the miracle of Asia’ economically’, is one of the largest exporters of children in Asia.”

“When we started researching,” she says of a show years in the making, ”puppetry seemed a good metaphor for the journey; puppets aren’t in control; they can’t make their own choices….”  That’s how Pangaea’s partnership with ArtStage SAN came about.

Sangja (Boxes). Photo supplied by St. Albert International Children’s Festival

The show uses bunraku puppets that are almost human in scale; the David character is embodied in three different sizes, baby, teen, and adult.

The verbal text, in Korean and English, is at a minimum, and that too figures in a story about struggling to bridge the gap in order to communicate. “As an adoptee you lose your language…” says Warburton, currently the Director of Touring and Business Development for the Royal Winnipeg Ballet. 

The cast includes three Koreans and two Canadians.“My partner and I play David’s parents,” laughs Specht. “I’m 20 years older than David, so it’s like re-living our life as parents this time.”

BAM Percussion. Photo supplied by St. Albert International Children’s Festival

Another adaptation of form comes courtesy of Quebec’s inventive BAM Percussion, which has turned drumming into slapstick comedy.

Eighteen years and a lot of Air Miles ago, as Jean-Sebastien Dallaire tells it, a trio of drummers from Gatineau “were entering our ‘20s wondering what to do with our lives.” Veterans of every kind of rock and salsa band, Dallaire and friends considered something serious, like Taiko drumming. Briefly. “Then we started clowning around.”

The result was a show they tested, in a 15-minute form, at Montreal’s Just For Laughs. “We figure we’d know right away if we’re funny or not.”

European agents picked them up for gigs. And they’ve been touring the world whaling away on things ever since. Cultural habits and values differ around the globe. But there was no destination where slapstick comedy involving, among other objects of percussive invention, their signature big blue drums, wouldn’t work, says Dallaire, the only remaining founding member. BAM arrives in St. Albert fresh from a 10-show tour of China, “our 29th country.” 

“Our idea is to do as much as possible with the least possible,” says the exuberant Dallaire, who explains that they don’t ship any of their props or instruments. “We bring them!”

Packing stuff to travel the globe has been “a big learning curve,” says Dallaire. The set-up includes “three big drums, one small drum, a variety of props, including PVC piping that comes apart and fits in a hockey bag….”

“ We transform them!” he laughs. “An airplane, a war trench, a horse … it’s like a kid playing with a cardboard box and transforming it into a million things!”

“In 1999 we never dreamed our lives would be like this,” muses Dallaire. “Rock bands (typically) last three years! We’re all good friends, in our ‘40s, all daddies with responsibilities. And we get to entertain people and make them happy. What a great thing that is!

“We get to be big kids and play around. And that’s a privilege….”

Niniimi’iwe by Winnipeg’s Aboriginal School of Dance. Photo supplied by St. Albert International Children’s Festival.

FEATURED PERFORMANCES: As above, Jonathan Burns, The Man Who Planted Trees, Moon Mouse: A Space Odyssey, Sanja, and BAM Percussion. Also: Madagascar: A Musical Adventure, culled from the DreamWorks hit movie and  performed by the St. Albert Children’s Theatre (invariably one of the Kids Fest’s hottest tickets); Niniimi’iwe, an exploration of aboriginal cultures through movement and music from Winnipeg’s Aboriginal School of Dance; Treehouse TV’s Splash’N Boots: CBC TV’s kids’ entertainer Will Stroet.

FULL LINEUP AND SCHEDULE: childfest.com. And there’s a free app available for download there.

NEW THIS YEARFor the first time, the Kids Fest has added Sunday to its life span. It was a weekend expansion motivated by public feedback, says the festival’s new program presenter Neil LeGrandeur.  School groups dominate the weekdays. On the weekend, it’s families. Instead of Friday night performances, parents preferred to hang with their kids at the festival both Saturday and Sunday.

TICKETS: The $13 tab for mainstage shows is up by $2 from last year’s edition. They’re available from the Arden Theatre box office (780-459-1542) or ticketmaster.ca.

Site activities are $3. As LeGrandeur suggests, “the best value is the$20  kid Butterfly Pass, which includes a ticket to a featured performance, unlimited access to site activities, a caricature trading card, and a bag of popcorn.

Shaw’s Toddler Town: for kids four and under. Tickets are $10, with free admission for the adults they bring with them.

Free stuff: an outdoor stage and a brigade of roving performers.

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