In a big world, the enchantment of small: the Kids’ Fest is back

Plastic/ Plastique, Puzzle Théâtre. Photo by Ivan Stavrev.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

“If you carry your childhood with you, you never become older.”

— Tom Stoppard

On being a kid.

Do you remember that mysterious childhood tingle that goes through your bones when wood comes to life and goes on an adventure, clay turns into a face and becomes a character, you find yourself seeing into the heart of a glow-in-the-dark fish on a great deep sea adventure? Or when a miniature world comes to life — and is suddenly more real than anything big around you?

There’s a festival for that. And it’s just up the road on the banks of the mighty Sturgeon starting Tuesday.

You can take a kid, or be one yourself. The St. Albert International Children’s Festival of the Arts, our true summer solstice experience, returns for a 37th edition that runs through Sunday June 3 on a variety of stages, indoor and out-, surrounding the Arden Theatre. As usual at the festivities, there’s a mix of theatre, dance, storytelling, music, comedy, circus arts — sometimes in the same production. 

Of the eight MainStage ticketed shows, three of the country’s most innovative puppet theatres — two from Quebec, one from the Maritimes — are arriving to open your eyes to the possibilities that lie waiting in inanimate objects.

The Rainbow Fish, Mermaid Theatre. Photo supplied

The Rainbow Fish is from Nova Scotia’s Mermaid Theatre, which specializes in black light storytelling. It’s their unique stage version of three tales by the celebrated kids’ author Marcus Pfister. And the questing hero you’ll be rooting for is a beautiful fish with shining scales, who goes on an underworld journey of discovery.

For the first time, Montreal-based Puzzle Théâtre visits the west, to reveal the secret inner life that lurks within the most prosaic — indeed controversial, and reviled — objects of them all: discarded plastic bags. Recycling at its timeliest, you might say, and a test case for the creation of characters by breathing life into inanimate objects.

Plastic/ Plastique is the work of Bulgarian-born wife-and-husband  team of Pavla Mano and Csaba Raduly, the one trained as a puppeteer and the other as an actor.

“We’re a family theatre,” laughs Mano, on the phone from Vancouver where Plastic/Plastique played last week at the Kids’ Fest there. “And our scenographer is from Bulgaria too.”

Mano’s earliest work was in more conventional puppet theatre, puppets as tiny recognizable representations of people. But “with time this changed; it wasn’t interesting any more…. ‘Object theatre’ is very rich; it can express more,” she says.

As the company name might suggest, at first Puzzle experimented with object forms — triangles, geometric shapes. Since then, they’ve created theatre using wool (Au bout du fil, Little Yarn Stories), or kids’ drawings on paper (Ciel variable, Variable Cloudiness), pillows and blankets (Bonne nuit!, Bedtime).

With object theatre Mano is attracted, she says, to “the way you don’t know where you’re going when you start…. Every material has its own world, its own life, its own way of thinking. And you have to follow it, and not impose your own will.”

Plastic/ Plastique, Puzzle Théâtre. Photo by Ivan Stavrev.

“Imposing doesn’t work…. You can try. But eventually you say ‘OK I give up’ and you follow.” When Mano and Radula begin a project, they don’t know in advance whether it will be for kids, for grown-ups, or (as in the case of Plastic/ Plastique) both, whether for large crowds or intimate gathering in tiny dark theatres. “This keeps life being interesting,” she says.

The Puzzle history, for example, includes a unique commission to “animate a forest” at the request of the Saguenay Festival, “in order to bring people to their hill.” Mano remembers at the outset walking through the woods brainstorming; typically, she and Raduly saw possibilities hidden in objects like branches: “we kept seeing weird creatures with strange noses.” 

The origins of Plastic/ Plastique were in a Montreal park, “with plastic bags flying all around.” Mano and Radula’s son was 3 1/2 at the time, and to keep him amused, his parents began to create story possibilities with the flying discards all around them.

Since its 2012 premiere in Montreal, Plastic/ Plastique has toured globally. Depending on where it turns up, there is some language, or none, in the show. “It was meant to be without words; we didn’t know how plastic would speak,” says Mano. “There’s some talking when it’s in English, French, or Spanish; German and Italian we speak less.”

“We have a lot of bags!” she says of the “cast.” And bags are reusable: “we’ll have to keep playing for 15 years more!”

Tommelise (Thumbelina), L’Illusion Théâtre de Marionettes. Photo by Michel Pinault 2017.

L’Illusion Théâtre de Marionettes, who brought the Kids’ Fest an exquisite puppet version of Hansel and Gretel (À La belle étoile) in 2015, is back, with another playful adventure in scale. Tommelise (Thumbelina) is a re-telling of the beautiful Hans Christian Andersen tale of the tiny heroine born into the heart of a barley flower, who emerges into a big and scary world.

It is the most recent show by the venerable much-travelled Montreal puppet company founded nearly 40 years ago by the parents of co-artistic director Sabrina Baran. “I grew up literally with puppets!” as she says.

In Thumbelina Baran shares the stage with a dancer, a musician, and a great diversity of puppets of varying sizes and styles — marionettes, stick puppets, shadow puppets, puppets manipulated with a hand.

Tommelise (Thumbelina) Photo by Michel Pinault 2017

Baran’s artistic preference, working collaboratively with a team, is perfectly suited to the multiple demands of puppet theatre. She started out, as a kid, in classical ballet — “a difficult world for a little girl” — and tried the visual arts too before “turning to puppet theatre with great pleasure!” she laughs. Movement choreography both human and puppet, design, acting, rarefied artisanship, dramatic ideas … theatre with puppet characters requires all of the above, as Baran points out happily.

The Hans Christian Andersen tale has appealed to her since childhood, Baran says. “It stayed with me, my vision of a small child in an enormous world…. In my version, it’s the strength of that little girl in overcoming so many difficult challenges in the big world.”

She thinks of the miniature world as “representing your inner soul…. There’s enchantment in small. We have magic in us. And children have it the most.”

The Kids’ Fest runs Tuesday through Sunday in St. Albert.

Featured Performances: Plastic/ Plastique, Tommelise (Thumbelina), The Rainbow Fish, Neverland, The StepCrew, Singing Africa with Jacky Essombe, The Mystery Wonder Show (with Ron Pearson), and Junie B. Jones The Musical (St. Albert Children’s Theatre).

Neverland, CircusWest. Photo supplied.

Full schedule, show descriptions, site map: childfest.com (and there’s a free app you can download there).

Site activities: an assortment of 13, from papermaking to calligraphy to design, including The Poetic Art Project, a collaborative enterprise that has kids choosing words to enhance their vision of how to make their community a better place.

Free things to do: an outdoor stage, a regiment of roving performers, tattoos and chalk art, and more.

Tickets: For mainstage shows $13, available at the Arden box office (780-459-1542, the St. Anne Promenade satellite box office, or Ticketmaster, ticketmaster.ca), and $25 for the Festival Finale. Toddler Town for kids up to four, $10 (free for the adult they take with them). Site activities $3.

The best deal: the Butterfly Pass. $20 gets you 1 featured performances, unlimited site activities, free entry to Toddler Town, caricature trading cards, a festival treat, and a child admission to Fort Edmonton Park.

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