Laura-Beth Bird and Dustyn Forbes were interviewed by Mark Kilfoil on July 2nd, 2019. Listen to the full interview here.
MK: So, hi guys! How is it going? Let’s first establish with the folks at home who you are. So I’m speaking with a pair of you this morning. Why don’t we start with you, Laura?
LB: My name is Laura-Beth Bird and I am a theatre artist based in Fredericton, NB.
DF: And my name is Dustyn Forbes, I’m a student at St. Thomas (University). I’m also a summer intern at the Solo Chicken Production headquarters, and I’m also an emerging artist here in Fredericton.
MK: So yeah, you guys aren’t busy at all (laughs). So tell me about the work that you’re doing down here. Tell me about the art you’re pursuing.
LB: So since I graduated from university, I’ve been looking into puppetry and different forms of puppetry. I recently came back from Mermaid Theatre in Nova Scotia, where I got to experiment with shadow puppetry. We’re taking what I picked up from the institute and translating it into here. So, we’re building our own children’s shadow puppet show.
MK: So you guys are working together on this?
DF: Yeah, so it’s like a collaboration between Grey Rabbit and the Solo Chicken Coop Productions.
MK: Have you guys worked together before?
LB: Not in this formality. University, yes.
DF: Yeah, this is a first.
MK: So you’ve collaborated on some work in university, but nothing like this. So where did this idea start? Was it something where you both had the inspiration to do something with this, or was a this a thing where it was like “Hey, we gotta get a residency! Oh no, what are we doing?”
LB: We applied for the residency after the idea. I spoke with Lisa Anne Ross after immediately getting back from Mermaid. Lisa had spent a couple years touring with the company, so when I said I went to puppet school she got really excited. Then we came up with this idea for shadow puppetry. It’s a more process-based creation, the puppets, and it’s more time-consuming. It’s not something we could’ve done in a week. So shadow puppets were a more reasonable idea. So as soon as we had that idea, Solo Chicken submitted the residency application to the Fredericton Arts Alliance.
MK: So what puppetry do you normally work with? Are we talking the muppet-style puppets from below or are we talking string mannequins from above?
LB: I personally prefer working with Punch-and-Judy style puppets. It’s very old-school, less animated. They still portray the same range of emotion, but they’re aesthetically much older. I’ve been building a puppet theatre; it’s in my garage right now, it’s pretty large. It operates like a Punch-and-Judy style set. So you’re using hand puppets, you can change them with other puppets, it’s just one field for action. Muppets, or pull-puppets, are very popular right now, but it wasn’t anything I was interested in. Marionettes take a lot of practice, so it would’ve taken me even longer to figure out how they work. So I’ve been working with Punch-and-Judy styles.
MK: So I know you’ve (Laura-Beth) got a background in puppets, what about yourself (Dustyn)?
DF: I have no background in puppets. When Lisa told us about the residency, I was just over the moon because I’ve never had a chance to ever work with puppets. I just work with my body as a dancer, so this is definitely a first, and it’s an exploration, and I love it.
MK: So you wanted to work with puppets. Are you kind of thinking of them in a way you would think about your own body? As a movement?
DF: In a way. I kind of just cleared the pallet when I walked in here and am just learning as I go; how to unbody these puppets with character the way I would do the same with myself, with emotion and character. It’s definitely a journey; I’m really excited to see what comes out of it.
MK: Laura, a lot of people like puppets, but they don’t go to the next step and go “I’m going to make real puppets.” What was the inspiration for that?
LB: When I finished university, I was trying to find a way to stabilize my income.
MK: And you turned to puppets?
LB: I did. Because children’s theatre is really quite accessible for being an artist, and puppets primarily serve children. So I can create shows for cities and for events and charge for the production instead of per ticket for the child. So it just seemed like a more stable way of approaching art. And then I got deeper into it and started to really, really like it. So it was a toe-in and then a full dive. I contacted Jim Morrow of Mermaid and he was kind enough to show me how to build them all, and then I went back and won the UNIMA Marionettes Scholarship for Puppetry, so I went back to Windsor, Nova Scotia for three weeks just to work with puppets.
MK: There’s a puppet school there?
LB: Yes, there’s multiple puppet schools in Canada. The one in our backyard is Mermaid, and they tour across the world. They perform for royal families and have four or five productions touring at a time, doing things like Hungry Hungry Caterpillar and The Confused Chameleon; beautiful shows.
MK: I think you’re opening me up to an entirely different possibility. Because I do think of the Muppets or Sesame Street when I think of puppets.
LB: Yeah, I thought that too when I walked in there. I was like “This is what I will learn!” And then I fell in love with a completely different style.
MK: So this was after university. Did you study art or drama at university?
LB: I studied drama at St. Thomas University, so I did the drama program, much like you, and when I was there we did a little bit of everything. There are things I loved; I definitely loved building, so it gives me a 50/50 of what I love to do.
MK: And you build all your own puppets? How many puppets do you have? Do I dare ask?
LB: I have three here. They take a while to finish; I’m building them over the summer. And then I have four or five heads at home.
MK: Don’t take this the wrong way, but in a few years, are people going to be scared to go to your house?
LB: Probably (laughs). They’re all in boxes in the garage.
MK: You don’t have them on display? Everywhere you turn there’d just be another shadow puppet head staring at you?
LB: No, no I definitely don’t want that to be a thing in my life (laughs).
MK: So what kind of characters are you looking to portray, or have portrayed in puppets already?
LB: So I have my giant dragon, who’s just over there. And then I have my prince and princess; that’s a cute little story. And then I’m building the Coleman Frog, I haven’t written a script for that yet. And then we’re building some shrimp after that.
MK: So are you building characters you’re going to use in different stories? Or are you building to a story?
LB: So I’m building these ones to a story, and then I have set-up rehearsal puppets, which are just heads that you can just dress up and do everything with them to create new stories and experiments. SoI have a range for theatre and a range for education.
MK: So are you creating original stories with these as well or looking to adapt? I guess the Coleman Frog is more of a character story.
LB: It is a character story but it was a new script that was handed to me. So it’s new work with familiar Atlantic Canadian characters.
MK: Has there been a puppet show before?
LB: I don’t think so.
MK: You haven’t surveyed all the puppet groups yet?
LB: No, not yet (laughs).
MK: So here though, you’re working on shadow puppets. So what’s that all about?
DF: So the way it works is we cut out little pieces of paper. We draw little characters on them, much like cartoons, and then we cut out the outline, from my understanding, and cut out lines and little spots of negative space so that the light shines through, and that gives them depth. In doing so with eyes and mouths, we can make them move, or make the eyes open and close, or shine more light to make them look more aware, stuff like that.
MK: Have you built anything like this before?
DF: No, I have not.
MK: Is this closer to building sets in a way?
DF: I would say probably, it’s a simple set with light shining through a scrim.
LB: It’s just moving 2D work, and you can work with 3D in this, but it’s positive and negative space, so it’s using light and colour in different ways. There’s a company in Victoria that does this as well. It’s just primarily shadow puppets. We’re kind of just dipping our toe in with this and creating a small show, and experimenting with what we can during the residency.
MK: So have you built shadow puppets before? Either of you?
LB: I did during my education at Mermaid. We built some really cute blanket forts (laughs).
MK: Are you sure this was a university or college? It sounds like a summer camp.
LB: It’s professional artists education, but in theatre it’s more important that you understand the concept of play, because if the performers aren’t having fun, then the audience isn’t having fun. So a lot of the time it does feel like we’re playing games and doing silly stuff, but then two week later it turns into something silly and magical and everybody’s crying and having fun.
MK: You’re working for kids too, so you definitely have to have those over-the-top feelings and actions, right?
LB: It still needs to be genuine.
DF: I agree. The art of play is important, but also finding those moments of realness that the children can relate to as well.
MK: So what’s this story about? Is it a new story?
DF: So we took poems that were written by children of this area, with the poet laureate of Fredericton. And they’re based on the trees here in Fredericton, just because of the flood that just happened and the talk about how important the trees are here in the city. So they’re just short little six-line poems that they wrote. And we took that and pulled some of the themes and characters and tree-types and things like that. So here we have Mother Maple, a maple tree, and the story is going to be based around a cat named Meatball, who finds this tree, and this tree is going to help teach Meatball lessons in life about how preservation of our ecosystems are important, and also how, like a tree, enduring certain weather conditions and hardships that might come to you in life. The story is still in development.
MK: How long ago did you start this?
DF: Yesterday (laughs).
MK: So most people were celebrating Canada Day, and you were furiously reading poems and trying to dissect them. Sounds like fun, actually. So how many poems are involved?
DF & LB: Five.
MK: So you have the poems up on the wall over there?
LB: Yeah, they wrote them on leaves and it’s really cute; the smallest little children just writing poetry.
MK: So you get some great starting inspiration and obviously some of the trees themselves are going to be the characters within the stories, but did you say “Captain Meatball?”
DF: (Laughs) a cat named Meatball.
MK: That’s just as hilarious. So how are you going about the process of animating these? Because you’ve got the shadow, first of all, and that part I think most people understand; if you shine a light through a shape, it’ll make a shadow on the wall. But how do you go about animating that? Because when I think of shadow puppets I see people playing around with their hands and making dogs that bark and butterflies and birds and things.
LB: So, these 2D shapes, we’ve mapped them onto dowels, and then we’ll move them with different motions. So Meatball the Cat would just be wobbling, and that’s just a lot more about pulling and changing the light sources and changing the way you direct light through it, so if you pull things back it looks like it’s getting bigger on the screen, or if you pull it closer it gets smaller. And then he’ll be climbing up over things, we’ll have some clouds floating by, the cat will be wandering around and getting behind the trees, and I think a firetruck comes in at some point.
DF: We’re going to try and do some barn door action, opening up barn doors and we want her (Mother Maple’s) mouth to be able to move up and down as she talks as well.
LB: It’s gonna take a week of experimentation to figure out how all these things work, but that’s what residencies are for, is taking the time to figure it out.
MK: You know, we’ve seen amazing technological change in at least the last decade, if not the last 50 years, but this sort of hearkens back to a very simple, very classic style. Is that part of the appeal?
LB: It is for me. When I started studying this thing, I wanted to go back to a nostalgic style. So when I personally work with art, I end up creating, aesthetically, early European work, and then giving it a North American-styled performance.
MK: What does this early European work look like?
LB: You’d be thinking of baroque, really detail-orientated. As I said, I have a puppet theatre, but it looks like a traveller caravan with wagon wheels, and it has all the floral patterns on it, bright red with a curved top. It’s really small, detailed things, but then we’re using a Western style of performance, so it’s not as disciplinary, it’s more free and more open and more emotional, so it gives it this really nice juxtaposition in its performance style, whereas this is just so simple, and then you give it such emotion, it creates a really nice performance.
MK: Well, I was thinking of this analogously, but I think this is quite literally a blank canvas for you two to put those emotions on to. Has the technology changed in this? Is it still essentially a bare lightbulb behind a screen?
LB: It develops into different things for different people, so basically the concept has always been the same; positive/negative space and movement. But then you see big companies create huge, multi-coloured walls in there, fighting aliens with this hippo. And then you look at Malaysian puppetry, which is very fine, fine paper and this ancient technique where the light shines through that simple paper, and it’s very unchanging. People are changing and developing these classic styles all the time into something new and something beautiful, and Solo Chicken has this beautiful way of moving, and appreciating breadth and motion and physicality that’s needed for puppetry. Because what they emote, the puppets also emote.
MK: Turning to that for a minute, Solo Chicken does have a reputation for physical theatre, so is this a direct marriage of what physical theatre would normally be, or is it a really radical interpretation of it?
DF: I don’t think it’s so outlandish to partner these two together, just because the way the art forms both work is so connected to breadth and body and movement, and is also very much to the audience’s interpretation. To them it’s just shadows on a canvas, but we’re emoting and giving that to the audience as well. And the same thing with when we’re doing physical theatre, we’re not blatantly crying or being sad or happy; it’s up to the audience to interpret what we’re doing with those little movements. I think it is a really good pairing, and I’m excited to see how the two marry together, because I haven’t done this before; it’s all exploration.
MK: So it’s just the two of you, right?
LB: Nope, there’s also Kira Chisholm and Naomi McGowan working on this project, so there’ll be two performing on Sunday, but the four of us working together.
MK: You describe a lot of motion happening, and I’m just imagining the furious under-carriage of the stage, and you guys are just trying to keep all the things spinning at the same time.
LB: Once you take the screen away from puppetry, you have people on their legs and under armpits just trying to get the right space. There’s no personal space for puppets (laughs), whatever the action the performers are doing is purely to support the puppet. Whatever weird, twisty pretzel you have to put yourself in to make a cat walk over a tree and into a barn, it’s what you have to do.
MK: One of the most mind-blowing discoveries I made when I was younger was seeing, on The Muppet Show, someone doing a blooper reel, and pulling back and showing that there’s actually four people manipulating the puppet at the same time, in a space where four people can’t exist. You can’t fit four people together that way.
LB: It’s astounding; you take away the show part of it and just show the mechanics of it, it’s almost hysterical to watch.
MK: Are you gonna get a chance to show people what that looks like?
LB: I think later on in the summer I could probably do that a little more; we can take it away and explain it to the children. It’s this sort of thing that we’re creating that the kids can do at home.
MK: Explaining to the parents, too.
LB: Yeah, and I often do that. Especially how we build things and how we operate things; it takes a little bit of focus and time to explain how puppetry comes alive. It’s definitely something I want to do and it’s definitely something I will be doing in the late summer into the fall.
MK: So this is a week-long project? And by the end of the week you’re going to perform this project? Does this not sound insane to either of you?
LB: Absolutely (laughs).
DF: Yes (laughs).
MK: Have either of you ever done a project that’s this fast?
LB: Yes, you end up pulling everything together, and it becomes something. You revisit it, it becomes something else; it’s an ever-growing project. This is the first show, first week, it’ll be at 2:30 in the library on Sunday. It’ll be absolutely hilarious and wonderful.
MK: So that’s the Fredericton Public Library, not too far from us here. But during the week we’re going to see you guys with your straight knives, cutting away at the paper. Now do these get coloured in at all or are they just basically a simple colour?
LB: The solid paper doesn’t, but we’ll be using gels and acetate paper to change colours and create more style to them. So day one was just figuring out what we needed to build shape-wise and style-wise, and then we’ll be adding all the details during the rest of the week.
MK: So at some point you’re going to have your cutouts done, and your colours done. Are you going to be able to practice in this space?
LB: Yep; there’s more than enough room in the casemate for us to do this.
MK: Do you have a projector light or something to use?
LB: I do have LED lights and flashlights and things in the back of the space here and we have our frame up with our fabric over the front of it. So we’re pretty much good to practice it, and we’ll have the finishing touches ready for Sunday.
MK: I’ve got to say, out of all the different kinds of puppetry, at least this one may fold flat. So just to end us off here, if you were to say one thing about puppetry that maybe people don’t know or that surprised you in your process of learning it, what might that be?
LB: Puppets think. Puppets will do every motion that a human will do, and when you’re learning to use them, you have to remember that the puppet has to think too.
MK: Very cool. And in your (Dustyn’s) one day of learning?
DF: I would actually say your puppet is alive, which goes along with what you were saying, but I did puppetry a long time ago; not shadow puppets, but like, normal puppets that you would see. That was the one thing that surprised me in my training was that the puppet was always alive, it’s a being; it’s all about respecting the puppet. So just acknowledging that life-force when you’re working with it, like you would work with a scene partner.
LB: Yeah, it’s alive; it’s real. That’s the way it has to be, or it doesn’t work.
DF: Exactly. Mother Maple is here with us.
MK: Well, the magic comes alive when it goes on stage, and these characters come to life, of course. Maybe they’ll live a little longer afterwards with you guys. But, I want to thank you both for joining me and telling me about this puppetry. So I know that for musical performances, like “break a leg” or “break a string,” or “break a leg” for theatre performances, what do you say for puppet performances?
DF: I think it’s just the same thing.
MK: Contort yourself badly?
LB: It’s going to have to be now (laughs).
MK: Thank you so much for joining me.
DF: Thank you.
LB: Thanks for having us.
Charlotte Simmons, FAA Summer Events Coordinator 2019