Puppetry’s job, like any art, is to take on the biggest and most challenging questions of our age…to see ourselves as citizens who have a responsibility to ourselves, our children, our city, and even our world to make it a better place than how we found it.
Puppetry can be a powerful medium for civic engagement, often addressing topics that perhaps a live actor could not get away with in the public. Clay and Paper Theatre has lived by this vision since 1995, as they create (often with the help of the public) and put on pageants and plays in public spaces. All of their performances take place in the commons and transforms both the space and the audience in order to inspire them to think, to feel, and to engage.
Artistic Director David Anderson’s tenacity and deep commitment to his art and community can be felt in this Q&A where he shares with us stories of his early start in theatre, and the busy year they’ve got lined up starting with “Puppets on Ice” on February 24th. Check out and join in on the puppet-making workshops happening at their studio on Monday, Wednesday and Sunday until the 21st.
David, what is your role in the performing arts world, and how did you come to be involved?
I am the founding artistic director of Clay and Paper Theatre, which began formally in 1995 but was an entity already in 1991. Before that I was the artistic co-director of Whole Loaf Theatre, which I co-founded in 1976, shortly after I arrived in Toronto. I was part of a collective theatre company in Vancouver, The Breadbakers Puppet Theatre, from 1970 to 1975. I started my theatrical work in 1969 when I performed and toured Canada with a commedia dell’arte company, the Vancouver Street Theatre (VST). The common thread in each of these companies is their history of performing in public spaces, usually in parks, and their commitment to social, political, and ethical commentary.
I was tricked into theatre. I didn’t plan for it or take any classes to prepare me. I just fell into it by a wonderful/awful accident: in the early summer of 1969 on English Bay Beach in Vancouver, I arrived at a performance of The Bribe by the VST just as the crowd was gathering in front of a simple stage. Two actors, Spavento the cop and Arlecchino the young lover, were very successfully at drawing in the crowd. As they returned to the large audience to begin the performance, they arrived simultaneously with two Vancouver City Cops—on horseback.
One of the cops looked down at Spavento and said in a sneering, thick Scottish brogue, “Quite a show you’re putting on here today.”
The audience gasped, but Spavento responded without hesitation in an awful, fake Italian accent, “Quite a show you’re putting on yourselves: a couple of pigs riding up on horseback!”
The audience roared in laughter. The interchange escalated until the policeman took out his two-way radio and called for a paddy wagon, arresting the offending performers and charging them with “creating a disturbance by shouting in a public space.” I was left to help pack up the show and to find a lawyer to defend them. Two months later I was Arlecchino and toured that show across Canada, abandoning my graduate studies in philosophy.
Tell us about Clay and Paper Theatre. What principles or mandate was it founded on? What are the motivations behind it?
That first experience was crucial—and instructive. Shortly thereafter (1970), I met a Vietnam draft dodger and his wife performing a brilliant rod-puppet Punch and Judy show in Stanley Park. They invited me and my partner to help them (Breadbakers Puppet Theatre) with some other big outdoor shows they were planning. This was when I learned the basic methods of small and giant puppet construction, performance, movement, and choreography.
But it was their commitment to performance in public space that really got my attention. Though I loved theatre, I was not happy with even great performances in the castles of culture. They were clearly playing to an elite audience, the well-to-do, and the well educated, but not to the larger cross-section of the population. And they were played in the dark. I like light and being outside, and that is where I found the audience that I love best. In the public space, everyone is welcome.
The mandate of Clay and Paper Theatre is to produce theatre events—plays, pageants, and parades—in public space in the belief that it is an act of cultural transformation. And so we often do our work of building, rehearsing, and performing in full public view as an attempt to “bring back the commons.” Perhaps best of all is that performing and “making” in public space is fun. It allows, even cries out for, excessive movement, exaggerated gestures, giant imagery, and site-specific nuance in a Breugel-like atmosphere.
Can you tell us more about your upcoming production of “Puppets on Ice” and/or other upcoming projects?
“Puppets on Ice” is a participatory community event taking place on Sunday, March 24 from 1 to 5 p.m. And we need your help: we are now inviting the public to our studio to help us build bizarre and excessive puppets. The public are invited to wear these creations while skating in waltz time to the great classics and to the not-too-soothing music of our fledgling new band, The Bloody Awful Band, also playing exclusively in waltz time! Check our website (clayandpapertheatre.org) for workshop building times and BAB rehearsal times. Everyone is welcome. And it’s free, though donations are gratefully accepted.
In mid-June we will have our eighth annual Day of Delight, a celebration of love, courtship, and desire in Toronto. Audiences will be left panting for more from a juried group of puppeteers, dancers, paraders, acrobats, clowns, and musicians. Our call for performers/collaborators will go out soon.
In July and August we will be performing a new Canadian play written and produced in-house: Our last, best, hope (working title), which is a tribute to the Idle No More movement and the brilliant new presence of First Nations leadership in our midst.
Be on the lookout also for our new lecture series, “Clay and Paper Theatre presents The Messy Lectures,” where we asked prominent Canadian artists, writers, and musicians to speak on difficult, messy subjects.
What do you see as the main challenges for the performing arts in general and puppetry in particular?
We live in dangerous times, and yet we all act as if life as we know it now will go on forever. But it won’t. The scientific evidence for the coming extreme ecological changes are staggering. And yet our social, political, and cultural trajectory remains unchallenged. The main challenge that performing arts and puppetry face is the challenge of facing that reality and of not allowing ourselves to be relegated to playing the fiddle while Rome burns.
Puppetry itself is always challenged by the typical image of terminal cuteness brought on by the TV simulacrum of talking heads, and by often being relegated to the category of children’s entertainment. But puppetry’s job, like any art, is to take on the biggest and most difficult questions of our age, to put people in relation to the “other,” and to see ourselves as citizens, not consumers, who have a responsibility to ourselves, our children, our city, and even our world to make it a better place than how we found it. But I must say that of all the art forms, puppetry is best equipped to take up this challenge.
Could you share some examples of the kinds of challenges that you have faced yourself and how you overcame them?
A repeating challenge for a small company that works in public spaces for (almost) free is finding the funding to support the work. It’s often a cash flow problem: we know that we will have income in the (hopefully) near future, but that fact alone does not prevent a growing sense of desperation, which quite easily leads to disillusionment over the possibilities of continuing.
About six years ago this challenge visited us between Christmas and New Year’s. There were a great many exciting, new projects being contemplated, but the news of a cash shortage sent a pall over the company. It’s not a state of being that gives rise to creative reactions to such situations. Fortunately, there had been a big snowstorm at that time, so I sent out a request to friends and supporters to come to Dufferin Grove Park to help us make as many snowmen as we could. Everyone had a great time, and it gave us the energy to set up some meetings and goals that got us out of our predicament.
Although I’ve been doing nothing but this kind of spectacle-and-imagery theatre since 1969, there were many moments when, while working on a theatrical piece, I was not sure I could write, sculpt, paint, or do any of the work necessary to make the piece happen. This feeling was present even though I had done all those things – for years – without somehow realizing that I had actually done them. It wasn’t until I started Clay and Paper Theatre, at which time I developed a passionate interest in the ancient Epic of Gilgamesh, that I began to think differently.
The Epic of Gilgamesh developed over two years, and I had some brilliant and equally passionate collaborators. It was only after this experience that I realized I could bury those recurring fears, because I had focused only on the question of how best to tell that story. Those moments of insecurity just did not happen because the collaboration was so involving. What creative work demands is movement: taking a step, judging the consequences, and then onto the next step.
What words of advice do you wish you had been given when you were first starting out?
I’m not sure that there is any advice I wish I had been given. I feel blessed by my accidental start, because it provided an immediate possibility of living my life in a way that honoured my own sense of how to engage with the world I have been thrust into. I’ve tried to backslide into a “real job” that would take advantage of my education, but I always shrunk back in horror and took the path I seemed destined to follow.
Well, maybe there is a piece of advice I wish I’d been given: don’t be afraid of your own ignorance. In fact, I’d say embrace your ignorance; know it. It’s the best place to start from, and it puts you in a position of curiosity, which can guide you through your own best process. It can act as your teacher.