What does it take to make a puppet show that is also a stage show and a live-action video all in one?
A script, a bunch of performers, some music. Lights, cameras, action.
And cardboard. Miles of cardboard, according to Edward Westerhuis.
“We go to different stores, to the dump behind their stores. The stuff from Mark’s (Work Wearhouse) is nice and thin. It has a really thin weave, with small ridges, so that’s good for really small, detailed work,” he explains.
“When we’re looking for bigger stuff, we’re looking for single-walled stuff that has a pretty firm paper weight. The more you look at it, you can really tell the difference in quality.”
Westerhuis is a community art coordinator in Surrey, B.C. He’s also one of the originators of Tombstone: a Cardboard Western, the latest Ramshackle Theatre project, which debuts this weekend at the Yukon Arts Centre.
He’s a man who clearly knows his cardboard, which isn’t surprising. He practically lives with it.
“We gather a bunch of boxes and then we cut things down. The final product might be really small, but the junk pile of the things we cut away is huge,” he laughs.
“The whole studio floor is completely covered in a whole layer of the stuff. Sometimes the mess can be as beautiful as the puppets themselves.”
Of course, it takes more than just discarded boxes to create the human, cyborg and robotic players in Tombstone’s interspecies love triangle. It also takes lots of shish kebab skewers and chopsticks, hockey tape, magnets and hot glue.
“I use super-long glue sticks, and I’ve gone through hundreds. I can’t give you any real numbers, but I would say upwards of 500 glue sticks, for sure,” Westerhuis guesses.
Another key element is time.
“It’s terrifying. Maybe almost a thousand hours. No, more than that. It’s been like a constant back-burner project that’s been going on for almost four years.
And that’s just his own time. Add in the efforts of Ramshackle’s artistic director, Brian Fidler, and the other three core members of the Tombstone creative team, and the whole thing skyrockets.
“There have been stints when we’ve been working three weeks solid on it. In combined human hours, it’s through the roof, for sure.”
Westerhuis had worked as a cinematographer before a writer’s strike caused a slowdown in Vancouver’s film and TV industry, so he and his wife decided to head North till things improved.
“When I got to the Yukon, I didn’t know anyone. I still wanted to make movies, so I did the lonely person’s filmmaking, which is animation, then stop-motion animation.”
When he met Fidler, an actor, director and puppeteer, he sought his input on working with stop-motion animation dolls.
“That was a really good crossover to working with puppets and video cameras. I came with a cinematographer frame of mind. His was more in the real world, with space and body movement, and so we taught each other those things.”
In 2010, they began to collaborate on what eventually became Sci Fi Double Feature, an “open hand” puppet show where the audience could see what the puppeteers were doing, both onstage and via simultaneous videotaping.
While that first show was in the works, they began devising Tombstone, along with fellow Whitehorse theatre-makers Claire Ness, Geneviève Doyon and Jessica Hickman.
From the outset, they wanted their narrative to cut against the standard western-movie tropes about the chisel-jawed male hero riding in to save the town.
Instead, they devised the tale of Petal, who dreams of having her own acrobatic show, but is stuck running her father’s western-themed amusement park where all the rides and attractions are run by cowboy robots.
Petal is the park’s only human inhabitant until she hires Hank and his trusty steed, Rusty. But when Petal gets injured and becomes a cyborg, her father, Big Boss Man, forbids her from seeing Hank.
Hank, who loves Petal, creates a robot named Earl to take care of her. Alas, Petal falls for Earl and finds herself in a human/cyborg/robot love triangle. When the robots decide to revolt, Petal has to choose where her true allegiances lie.
Westerhuis, who co-wrote the script with Fidler, is coy about how the situation turns out, except to suggest there is a “Hegelian dialectic resolution” – a third way.
With two cameras and a cast and crew of about 10 people, Westerhuis says it’s “amazing” to see how much work is being done.
“And the stuff we’re talking about, can be really ridiculous. Like, what size is the chicken that comes out of the cannon?” he says.
“But it’s a very serious discussion. It’s constant creative problem-solving that pulls on different parts of your brain. Like, how do you be creative and analytical and interpersonal all at the same time? So, it fires all cylinders at the same time.”
An all-ages production, Tombstone: a Cardboard Western will play three shows from Friday, March 30 through Sunday, April 1, at 7:30 p.m. There will also be a matinee on Saturday, March 31 at 2:30 p.m. For details and ticket information, go to yukonartscentre.com.