Puppets and pandemics

Really big puppets are coming to a park near you, but they’ll be keeping their distance.
At a Distance is Nakai Theatre’s response to what artistic director Jacob Zimmer refers to as “this remarkable summer.”

When I asked what the motivation was behind the project, Zimmer replied with questions: “What did we need as humans? We didn’t think we needed anymore online activity, so what else was possible?”
Nakai Theatre found the answer in puppets.

“Giant puppets outside have a long tradition and the idea builds on the work Nakai is already doing with Theatre at the Scale of the Landscape,” Zimmer said, the latter referring to an ongoing outdoor theatre project Nakai has been developing. “I have personal history with puppets and knew there were others in town who would be game.”

He’s right about that. The folks participating in the project have some serious puppetry pedigree.

Susie Anne Bartsch and her puppet pose for a headshot.

Susie Anne Bartsch is well-known for spear-heading several public art projects and processions, and for wrangling big puppets.

Brian Fidler and his family have been constructing robots as prototypes for the project. Fidler is one of the collaborators responsible for a small but awesome repertoire of cardboard puppet shows produced by Ramshackle Theatre. Other artists who have signed up to make prototypes include Nicole Bauberger, Allison Button, Megan Jensen and Aimée Dawn Robinson.

The artists’ prototype puppets are just the beginning. The main idea behind At a Distance is to have “COVID pods” of Yukoners creating puppets while socially distancing at home. The most obvious pod is a family, but it also could be a houseful of roommates, or other folks who might be part of a bubble. If restrictions around socializing relax, it could mean a group of friends. Solo pods are also possible.

Zimmer said there are already a few pods signed up, including staff from Inclusion Yukon as well as a few families. The puppets can be constructed using things you might find around the house, garage or back yard. The artists’ prototypes provide ideas and inspiration. For pods lacking in skills, technique or materials, Nakai is offering opportunities to acquire these things.

“We’re doing workshops July 21 and 22 at Shipyards with Arts Underground and there are supplies we can share,” said Zimmer. “We have long poles, tent material, hot glue, twine and zip ties and some other fabric that we’ll have at the workshops or for pick-up at the office. If folks have metal frame backpacks, those are great to use.”

At a Distance is not the first time Whitehorse has seen giant puppets. Many locals are familiar with the Burning Away the Winter Blues procession which involves burning a large puppet as an effigy to mark the end of Yukoners’ winter doldrums.

There will be no burning of the At a Distance puppets. Instead, they’ll interact, dance, picnic and ultimately embrace one another. At a time when hugging our pals is taboo, the puppets can be surrogates for acting out these prohibited gestures. In fact, huggable puppets are the most encouraged and sought-after for the project: “Our prompt for the puppet is that it should be able to embrace another puppet without breaking social distancing guidance,” Zimmer explained. Which generally means the puppets need to be pretty big, preferably with extremely long limbs for hugging. Puppets created so far include a very tall fox, a pink, squid-inspired creature, and a fantasy pterodactyl.

Those daunted by large-scale puppet-making can still participate and create smaller projects, Zimmer said.

“I also love kites and flags and think they go great with puppets – especially if people have fabrics and paint – and maybe they’re a little easier to make or carry around.”

Once constructed, puppets and pods will have a chance to intermingle and – of course – hug. Exactly how it’s all going to come together is yet to be determined.

“Parade and dances, we’ll find out!” Zimmer exclaimed. “It will depend a bit on what people create and how the summer goes in terms of COVID. We’re hoping to partner with the Fireweed Market and Arts in the Park, so we’re part of other events.”

Pods who start their projects soon can take advantage of the July workshops and will have several weeks to get their puppets ready to hug the others.

“Look out for a puppet picnic or two the week of August 10th where we get together to see each other’s creations,” Zimmer said.

At a Distance will run until mid-August. Pods can register for the project and the workshops online at nakaitheatre.com. Follow Nakai Theatre on Facebook and Instagram to see photos of puppets and activities throughout the project.

The shows must go on!

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