Radio LUMI

Care- Walk with Amal Toronto

May 26, 2023 Luminato Festival Toronto
Radio LUMI
Care- Walk with Amal Toronto
Show Notes Transcript

In this episode, Radio LUMI will explore the theme of “Care” as part of Luminato 2023. 

In “Grounding Conversations, Part 3: Returning to Care,” Dev slips into dreams of where they’re able to seek refuge: the care from their communities. These dreams are haunted by spirits as well, but they’re the spirits of our disabled and racialized and queer ancestors who taught them lessons of care, resilience, and survival.

Then Christine Malec sits down with audio describer JJ Hunt and puppeteer Michelle Urbano to explore the “Art of Storytelling in Puppetry" before diving into “Worth Noting” with Theodore Walker Robinson about the connections between care and puppetry as Luminato 2023 prepares for Walk with Amal Toronto. 

Christine Malec:

My name is Christine Mallec and I'm one of the Radio Lumi hosts. In this episode, we're going to be considering the theme of care. I'll be digging into the ideas of care and storytelling as they're conveyed through puppetry, a medium that hasn't always been accessible to a blind audience.

Dev Ramsawakh:

This is Grounding Conversations with Dev Ramsawakh for Radio Lumi. This six part segment series will lay the groundwork for the conversations that'll be happening on our broadcast during Luminato 2023, and provide a background on the frameworks with which our audio experiences attempt to engage. Many performance shows and arts festivals begin their programming with your typical land acknowledgement. However, many indigenous peoples have criticized the practice for relegating their relationship with the land to the past, which does more to alleviate settler guilt and discomfort than to demonstrate real solidarity and progressive action. In my relationship to Radio Lumi, I want to acknowledge these criticisms as a way to use my platform responsibly. I don't want to just acknowledge the trauma indigenous peoples from all over have had inflicted on them, but to address how our society collectively is hurt by the mechanics of colonialism. I want to try to offer a demonstration of ways to actively engage with decolonial concepts and a practice to move forward on an interconnected journey towards collective liberation.

In Grounding Conversations, I reveal myself as a time traveler, as I embark on a journey that weaves in and out of the past, presence and futures that are rooted in the festival's programming and our city's arts culture, tying them to the themes that the host here at Radio Lumi will be addressing from their own perspectives. This journey will be created using excerpts from my body of work to address the ongoing impacts of colonialism on our collective society and the underlying principles of disability justice that the San Francisco based disabled arts collective, Sins Invalid, imbued into the term when they coined it in 2005 in order to teach us how to resist our interlocking systems of oppression.

It's now time to embark on the third part of our journey, Returning to Care. I love dreaming. In my dreams anything is possible. The only barriers between me and what I desire exist only because I believe them into existence. I'm not held back by the doubts and skepticisms from outside voices who offer only criticism that hope is a waste of time, which means that I can also believe those barriers out of existence. It's usually just a matter of twisting and turning the pieces of chaos I turn through every day until I find just the right angle where they click into place and reveal truth. So I retreat to my dreams to escape the visions of capitalism's haunted forest of gnarled, strangling roots, twisting around every structure, trying to piece together the solutions using what I know. I know that one of my strengths is seeing patterns and parallels, and I know I feel a sense of responsibility to find the pattern that'll slay the beast that has turned my dreamland into nightmares.

I know that comes from internalizing the cries for help from members of my community because they feel petrified into statues of inaction. But I also know that I only find patterns by being in conversation and in relationships with my community, by listening to their needs and perspectives, by learning how to care for them and receive their care in return. Just in many fingers once reminded me to look to my community and to history for solutions. And I think about a conversation I had with Trevor Stratton, a board director for two-spirited people of the First Nations in Toronto, Katie and Campfire for an article I wrote for Vice earlier this year titled What The Fight Against HIV Can Teach Us About Surviving The Covid Era. We've been speaking about what we should have learned from the HIV Aids crisis of the eighties and nineties that we need to do to handle the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. And he told me about how the indigenous communities he worked with had navigated both crises.

Trevor Stratton:

Our communities took their own measures and set up blockades in some cases. They checked everyone coming in and out. We were delivering food hampers to the doors of people, with information about Covid, where to get tested, self testing kits, and whatever was available was provided along with cultural medicine, whether that be drumming or cultural activities for kids for during lockdown, essential medicines and checking in on people. That part also reminded me of the early days of HIV in Canada where we were dying by the thousands and we were setting up care team. We were checking on people and providing hampers and information and all that kind of stuff to people who had contracted HIV until the point where they need palliative care. And then there's a pivot to where you have palliative tubes and someone's coming to scoop the cat poop and make sure the cat's fed and water the plants, and another person comes in and helps change the sheets from all the sweating and helps sponge bath or just tell stories and actually holding someone's hand and saying, "It's okay, you can go now."

And for Covid, they were denied that. There's so many people who died alone, and that also reminds me of HIV in the very early years, or even sometimes now with marginalized communities who don't have a lot of information with the stigma so high around HIV. They died alone in the most horrible conditions where their families rejected them. They weren't connected to a community maybe in the city where they came from. That was happening all the time. And it reminded me of how our old people, our elders, and even younger people, no one could come in and see them. That was heartbreaking, and that did remind me of my friends who died alone. That was hard.

Dev Ramsawakh:

In 2021, I wrote an article for this magazine called How to Survive a Dystopia. An artist from a collective called Wheelhouse Duo that offers apocalypse planning workshops for marginalized people, Myriad who goes by first name only, had explained a theory from Lawrence Gross referred to as post-apocalyptic stress syndrome, which describes how indigenous peoples have already experienced and survived nearly every kind of apocalypse we've imagined in speculative fiction like genocides, famines, and pandemics. So it only made sense when Stratton explained to me that their care centered approach was rooted in the very teachings that colonialism and capitalism were trying to erase from the cultures they exploited.

Trevor Stratton:

The indigenous community, they took it on themselves and used traditional teachings and storytelling to fit Covid into the worldview. Things like this is just another disease that is the result of encroaching on the natural environment. Monkeypox, HIV from the Green Monkey, where Covid come from, the live market in China, Ebola from the bat. This is a result of, and I dare say, a failure of global management, but indigenous people don't see it as management. They see it as coexistence because we are part of it. We are not separate. We're not against nature and trying to survive despite nature. We belong to it. We're part of it, but because we are aware of our own existence, we have a special place of stewards here.

Dev Ramsawakh:

Another teaching he spoke of that others like Hopedina Edina Adler, Michelle Dumont, and Alexander, a gay indigenous man from Thunder Bay who spoke with me under a pseudonym for articles I wrote published with Extra Magazine last year have echoed, was the importance of intergenerational care and relationships.

Trevor Stratton:

The elders' job was to take care of the youth because people in the working ages, our job was to work, whether it was hunting or gathering or building stuff or making clothes and all these things we do. It was the elders' job to pass on indigenous values and cultural teachings and not just that survival teaching to the youth and the elders learn from the youth too, because the youth are always the generation with new ways of thinking, new ways of doing, new ideas they want to test out, and they're keeping the elders educated on the new trends and emerging issues so that they can help direct the workers and tell, this is what we need to do this year. This is what we heard, and these are the changes we need to make. That is part of our strength and what kept us strong and breaking down those systems was part of the idea of the residential school of Christianity and conversion of TB sanatoriums and the rest.

Dev Ramsawakh:

I think about the queer and disabled elders that came before me, along with my familial ancestors and gratitude and love swells in my chest, making me feel stronger, more powerful, energized and competent. As my mind lingers on them, they materialize in my dream, armed already mid attacked as they battle the greedy tentacles of capitalism and colonialism that were wreaking havoc moments before. They are activists, although that's a label that's often applied to them rather than by them. They often see themselves only as people trying to survive who have been hacking away at the roots from before I'd even known they were there, some before I ever took a breath in this world. They attack, swinging sores and axes and maces and flails and hammers, wearing their hope and anger and love as armor. I see my mother and grandmother, their resilient and eternal love fashioned into the shields they use to try and protect their loved ones from the pain they battle. They hunker into defensive stances, weathering barrages of trauma for them.

But when their shields fail to deflect the blow, the berserker mode they pass down to me awakens from its dormancy to lay waste to the offenders. An older cousin hovers over them, wielding a purple magic staff she uses to find the weak points I'll need. The unofficial mentors and teachers that could see my power when I couldn't lay cover fire with cross bows and spears and supernatural fireballs as they try to clear obstacles and protect me from would be assailant, careening towards me from outside of my periphery. But I'm not joining the battlefield alone either. My peers, the friends I've made, the artists I've worked with are there with me. They are warriors and witches and healers, some attack directly and loudly. Others conjure spiritual magic as their weapons and others still build shields and tend to the wounded and nourish and energize us as we take turns working in shifts to allow each other to rest and recover and regroup.

They may or may not even realize that I carry them with me. Some of them may have crossed my journey momentarily while others have taken their turns carrying me, but they all find their own ways to help forge progress forward, watching organizers initiate mutual aid strategies to get food, medical supplies, masks, and other invaluable resources to the most marginalized in my community. I'm reminded of how the 504 sit-ins that happened in 1977 were described in the Netflix documentary Crypt Camp. Disabled community, led by disabled activist Judy Human who passed earlier this year, occupied federal buildings across the United States in protests of discriminatory legislation. That protest embodied both Sins Invalid principles of cross movement and cross disability solidarity as both the disabled community and the Black Civil rights group, the Black Panther Party organized caretaking systems to sustain the occupiers as they protest it, including providing food and personal support.

If I'm a leader in this battle, it's in the way that shows I watched as a child [inaudible 00:10:50], a singular unit, part of a specialized team, learning from our fumbles and power struggles while working our way up from lower level baddies to ultimate showdowns. If I end up being the one to strike the victorious blow, wielding my cane as my sword, it'll only be as the people who've loved and cared for me in their own ways, step by my side to add their own power to mine as their hands join mine in holding it. This is what Sins Invalid meant with their principle of interdependence. As Mia Minguez has written and spoken about, none of us are truly independent.

We exist in, to borrow a metaphor commonly used in the disability justice community, a network of mycelium, the hidden underground fungal threads that mushrooms sprout from, connecting them together to share their nutrients and water to keep them thriving as a single entity. But I'm looking too far ahead now. We're still fumbling and bickering and finding where we belong. This is something Julian Diego, Creative Director at Sketch Working Arts explained in an interview conducted by Martin Gomez used in the audio guide I created for the gallery exhibition called Threads of Resistance.

Julian Diego:

This city needs the creative capacities of a whole bunch of folks to be developed and shared because we need those voices because the city is facing a lot of very extreme moments. I mean, so many things that happened right now in 2022 that I used to hear about in the olden days, like pandemics, wars, civil rights battles, all these things that we used to watch on TV and be like, "I would've been one of those guys getting water hose or whatever it is.

Now's our time to find out who we would've been and who we are." Fortunately, we shift and respond, and I wouldn't hold anybody to a single moment to define how they're responding, but we're continually invited in this time, and it takes a huge amount of creativity, and there's so much wisdom in the folks that have gathered around this space that the city can actually learn from. Lessons around reciprocity, lessons around sharing space together across difference, lessons around learning from our [inaudible 00:12:48], some lessons about what it takes to listen to each other, and then so many stories from so many corners of the city and really the globe in so many ways.

Dev Ramsawakh:

Following that exhibition, I continue to have conversations with Julian, along with other current and former leadership at the organization around those lessons, more specifically around accountability, generative conflict and transformative justice. We spoke of trauma and power and the ways that they can make people we care about collateral damage on our journeys, usually perpetuating colonial cycles of violence. Many marginalized abuse survivors like trans and autistic anarchists, Lee Shevek, known as Your Militant Butch Anarchist on Twitter, have found that rates of abuse are practically directly correlated to how marginalized a person is. Don Canada and Statistics Canada report that disabled women are twice as likely to experience intimate partner abuse with likelihood increasing the more marginalized they are. For example, 71% of queer disabled women surveyed reported having experienced it, which Shevek and other survivors have argued, and my lived experience has all but confirmed the rates of interpersonal abuse often demonstrate who we value and who is disposable to us.

This is why it's important to prioritize the care and compassion that we need to show the most marginalized of our community. It's why when I began to speak out against abuse I'd experience, it's the people who seem to embody the principles of disability justice, who showed up for and supported me to a place of healing. And that's what I see in my dreams. I dream of the love that carried me from the depths of hopelessness to ground me in an almost rebellious, compassionate care. And I dream that everyone will one day experience and believe in it the way I do. These are the dreams that keep me going when the waking world waves so heavily on my shoulders. It feels as though it may finally break me.

That was part three of the six part segment series, Grounding Conversations, Returning To Care. This segment was produced by Dev Ramsawakh for Radio Lumi as part of Luminato 2023. This segment included audio excerpts from interviews with Trevor Stratton, recorded in February 2023 as part of research for an article for Vice published in April and Julian Diego, recorded by Martin Gomez and used as part of the Threads of Resistance Audio Guide produced by Dev Ramsawakh for Sketch Working Arts in the fall of 2022.

Links to these works and other resources for those interested in expanding their own research into these topics will be available in the show notes for this episode of the podcast, as well as through the Access Hub, which is available on the Lumina website. That's luminafestival.com. The music used in the segment is by G.R. Gritt. Sound effects were either from freesound.org or fully produced by Dev Ramsawakh. But don't turn us off yet. We've got lots more conversations between our hosts and describers coming up on Radio Lumi.

Christine Malec:

Growing up as a blind kid in the integrated school system, my experience of puppetry personally ranged from alienated to pretty creeped out. I think the adults around me assumed I knew more than I did and understood more than I did. So my senses of little mini me kind of oozing down into my chair so that I didn't get noticed by the weird puppet things and the people with the puppet things who had suddenly become weird too. And as an adult, my experience just became a bit more removed and less threatening. But no, I had no more illumination about that.

And so I'm fortunate to be speaking with Audio Describer, JJ Hunt and Theater Creator and Puppeteer, Michelle Urbano. And so what I'd like to do, JJ, is start by asking you, I know that puppetry shows up in many cultures, and I'm surprised how many cultures and different contexts can we approach this from our home city of Toronto and just roving round and about in the city and checking things out. Can you give some examples of where the common person who isn't necessarily seeking it out might experience puppetry?

JJ Hunt:

Yeah, because Toronto is a city that is built of and by people from lots of different cultures, we have a lot of those different puppets in our city. You can find them in small venues and small puppet shows, but also in bigger events and annual celebrations as well. So on the small scale, you'll find puppets in kids' performances at libraries and things like that. That's the classic kind of puppetry that a lot of us grow up thinking about. But you'll also find puppetry in underground theater, and you'll find some really interesting puppetry being done. And I went and saw a play called a piece called Mass Exodus by Bad Fox Performance. This was this interesting piece at Terragon where they were doing shadow puppetry in a non-verbal presentation, all using overhead projectors. So there's some really interesting kind of underground puppetry you'll find in settings like that.

And then as you scale up a little bit and you start looking at bigger puppets, then you get into things like Day of the Dead Celebrations, Día de los Muertos, and the Toronto version of that, which is Clay and Paper Theater's Night of Dread, which is an amalgam of a lot of different folk celebrations around the dead. And this takes place in Dufferin Grove Park where there are these amazing, massive puppets often made out of paper mache, [foreign language 00:18:26] and fabrics. Sometimes they are paraded down the street by individual puppeteers carried on backs. Sometimes these puppets are attached to small floats that are pulled on little red wagons down the street. So there are those kind of puppets. And then there's the things like the Santa Claus parade. There are things in the Santa Claus parade that I think are somewhere between a puppet and a float and a puppet and a costume. So there are all different kinds of puppets that you can find in Toronto, big scale, small scale, corporate, underground. It's all over the place.

Christine Malec:

So Michelle, obviously there's lots of different iterations, both culturally and how the puppets manifest. I know this is maybe a chore, but could you maybe pick three types of puppets and explain to us, given that many of our listeners like myself have not seen puppetry being done, explain to us the mechanics of how maybe three different kinds of puppetry are created?

Michelle Urbano:

Oh my gosh. Cutting it down to just three will be very difficult, but-

Christine Malec:

I know, I'm sorry.

Michelle Urbano:

But I guess I can start by talking about the hand and rod puppet, which might be the most commonly known puppet, at least here in North America. It's often called the Muppet style puppet. It has different iterations like the finger puppet or a sock puppet. It usually involves your hand in some kind of often felt type fabric, your fingers fitting into the mouth of the puppet in order to open and close it as you speak. We see this kind of puppetry on a lot of film and television where the puppeteer is invisible, but the puppet seems to exist in a world of other puppets or sometimes interacting with other people. So the hand part is obviously your hand inside of the puppet's body and mouth. But the rod part is often attached to the hands. And your non-dominant hand would hold either one or two rods, which were attached to the puppet's hands and could move them around.

And that's how Jim Hansen and that whole muppet style works on screen. And you often, in little gift stores, that's the kind of puppet you could buy for children, or you'll see it around more commercially. Then I guess we could talk about marionettes, which if you're underneath the puppet in a hand and rod puppet, a marionette is manipulated from above. And so often the puppeteer is standing up on a higher platform holding a variation of a cross made of sticks where strings are draped down from the cross and the puppet hangs out, hanging from the strings on a platform below, and the strings will be attached to the puppet's limbs.

So the puppeteer would be standing above the puppet, manipulating it from its strings from way up high. And then I guess the third kind of puppeteer position we could talk about is where the puppeteer would be behind the puppet and totally visible. And this you'll see in a lot of tabletop puppetry styles. And a tabletop puppet can be anything from a paper maché puppet to a found object puppetry, where it's literally any object in the world turned into a creature for the sake of telling a story. And the puppeteer will manipulate it through movement on a tabletop surface where there might be a set for an audience that can see both the puppeteer and the puppet at the same time.

Christine Malec:

Okay, so my weirder meter is pinging big time. I'm not sure if this is something that you just grow up with and go, "Oh, yeah, that makes sense, because I'm used to seeing it." JJ, can you give me any sense of how audiences respond to this art?

JJ Hunt:

Obviously, it depends a little bit on the type of show. If it's a big spectacle, like in a parade situation or somewhere where the puppets are grand, larger than life, there tends to be a fair bit of awe that is inspired in those situations. So there's a lot ewing and awing and wowing and pointing, seeing any kind of creature, huge, that scale, larger than humans, sometimes two stories tall, watching them move with some version of grace, it can be quite awe-inspiring. It's amazing. And so audiences will respond to those depending on the style of puppet or the kind of emotion that the puppeteers are going for, that might terrify an audience. If it's the right kind of puppet, that might be magical. And people buy in, even when the puppeteers are clearly visible, they're not trying to hide. Even in those situations, people, the sighted audiences tend to buy into these big, magical puppets.

And then when they're smaller and they're on a very human scale, we believe. Puppeteers, even if they're not aiming for exact human actions and motions and gestures, puppeteers are experts at figuring out how to convey a certain emotion, a certain idea. There're a way that their character is feeling. And so when they manipulate their puppet, when the puppeteer manipulates their puppet and makes them perform a gesture, audiences believe in those gestures. We see ourselves reflected back to us in these little felt creatures or these little wooden creatures.

Michelle Urbano:

I'd love to add something as well. In theater, we talk about suspension of disbelief. That's what we require of the audience for them to acknowledge that what they're seeing isn't real, but let that go and let themselves be pulled in by the story of the theater. And I actually think it's easier to do with puppets than with humans. I feel like audiences watching people act on stage, there's a lot more of maybe skepticism to get over, or you really have to believe the acting. Or if a line isn't delivered right, you get pulled out of believing the story. But there's something about object theater, I guess, because you already know it's not real, that as soon as it starts moving, it's not trying to convince you it's being something other than what it is.

Christine Malec:

Oh, oh, oh.

Michelle Urbano:

And you just allow yourself to see it become alive, and it really is magical.

Christine Malec:

I'm interested in something JJ said that conveying emotion, and that's not something I had considered. So Michelle, if you can't make facial expressions on a puppet, can you give me some examples of emotions that a puppet could convey and how that would be done?

Michelle Urbano:

Oh, yeah. That's all you're doing with puppetry is expressing through movement. So if you think about your own body language, when you're happy versus when you're really feeling down about something, you might be slouched over, or if you're excited, you might be skipping just the way your body expresses emotions, even the way, the speed at which you move, the directness of your movement, whether you're going from one point to another with speed and directness versus whether you're slowly walking through the world looking around in an indirect way. All of these things tell you something about a character and what their experience is like. And the more specific a puppeteer can get about the quality of movement, the more information you can have as an audience member about what that puppet is going through.

JJ Hunt:

You said a couple of words in there, Michelle, that really resonate with me as a describer. I think there's a real similarity between the job of the puppeteer and the job of the describer and the relationship between a puppeteer and their audience and a describer and a blind audience. So a puppeteer, in lots of cases, is studying the world around them, studying the behavior of the people that they meet and see in the world, and they're figuring out what's the physicality of people, of humans experiencing emotions? What are the specifics? What's the specific action that can convey that emotion or idea or thought?

And then how can I translate that into a puppet so that just by moving a puppet in a certain way, that same emotion is conveyed to an audience. And what a describer is doing a lot of the time is watching actors portraying whatever part they're portraying and figuring out distilling, there's a ton of visual information, there's lots going on with an actor's body, but what's the specific little gesture that they're making that I can describe to an audience so that they will understand the emotion that's being conveyed?

It's about that specificity. It's about really understanding the emotion, figuring out the exact physicality, and figuring out how to convey it in a really clean and simple way. I hadn't thought of it before, but I think that they're really very similar.

Michelle Urbano:

And working on a piece of theater with puppets, that is part of the work is going moment by moment. What exactly is this puppet doing and what is their intention in doing it? Everything is so specific in a puppet show. It's more like a dance at the end of the day than it is a piece of theater, because it really is choreography. You've planned out every movement to the detail if you want to tell a complex story.

Christine Malec:

JJ is going to have a giggle when I ask this question. Michelle, are there any puppets where you can manipulate the eyebrows?

Michelle Urbano:

Yeah, absolutely. So a lot of puppets have different mechanisms. If you think about a ventriloquist dummy that is a kind of puppet, I suppose. And those often have a lot of mechanisms in the face in order to convey different emotions. It depends on the sophistication of the build of the puppet. It's not always worth putting that much effort in it.

Christine Malec:

Right.

Michelle Urbano:

I would say if you want your puppet to have moving eyebrows, it needs a really good reason to have to do that.

Christine Malec:

Oh.

JJ Hunt:

Yeah.

Michelle Urbano:

Its eyebrows need to be one of its main personality traits.

Christine Malec:

Oh.

JJ Hunt:

That's right. So you might get something like a Fozzie Bear who's got like Waka Waka. The eyebrows might go up for that Waka Waka, and that's the catchphrase. So it's going to work there. But also, if you're looking at puppetry in something like the Mandalorian, a TV show that has unbelievable special effects and lots of computer generated special effects, they still have manual puppets on that show-

Christine Malec:

What?

JJ Hunt:

And they have tiny little pockets that basically act like muscles within the puppet's faces. When little baby grow-goo smiles, the eyebrows go up, the corners of the mouth goes up. But also, when a person smiles, there's a little muscle in the temple that moves as well. So like that stage, the puppeteers actually have little tiny muscles in the temples that move. So it's clear that it's not just a smile that's being pulled onto this puppet's face. The entire face is creating that smile. So yeah, it's amazing, all the different, and each one is equally effective, that grow-goo is fantastically effective, but so is Fozzie Bear. The Waka Waka eyebrows can be just as effective as a little temple muscle in a high-tech puppet.

Christine Malec:

I'm persistently interested in this phenomenon where someone feels like they're being looked at and they turn around and someone's staring at them. And as a blind person, I don't get this experience. Some blind people do. They report that they do, but I don't. And so I'm always asking questions about this. So JJ, I have a hypothetical situation to propose. You're at a puppet show, moderate crowd, not huge, very skillfully done. You get distracted by something on your phone, you're looking at stuff on your phone, you feel like you're being looked at, you raise your eyes, and the puppet is looking at you. Is this plausible?

JJ Hunt:

I mean, first of all, I deserve to be glared at by the puppet-

Christine Malec:

Yes, of course, of course.

JJ Hunt:

[inaudible 00:31:52] enough to look at my phone. But I would say yes, especially if it's into the show, and I have already bought in. The suspension of disbelief is there. This is a character that already exists in my world, in my mind. I believe in this character. I absolutely think I could "feel the eyes of the puppet burrowing into me" in a moment like that.

Christine Malec:

Michelle, how does a puppeteer make that very bizarre and creepy sounding thing happen?

Michelle Urbano:

Ow. I can speak from my own experience, which is that when I'm in performance with a puppet, I am channeling so much energy into the object that I'm holding, that I almost cease to have a real experience of myself. I am so focused in, probably in the same way that a surgeon might be, where their energy is so focused in on their hands and the specific movements that I'm working on, trying to think about the emotional inner life of the character I'm portraying, and watching and making sure that every step, every movement is as lifelike as I can make it, and as specific as I can make it, that the ego disappears a little bit, and all of my focus and energy is going into the puppet in order to bring it alive.

Christine Malec:

Oh my gosh.

Michelle Urbano:

I hope that's it.

Christine Malec:

I've just learned so much. Thank you both. Thank you both.

I am joined here with Audio Describer, JJ Hunt, and Co-Lead Host and member of the Blind and Low Vision community, Theodore Walker Robinson. And I've made my feelings on puppetry pretty clear. I'm still weirded out by it. Theo, what is your experience of this art form?

Theodore Walker Robinson:

My experience of this art form? Well, puppets in general. I haven't seen very many of them, except in cartoons and on television, maybe occasional circuses and fairs where I've been to as a child. But myself experiencing puppet shows, not so much. But as an artist myself, I've done quite a bit of work with textiles and creating soft sculptures, and that's more my experience. I like to really work on the tactile side of things and make soft sculpture.

Christine Malec:

I never thought about the creation of the actual puppet. So when you're doing that, are you thinking about its eventual identity, either as you imbue it or as a puppeteer might work with it? Is that something that's in your mind when you're working on it?

Theodore Walker Robinson:

Oh, most definitely. Most definitely. And I'm sure it's different for every artist, every soft sculpture artist who's working with a project. But for me, when it begins with a project, it begins for me with a vision, it begins with a name, an identity, a particular person that's going to be created into a symbolic artifact of what represents who that person is and what that story is. For example, right now I'm in this process, I'm in this phase of creating teddy bears right now. I'm obsessed with teddy bears. Yeah, I get my name's Theodore, right Teddy, but don't call me Teddy.

Christine Malec:

I wasn't going to go there.

Theodore Walker Robinson:

But I do like to make teddy bears, and I'm making this series of activist teddy bears, and I started with one of my favorite activists from the Black Lives Movement in Toronto, Syrus Marcus Ware. So I created the Syrus Marcus Ware Bear. Get it?

Christine Malec:

I love what you're doing there. I love what you're doing.

Theodore Walker Robinson:

Brilliant. Brilliant, I know. And so the project, the bear itself, it began with a name. It began with a person who has this story, this legacy behind them as an artist, as an abolitionist, as a person, as a human. And so while creating it, even when designing the wardrobe and the accessories, and it even has a little leather crown, and this tutu femme tool dress that I create, and a leather harness with studs on it too. So if you ever looked up Syrus, the thing looks exactly like him, just in a cuddly, furry form, but in a way that allows us to explore conversations about what that person represents in a really disarming way.

Things like abolition, police abolition, and you have really touchy subjects that a lot of people get really irked in their backs are to really talk about. But now you have this teddy bear looking at you, and now we got to talk about this with a conversation about this subject kind of thing. So yeah, that's my experience with creating puppet, so to speak, or creating soft sculpture to intentionally broach subjects, to challenge discourse, to go in directions where we otherwise may not always go.

Christine Malec:

And I think that puppetry offers this opportunity for subversion, and maybe puppets can say things that an actor or a human giving a lecture or a talk may feel hesitant or even unsafe to say. And I had never thought of a puppet actually representing an actual person. JJ, is this something that you see in puppetry? Puppets that are intentionally looking like someone?

JJ Hunt:

Oh yeah, absolutely. I mean, to create a puppet avatar for someone, especially if you're not associated with them, you can use that puppet to say or do whatever you wish the real person would say or do.

Christine Malec:

Awesome.

JJ Hunt:

It's great for satire, it's great for political commentary. There was a British show in the eighties, a TV show, I think it was called Spitting Image, and it was a puppetry show where all of the British political figures, the major British political figures of the day, the Margaret Thatchers and whatnot, were turned into these outrageous puppets, and so they were made to do all sorts of ridiculous things, and it was as biting satire that was available at the time, really ahead of its time in terms of mocking political figures that you couldn't do in real life. It would've been harder to stand up as a standup comedian and say, "Here's what I think Margaret Thatcher does and says, and whatever." That's harder to do than to have a puppet avatar, puppet just act out ridiculous scenes because like, "Hey, it's not me saying this. It's the puppet.

Christine Malec:

You got the way right.

JJ Hunt:

Don't blame me. It's the puppet. [inaudible 00:39:37] Exactly. Yeah, yeah. It's a great way to satirize and to poke fun at those in power, for sure.

Christine Malec:

I wonder about describing puppetry, JJ, and if you have ever described a puppet show, or even if you haven't, what you imagine the challenges to be in doing that?

JJ Hunt:

Yeah, that's an interesting question. I've never described a puppet show, done any live describing of an actual full puppet show. I've described puppets as part of parades and things like that, or in podcast form, but I've never described a whole show. There would be some serious challenges. One of the first things that comes to mind is the frame of reference as a describer, describers rely on a common frame of reference so that we know when we say that an actor raises their hand, well, the audience shares the common language. We know what actors look like. We know what humans look like. We come in different shapes and sizes and skin tones and whatever. But basically, humans are humans. We get that.

If to say a puppet raises their arm, well, is that a puppet made of wood? Is that a puppet made of felt? Is it a three-dimensional puppet? Is it a shadow puppet? Is it a puppet made of found objects? Is it even trying to represent a human? Or is it a puppet of just an object or an abstract puppet? I would really want to have some sort of robust notes be provided to the audience, or hopefully something like a tactile tour in advance, just some way to help bridge that gap 'cause that's a serious challenge. And then there's the problem with interpreting an interpretation.

So in our earlier conversation with Michelle, we talked about this idea that part of what a puppeteer is doing is seeing the world around them, looking at the way humans behave, and then using the gestures that they are using and turning them into puppetry gestures to convey an emotion that's an interpretation. And then the describer is having to interpret what the puppet is doing and what the puppeteer is doing, and trying to turn that into words. So it's really an interpretation of an interpretation, which gets very complicated. So I imagine if I was sitting down to do a whole show, I would really have to spend some time noodling through that, figuring that out, making sure my language was right, and just getting my toolbox in order before the show began.

Christine Malec:

Theo, I'm preoccupied by your creation of Syrus Marcus Ware. I want to know what you imagine the fate of that artifact being. Are you going to enact him for himself, or do you think he will keep it on their desk, or do you have thoughts about what the destiny of that art, that representation will be?

Theodore Walker Robinson:

I gave it to him as just something as a friend, just to keep, I hope maybe he keeps it in his office at McMaster, maybe so that students can see it whenever they come in for the office hour. That's the legacy up until now. But I do have the pattern of the... I think I'm going to create another one. Maybe we should put it up somewhere and I can get other folks to see it, because it definitely has a story behind it in terms of what's to come, and I want to make some friends for it.

JJ Hunt:

That's awesome.

Theodore Walker Robinson:

Yeah. Maybe a Beverly Ban Bear or a Raven Wings bear, all the Black Lives bears just together, just to-

Christine Malec:

Do you ever imagine them enacting things like when you make them, do you see them as puppets, or do you see them as more ornaments?

Theodore Walker Robinson:

Well, for myself, I create collectibles, so they're more like or ornamental.

Christine Malec:

Oh, okay. Okay.

Theodore Walker Robinson:

But I can see others, other people creating them as enacting events or animating a specific moment in history. If I were to create an animated moment from my activist bears, then I would maybe create an enactment of a protest, for example.

JJ Hunt:

That's awesome. A reenactment of a protest-

Christine Malec:

[inaudible 00:43:57]protest.

JJ Hunt:

Using protest like avatar teddy bears, like that's wonderful.

Theodore Walker Robinson:

Holding your signs and you [inaudible 00:44:05]-

Christine Malec:

My mind is fizzing and whizzing. This is disorienting.

Theodore Walker Robinson:

Oh my goodness.

Christine Malec:

Theo, I'm picturing you walking into Syrus Marcus Ware's house, and he picks up the representation and holds it up and starts critiquing your outfitter. Yeah, can see a puppet could do that. I've been joined by JJ Hunt and Theodore Walker Robinson for this great discussion of puppetry. Thank you both.

Puppetry will be taking center stage at the Luminato Festival this year. Walk With Amal Toronto will be occurring June 7th through the 11th. Amal, a larger than life-sized puppet will be journeying all over Toronto with live from location audio description daily at 6:00 PM on Radio Lumi. For more information, contact Emily Maxwell by email at emaxwell@luminato.com or by phone at (437) 776-1569. Thanks for listening.