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Peter Balkwill and the exploding “John A. MacDonald”

Puppet master Peter Balkwill, of the Old Trout Puppet Workshop and the Banff Centre Puppet Theatre Intensive. Photo: Rita Taylor.

Puppet master Peter Balkwill, of the Old Trout Puppet Workshop and the Banff Centre Puppet Theatre Intensive. Photo: Rita Taylor.

Peter Balkwill is the co-artistic director of Calgary’s Old Trout Puppet Workshop and faculty at The Banff Centre’s Puppet Theatre Intensive, a two-week exploration into the creative art of puppet theatre. Having toured over seven puppet theatre shows through Canada, the U.S., and Europe, he’s got more than a few stories to tell—including one about his largest puppet ever:

I once built an eight-foot-tall puppet head for a Canada Day stage. You could fit a Smart Car inside of it. I wanted to drive it across the country, actually. It was hilarious. You’d be driving down the highway and be like, ‘da **** is that? A giant head just passed us!’ It was for Canada Day in Ottawa, and so they could have made news, kept tabs on it journeying across the country from Calgary to the celebration.

Initially, it was going to be John A. MacDonald’s head, but he had a red nose, we didn’t hide the fact that he had a Scotch at, like, noon every day. The organizers were like ‘we can’t depict the first Prime Minister of Canada as an alcoholic’, so now it just had to be “Norbert the Old Man.” Two of us were inside it, pushing him around stage. We gave him an articulated jaw and said that he can speak but shouldn’t say much. The top of his head could lift up, fog came spewing out of the thing and confetti out the top of his head, he’d sneeze and confetti would shoot out his nose, and Canadian flags could pop out of his ears. And the organizers went ‘no, can’t do any of that stuff.’ They shut all the fun stuff down, and gave him pages and pages of text, and made him sing songs, and he was so inarticulate that in the TV footage I think I even saw Prime Minister Martin lean over to Adrienne Clarkson and say “WTF”?

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Alain Jean: “Vous pouvez mettre un arrêt au reste de votre vie”

Alain Jean, responsable du développement pour l’Association des Théâtres Francophones du Canada, était de passage au Banff Centre pour superviser le troisième stage annuel de développement intensif des artistes francophones travaillant hors Québec. Alain est arrivé à temps pour faire la supervision finale de la grande collaboration entre les 17 acteurs, directeurs de productions, et designers d’éclairage présent pour cette dernière semaine de stage.

Alain Jean, responsable du développement pour l'Association des Théâtres Francophones du Canada. Photo: Rita Taylor.

Alain Jean, responsable du développement pour l’Association des Théâtres Francophones du Canada. Photo: Meghan Krauss.

Quel est votre objectif en étant au Banff Centre? Les Francophones hors Québec n’ont pas accès au même niveau de formation que les francophones au Québec. Et je fais référence aux nombres d’heures. Il est important de donner à notre groupe la formation dont ils ne peuvent bénéficier dans leur propre milieu. Alors c’est notre objectif de réunir a chaque année 16 a 20 personnes, de leur offrir trois stages différents et de leur permettre de rencontrer et travailler avec des enseignants de l’école Nationale de Théâtre et avoir accès de la formation de qualité.

Quelle est la signification d’avoir un endroit comme le Banff Centre ou vous pouvez expérimenter et collaborer? Un monde de possibilités.  Vous vous  retrouvez alors dans un monde hors de votre ville, hors de votre propre espace et vous avez seulement qu’à vous concentrer sur  vous. Vous pouvez mettre un arrêt au reste de votre vie et vous pouvez vous concentrer sur votre développement artistique. Dans les compagnies artistiques, vous avez rarement la chance de pouvoir  vous développer avec aucune pression extérieure, Le Banff Centre nous permet cela. Ça vaut vraiment tout!

Pourquoi Banff? C’est un endroit merveilleux comme vous le savez. C’est définitivement le meilleur endroit au Canada pour le développement des artistes. Et c’est génial de travailler avec Le Banff Centre!  L’organisation est très “complice” – que puis-je dire? Nous sommes très heureux avec eux, et ils [les acteurs] sont très heureux aussi.

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Dance AROUND the shoes!

This month, members of The Banff Centre’s Marketing & Communications team went behind the scenes onstage, on-set and in-costume, auditioning for and performing with Motus O dance theatre’s local production of A Christmas Carol. 

Katie Sainsbury (left), Afton Aikens, and Louise Healy, backstage at Motus O’s production of A Christmas Carol.

We weren’t quite sure what to expect when we showed up to audition for Motus O’s A Christmas Carol. The Ontario-based company invited the local community to audition for the show and got about 50 children and a few adults (let’s be honest, the adults consisted of the three of us and a mum who got roped in to perform by her kids). We were thrilled to be among the 30 who made the cut. Only one of us had had formal dance training (cue Katie), but the company had roles for the non-dancers, and we were cast as wealthy women with an adorable (albeit fake) pup, who we named Sidney III.

Motus O’s version is a modern take on the classic Christmas tale, complete with cross country skiers, an Irish jig, and a rockin’ 70s disco scene. The story swings between comedy and drama (at one point, Sidney III is viciously smacked by Scrooge’s stick), and played to a packed house. It was great to see our Theatre Arts crew in action, making sure the sound and lighting ran smoothly and that we were on stage at the right time (although not necessarily in the right place).

It was a great experience to learn about stagecraft from Motus O directors, Cynthia Croker, James Croker, and Jack Langenhuizen (who are also part of The Banff Centre’s Leadership Development creative faculty team) and about being a performer. A few tips that stayed with us —don’t steal other people’s props, dance around shoes when they fall off by mistake, and adapt an air of effortless poise onstage when you realize you’re in the wrong position.

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In conversation with Jean Grand-Maître

Jean Grand-Maître in rehearsal with Sarah McLachlan and ballet mistress Bev Bagg. Photo: Darren Makowichuk.

I have always thought of dance as an individual art form, one where pure movement expresses  meaning and beauty. But that was before a recent conversation with Jean Grand- Maître, Artistic Director of Alberta Ballet. I spoke to him in advance of the Banff performance of one of his original ballets, and his thoughts on  ballet as a multidisciplinary art form altered my outlook on dance production. Fumbling Towards Ecstasy, inspired by the music of Canadian singer-songwriter Sarah McLachlan, was partly developed by Grand-Maître at The Banff Centre in 2011 during a Performing Arts and Production Residency.

The Centre shares a longstanding partnership with Alberta Ballet, and it’s an important one for Grand-Maître.“The landscape itself is inspiring for any artist,” he told me. “It brings you to a pure space, a place where you need to create art.” He explained that the residency environment is the best tool to protect the arts identity, creating a space where it can be both fostered and nurtured.

“The residency allows us to put all the elements together for a week at a time and see how it all relates, which gives dancers the opportunity to mature in their role before they have an audience.”.

I learned that technologies are fusing within the arts, an interesting concept that got me thinking about what the future of creativity will look like, a place where projections re integrated with  lighting cues, scenery, and costume design.

For Grand-Maître, access to residency and retreat can inform the ballet as a whole. “Knowing I can have a residency with the Banff Centre changes how I conceive the actual ballet. Without a residency, I would make the ballet much more simple and less refined.”

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Christopher Plummer: “Be brave, take risks”

Christopher Plummer on stage in the Eric Harvie Theatre for Shakespeare: Words and Music.

Christopher Plummer on stage in the Eric Harvie Theatre for Shakespeare in Word and Music. Photo: Rita Taylor.

Actor Christopher Plummer came to The Banff Centre this past weekend to perform Shakespeare in Word and Music, a rare performance which was last seen in 2011 at Ottawa’s Music and Beyond Festival. At 83, he’s holding up a legacy in theatre and film with an inspiring seven-decade career. While Plummer was here, Theatre Arts director Kelly Robinson arranged for him to meet with the writers, actors, and theatre personnel in the program Playworks Ink, which was going on at the same time. I had the opportunity to sit in on the career talk, which turned out to be both comedic and intriguing.

First, I spoke with Robinson, who saw Plummer’s talk as an opportunity to engage him as a mentor. Robinson described acting to me as a “life-long devotion” and talked about the constant need to develop a skill set. He shared a story with me on the direct impact Plummer has had on the careers of professional actors:

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During the career talk, I was interested to hear that emerging actors are still dealing with the same challenges as Plummer did back in the 1940’s. He stressed that “you always have to be brave, there will always be difficult roads, be brave, take risks, even if the part isn’t the most desirable.”

His underlying advice to emerging actors was to trust the script’s words, and to transition between film and theatre often while always continuing to work on craft. “To go from one to another is essential,” he said. “You have to go back to theatre where you learned your craft, you have to keep polishing it until doomsday.”

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Guildhall’s guilty pleasures

Ben Appl as Owen, Lauren Fagan as Mrs. Coyle, Charles Sy as Lechmere, Marta Fontanals-Simmons as Kate, Zachary Finklestein as General Sir Philip, Roisin Walsh as Miss Wingrave, and Joseph Padfield as Mr. Coyle. Photo: Don Lee, The Banff Centre.

Ben Appl as Owen, Lauren Fagan as Mrs. Coyle, Charles Sy as Lechmere, Marta Fontanals-Simmons as Kate, Zachary Finklestein as General Sir Philip, Roisin Walsh as Miss Wingrave, and Joseph Padfield as Mr. Coyle. Photo: Don Lee.

The Guildhall School of Music and Drama, which co-produced our Summer Arts Festival opera Owen Wingrave, is one of the Europe’s most prestigious conservatories. Cast and crew presented the opera in London earlier in the summer, and then some of them were out in Banff for a few weeks to stage it here. In the midst of prepping for the Benjamin Britten piece, I thought I’d ask them about other music on their playlists. A handful of the Guildhall students came clean to me about their most embarrassing pop favourites.

Rodrigo de Vera, assistant conductor: “I love Rammstein, particularly in concert. There’s such showmanship, there’s fireworks, and it’s rude. I have such fun.”

Joseph Padfield, singer – Coyle:  “Like Rodrigo, I’m a huge Rammstein fan. I listen to a lot of heavy metal in general, including Korn, who I’m embarrassed to like. But Rammstein I’m proud of.”

 Lauren Fagan, singer – Mrs. Coyle: “I really love listening to indie bands, and going to indie music festivals. I also like when the Backstreet Boys and Spice Girls come on the radio. But that’s normal, right?”

Roisin Walsh, singer – Miss Wingrave: “I love karaoke singing. I also really like Garth Brooks, but not necessarily to sing.”

Soojeong Joo, répétiteur/orchestra – piano:  “I’m a native of South Korea, where I lived until I was 14. PSY’s not really my cup of tea, though I like the Korean pop from earlier generations.”

Marta Fontanals-Simmons, singer – Kate Julian: “I was listening to Feist this week, though she’s too good to be a guilty pleasure. I’m embarrassed to say that I bought Beyoncé and Rihanna’s latest albums, but I can say they’re good to run to.”

Raphaela Papadakis, singer – Mrs. Julian: “I never feel guilty about listening to music. I like Lady Gaga, Kate Bush, and the Talking Heads, but there’s no shame in that!”

Alex Rider, orchestra – piano:  “I have so many guilty pleasures musically! I just got into musical theatre, and I have to say Sondheim’s Follies, which actually has some incredible moments, is my morning music. Other than that, disco music. It can’t be helped; it’s a pure physical reaction.”

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