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What Fools These Puppets Be

/By / Jun 30, 2016

My wife and I had been in New York City for two days when we realized we had a big problem. At FAO Schwartz, we’d designed and bought two puppets: an old-timey butler and a kid in a hoodie. The problem was twofold. First, my dad, who was on the trip with us, is a fiercely efficient traveller and I had sinking suspicions that he would have absolutely none of our puppet-y nonsense when it came to getting these new friends home. And second, how exactly would we get the puppets through customs? Two beers in on the rooftop patio of an Irish pub overlooking Broadway, we came to the only logical conclusion: “Fuck it, we’ll smuggle them.”

The smuggling idea died two beers later when we realized sneaking puppets into the tiny Airbnb we were sharing with my folks would be a disaster. So, instead, we brazenly strode in with a new plan. The puppet I’d built had an awesome butler vibe, but I quickly realized he also looked a bit like William Shakespeare… And, thus, our mad scheme was born. I proposed that we enter the FringeKids Festival as a puppet company called Shakey-Shake and Friends (so named for our beloved Shakespeare teacher Chick Reid’s nickname for The Bard). We’d model our work on PBS’s Wishbone and the Muppets’ Christmas Carol and Treasure Island: presenting the complete Shakespeare stories to kids in an engaging and accessible way that wouldn’t bore and annoy their parents. (All in all, this was a very productive pub meeting.) Luckily, as soon as my Dad put the puppet on for the first time and noticed how expressive it was, he was on board with the idea. To our surprise, he even presented us with a puppet idea of his own: “If you’re going to do Shakespeare with puppets, don’t you need more than two?”

*     *     *

Six years later, a little girl in the front row raises her hand and asks “Why didn’t you kill Horatio, too?” I blame Shakespeare—she’s unimpressed as only a bloodthirsty sixth grader can be. At this moment, the origins of my company couldn’t seem farther away. We’d just completed a remount of our fifth (and most successful) show, Hamlet…A Puppet Epic! It had been an exhausting but rewarding run across various stages, libraries, and a school. By the time Hamlet’s ending failed to impress this sixth grader, our company had had a lot of success at Fringe and beyond. Today, it seems natural that my wife and I appear regularly as a Shakespeare-and-little-boy comedy duo, and that our apartment often looks like a sweatshop, with foam, fabric, and assorted whimsical garbage everywhere… because it certainly didn’t start that way.

Hamlet cast

*     *     *

Way back in university and long before our New York trip, my then-future-wife and I once had trouble bringing a puppet across the US/Canadian border due to concerns that we were performing without a visa. Needless to say, it only takes one puppet-based border fiasco to be scarred for life, so as we stood in the winding parade of misery that is a customs line coming back from New York with new Shakespearean puppets in tow, I was a little nervous. My dad had decided to do the talking for all of us, so all I could do was watch as our agent (who in both appearance and demeanor was a dead ringer for Roz from Pixar’s Monsters, Inc.) beckoned us forward. We were the last people in her line.

“Anything to declare?” she rasped.

My dad, in his gruff baritone responded, “We’ve got a box of puppets.”

“MUPPET PUPPETS!” My mom added cheerfully.

Roz glowered at all of us like we’d run over her dog, then signed off. The puppets—MUPPET PUPPETS!—were ours. Now I just had to write a script.

*     *     *

Keeping language clean in a room full of actors is hard enough, but when you also have a meticulously edited-to-be-kid-friendly version of the incest- and murder-filled Hamlet, things go south pretty quickly. Every improvised swear word from rehearsal has to be choked back; every delightful opportunity for innuendo suppressed. But the hijinks aren’t confined to the stage. It seems as soon as you sign your Faustian pact with children’s theatre, hijinks follow in your wake. Which is probably why we once had to hold auditions in a pornographic bookstore.

*     *     *

The Glad Day Bookshop, a fixture of Yonge Street for decades, had opened a rehearsal space that we rented for our first-ever Shakey-Shake and Friends auditions back in 2011. We were auditioning for our second show, The Tempest…A Puppet Epic! However, there was a problem: the lock was broken and there was no way to access the space. Our first auditionee was showing up in fifteen minutes.

“You can do it in the bookstore, if you want?” The clerk suggested, apologetically.

My director and I looked around, finding a suitable alley next to the magazine racks (almost all of which featured various images of genitalia). We looked at each other and shrugged.

“Yeah, this’ll work.”

Incidentally, the most touching version I’ve ever seen of Julia’s soliloquy from Two Gents was performed next to this wall of dicks. The performer’s complete and utter commitment to the scene was all the more meaningful given her surroundings. We pretty much cast her on the spot. Which I guess just goes to show: If you can perform puppet Shakespeare next to a wall of genitals, you can perform puppet Shakespeare anywhere.

Hamlet show

Hamlet show

*     *     *

The first reading of this year’s Fringe play, Twelfth Night, has us crowded around my TV, using my laptop as a teleprompter, as we enjoy the finest box of wine twenty dollars can buy. It reads long (it always does), there are a few too many in-jokes, but it’s good. It’s fun. The comedies are much harder to write than the tragedies, as keeping the humour and the interweaving plots coherent and entertaining for young audiences can be a struggle. I was scared about this one. Hamlet was the make-or-break for my model of how the company works, and I put a lot of myself into it. Twelfth Night is different, but good different. We’ve come a long way from our failed smuggling operation and the wall of dicks at the bookstore, but the sense of fun and community that saw us through those wacky events is stronger than ever. When I win my first laugh from the cast—some of whom have been with us since day one—I can feel the knot in my stomach unclench. My first audience is enjoying themselves… I can’t wait for my broader audience to do the same.

I gotta admit—those puppets? Best impulse buy I’ve ever made.

 Tom McGee’s show, Twelfth Night…A Puppet Epic!, is playing at the Toronto Fringe, at the George Ignatieff Theatre from June 30 to July 9. 

For tickets or more information, click here

Tom McGee

Tom McGee

Tom is the co-founder of Shakey-Shake and Friends Puppet Theatre Company and Theatre Brouhaha which he runs in Toronto. Tom is a dramaturge, playwright, producer, and puppeteer. Tom can currently be seen in Twelfth Night...A Puppet Epic as Shakey-Shake and in Wanna Travel in Time?! a wacky time-travel show in a shed in the Fringe tent. He has also dramaturged and produced Kat Sandler’s newest play Bright Lights.



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