Theatre Preview: Giant puppets judge humanity

By Jesse Keith

Like a shadow cartel or happenstance league of justice, they formed to mark the turning of the millennium. Five years ago, David Ferney and other theatre artists from Pender Island, British Columbia merged their talents with Illuminated Fools of Oregon and the Green Fools troupe from here in Calgary to form the puppet troupe Three On The Tree.

Created to put on an extraordinary one-time outdoor spectacle to mark the New Year in Pender Island, the show was so successful it has since been performed for every subsequent New Year, as well as at festivals around North America. This week the troupe will be performing in Calgary as part of the second annual International Festival Of Animated Objects.

The show put on by Three On A Tree, Elemental, is an enormous visual and musical performance offering a mythical interpretation of the birth of the New Year and the passage of time. Incorporating fourteen-foot tall puppets, stilt walkers, shadow dancers and a lantern procession, the show is an amalgamation of all the skills brought from the different troupes and artists.

“What brought Three On A Tree together was really the desire and interest to work with these different artists that had different skills,” says Ferney, now Co-Artistic Director for the group. “For instance, one of the features of the show is a giant shadow play, and I’ve done some work and studying with Balinese shadow puppetry people. So, I guess, it was really kind of a conglomeration of all of the skills and artists that I have worked with over the years. The opportunity to put that all together in one project that brought together community and other artists too.”

Involving the community in which Elemental is performed in is an important mandate for Three On A Tree. The group attempts to involve both local artists and youth in their productions. Calgarians taking advantage of the workshops offered by the troupe this week will be joining the troupe when they perform in Bankers Hall.

“Because the show is so big, it takes between 30 and 50 people to put on,” explains Ferney. “It’s very community oriented, so we did workshops this last weekend with people building lanterns that come and are part of the procession of the piece. And then we did workshops with teens on stilt walking, so we choreograph pieces for them to be in the show. We hired a dancer locally to perform in the shadow puppet portion of the show. It’s kind of just been born out of bringing a lot of people together.”

Using towering mythical figure, shadow puppetry and a performance without dialogue, Elemental was developed to utilize large imagery and to be alternative to other theatre performances. The attempt is to astound and captivate with the scale and artistry of the spectacle, rather than with dialogue.

“It’s exciting to do something on a bigger scale,” says Ferney. “I have a theatre background, so it’s mostly indoors, in smaller spaces using theatre elements. Although here we’re doing it indoors in Banker’s Hall, usually we do it outdoors. And it’s fun to do something that is larger and more epic and more mythic and visual, rather than something that is more text based. It’s just an interesting other side to performance and theatre.”

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