By Heather Jamieson –
It takes talent, experience and determination to transform a much-loved children’s story into a performance piece.
Rag & Bone Puppet Theatre’s Kathy MacLellan and John Nolan have all three and will première their newest production at Great Canadian Theatre Company (GCTC), during March Break.
The Dolls’ House by Rumer Godden tells the story of a family of mismatched dolls, living in a shoebox, whose greatest wish is to have a proper home. Their dream comes true when their owners, sisters Emily and Charlotte, inherit a perfect Victorian dolls’ house. Unfortunately, at the same time, a beautiful, but cruel doll arrives and disturbs their peaceful lives, with tragic consequences.
Kathy and John first met as theatre students at York University. Fate brought them together again in Ottawa in 1977 when they were both cast in a play, along with Beverly Wolfe and John Koensgen, who were also just starting their careers. All have gone on to be award-winning theatre professionals. By the end of the show’s run, John and Kathy were dating and married two years later.
Their transition from stage acting to puppetry was inspired by the work of innovative puppeteer Felix Mirbt, who is credited with transforming the use of puppets in live theatre. After working with Mirbt in the National Arts Centre production of Strindberg’s A Dream Play, John was awarded a year-long apprenticeship with him.
Motivated by that experience, John and Kathy created Rag & Bone Puppet Theatre in 1978. Their first show, Punch & Judy, used a traditional puppet box; but by their second show, a year later, they transitioned to “open manipulation” in which the puppeteers are in full view of the audience.
This style of puppetry, they feel, allows them to connect directly with their audience and melds perfectly with their signature style of blending puppets, narration, live action, video and music.
They went on to create numerous productions and toured both in Canada and the United States. When their second child was born in 1991, they chose to focus on performing locally, as well as pursue individual writing and acting projects.
Their love for Godden’s work began as parents reading to their children. Their first show based on one of her stories was The Story of Holly & Ivy in 1992. Godden was very protective over granting rights to her books, but finally did, Kathy believes, by the Rag & Bone philosophy of “staying faithful to the original text.”
While always wanting to adapt The Dolls’ House, they struggled with how to stage it until John had a “eureka moment” while workshopping with Ottawa’s Mi Casa Theatre in the spring of 2016. He realized he could use live-to-video projection to bring the characters to life, while still maintaining the scale of a dolls’ house.
Godden passed away in 1998, but her estate remained cautious about granting rights. After assurances they would treat the story with the same respect they had shown The Story of Holly and Ivy, last September Rag & Bone were given permission to adapt the story.
Then the work began. Kathy set to work writing the script and creating the dolls, either from scratch or repurposing others; John took on the task of perfecting the dolls’ house and planning the play’s video segments; musician Russell Levia began arranging the music, which he will present live at each performance; and they workshopped the script with students from The School of Dance.
Rag & Bone’s adaptation of The Dolls’ House opens for a seven performance run in GCTC’s Studio Theatre, March 15 – 18.
For more information and tickets visit ragandbone.ca.