Bringing life to inanimate foam
Odd-Lot puppetry creates magic on the stage
By: Amy Crofts
| Posted: Wednesday, Dec 11, 2013 06:00 am
A common bone of contention among roommates might be the dirty dishes piling up in the sink or whose turn it is to take out the garbage.
For Brendan Boyd, it’s the puppet corner.
The mound of body parts in various states of finish, strings of wire, rolls of foam and fabric, inevitably become stowed away in the corner of a room wherever he resides.
At the moment, the puppets have taken over Boyd’s St. Albert home.
He and fellow puppeteer Lisa Ruelling also have a temporary workshop in the basement of her Fort Saskatchewan-area home.
“On any given day there’s a puppet on the work bench that’s halfway completed and Lisa’s at another table sewing its outfit or its skin,” said Boyd.
“Then the finished puppets are staring at us from this corner, pressuring us to finish the show,” he adds with a sinister grin.
Boyd and Ruelling, graduates of Fort McMurray’s Keyano College's theatre arts program, founded their company Odd-Lot Puppetry in 2007.
Odd-Lot wrapped up its last production in Edmonton just last month. Albert’s Afraid was a black light show about a bat who is afraid of everything. The company is now busy re-working some of the characters to bring it back for the Edmonton Fringe in the summer.
Many of the duo’s puppets are human-sized, operated by mechanisms such as bike brakes, levers and pulleys, with up to four puppeteers moving them.
They plan to add even more intricacy to their cast members to make them even more lifelike – giving Albert blinking eyes and high-top shoes, and constructing a skeleton that will literally fall to pieces on stage.
With an average of 50 new puppets per show, music scores and scripts, it’s hard to remember a time when Odd-Lot’s productions weren’t so complex.
Back to basics
Boyd recalls being captivated by puppetry at an early age.
A local puppet troupe came to his elementary school and presented a whimsical story called Fish Whiskers.
“It was the most magical and incredible thing I had ever seen,” said Boyd, adding he and his friends immediately ran home and gloved their small hands with socks, an attempt to imitate what they saw on stage.
Boyd went on to experiment with puppets made from egg cartons (dragon and snake marionettes) and toilet paper rolls and old T-shirts (a puppet named Tall Head inspired by Beaker the Muppet).
His first production was at a local festival, it was called the Fabulous Minky Show and his mom helped him write it.
“I was very inspired by Muppets when I was a kid,” noted Boyd. “But I find we’re (doing) less of that as our style evolves and we work with other artists.”
Both Boyd and Ruelling describe their array of puppets and techniques as a “mishmash.” They explained an unwritten rule in Odd-Lot’s mandate is to not be tied down to one type of puppet or prop.
“Why limit yourself to only one kind? Some people might find comfort in that, but we’re pretty uncomfortable people,” Ruelling chuckled.
Ruelling, a scenic painter and theatre technician by trade, didn’t think she’d end up a co-director of a puppet company.
“I’ve been sucked into the vortex of puppet land,” she laughed. “It was not unwillingly, but unexpectedly that I started doing puppets.”
Ruelling said her background work in theatre has perhaps helped her succeed as a puppeteer.
“The puppets are the ones doing the performing, I’m just helping them move around,” she noted. “It’s about what my right hand is doing and how I am going to make (the puppet) look like it’s flying. It’s about the puppet that you’re holding. It’s not about you.”
Behind the scenes
With an average of three months between productions, something is always in the works at the “puppet ranch” at Ruelling’s house.
Not only do Boyd and Ruelling build their cast members, they also have to script their shows, record sound and choreograph the puppets’ movements to music and voice.
“We both have really strong theatre backgrounds so we attack each show as a new theatre production,” said Ruelling. “We just happen to use puppets to tell the story.”
Boyd believes that is what makes Odd-Lot unique from other puppet companies. The troupe is named for the many people that lend their hands and voices to each production. A whole team of actors, composers, musicians, dancers and crafters is what makes each production possible, from a sketch on a napkin to a full-blown show.
“A lot of characters come from the person working on it,” said Boyd, referring to characters in Albert’s Afraid, such as the screaming banshee that likes to bake muffins and the dancing werewolf.
“Someone will pick up the puppet they work on and play with it ... and things just always seem to fall into place.”
Dressed in black from head to toe, three puppeteers crouch behind a human-sized skeleton puppet, synchronizing their movements to make it walk across the stage. A fourth puppeteer comes out of the shadows and brings with him a fat cat puppet – the skeleton will play it like a guitar in its solo act.
“You have no true concept of what it looks like until you see it from the front,” said Ruelling, admitting sometimes she gets caught up in the wires and cables, the technicality of the performance.
“When you actually can see it from the front it is quite incredible.”
Making their performance seamless is what creates the magic and brings the puppets – essentially pieces of foam and craft board – to life.
“Kids are uncensored. Their reactions are honest,” said Boyd of how audiences become enthralled with the show.
“When you put 300 kids in the dark, there is no one there to tell them to be quiet or behave. They screamed when things came out. They spoke back to the characters. They clapped and they laughed.”
Odd-Lot is currently working on four upcoming shows: a still untitled Christmas show, a show entitled Squirm, the adult puppet show Touch, and the new comedy web series Rear Entry.
To find out what Odd-Lot is working on next, or to support their journey in finding a permanent puppet workshop, go to: https://www.facebook.com/Theoddlotpuppetryco.