Mudfoot Theatre Peers Over The Horizon in River: A Puppet Myth

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Genevieve Pare in Mudfoot Theatre’s River: A Puppet Myth, June 7-11 at the Joyce Dolittle Theatre. Photo Credit: Chantal Wall.

One day, perhaps sooner than later, the taps will shut off. Water will become a scarce commodity, if it isn’t already. In the future, sources of water like the Bow River will be relegated to the realm of myth.

Enjoying its world premiere at the Joyce Dolittle Theatre, River: A Puppet Myth is the latest from Mudfoot Theatre. The play, written by Co-Artistic Directors Ian McFarlane and Geneviève Paré, stages three explorers on a journey to find the Bow River. Stories of the Bow River, passed down through the generations, help guide the explorers on their journey, with an ancient scroll (coloured with pictographs) acting as a map of sorts.

With no signs of the river anywhere, Dha (Ali DeRegt) has doubts that the river still exists. Une (McFarlane) has faith that the river still flows, thinking that maybe the group hasn’t grasped the full meaning of the stories. Meanwhile, Ba (Paré) finds herself communicating with a grizzly bear named Griz (Erinn Watson), who gifts her different objects, at night. Her relationship with Griz is a kind of reconciliation with nature.

What created this post-apocalyptic world was the Hunger, a destructive force that devastated the planet. In one story, the audiences learns that Bison were once plentiful until the Hunger caused them to be overhunted. Man’s relationship with the bison, who he relied on for many things like warmth, was healthy until greed took over. Presumably, the Hunger caused humanity to exhaust the planet’s resources without taking into account long-term consequences, leading to irreversible climate change, hence the search for the Bow River.

Appropriately, given the show’s environmentalist concerns, Mudfoot Theatre has constructed all its puppets from discarded materials. The large bison is made from a burlap sack, and the magpie has a bicycle seat for a head and large boot for a body. Other materials like a tin can (bent to create a ‘head’, dressed with hair and big eyes) are used for simpler puppets.

What’s really funky is this whole communication contraption that has McFarlane cranking a bike pedal by hand for power, Paré spinning a roof turbine adjusted to her helmet to receive incoming messages, and DeRegt tapping a makeshift morse code machine. It’s quite a sight when the group activates this wacky apparatus in the wasteland.

This act of staging ‘junk’ is a potent display of human carelessness and indifference to environmental issues. What a thing to have people confront (again) discarded objects, some of which may survive long after humans are gone. The productive use of discarded materials not only drives home not only how much people waste, but what can be achieved through recycling. One could interpret this act of staging ‘junk’ as a political statement under the guise of quirky, ‘harmless puppetry.

So, it’s too bad that the story fails to deliver the same impact.

Mudfoot Theatre’s ingenuity and effort in finding the local in a global issue are worthy of much praise, but the script is often incoherent. Somewhere here, there’s a message that our current habits are endangering the Earth, otherwise there wouldn’t be so many ‘junk’ on stage. The argument is that humanity needs to re-discover and re-establish its relationship with nature, or else face disaster. Unfortunately, the verbose, metaphor-laden language does little to support this argument as it produces more head scratching than nodding heads. Likewise, the in-world references are never fully explained, so the audience is alienated from knowledge useful to access this imagined future. Thankfully, the script doesn’t bang us on the head like other environmentalist fiction (see: Jetsons: The Movie), but some direction would be helpful to grasp its full intentions.

Ba cryptically processing memories from people and animals of the past who enjoyed (and experienced the destruction) of the Bow River would be interesting to see explored further. There is something both unsettling and intriguing about a future where the pain of the past still has roots in the ground.

Director Lindsey Zess-Funk really knows how to create some astounding visual moments. Something so simple as Griz walking through the explorers’ camp (set design by Lane Shordee) is given emotional weight through good pacing and movement with purpose. Zess-Funk displays a good understanding that these puppets are not just puppets, but creatures connected to a larger story and who play an important part in that bigger picture. The same can be said for these puppeteers, including Emily Schoen who maneuvers Bertha’s large eye in the mountainside. There is a physical language flowing in this show that captures the play’s essence.

Although highly creative and unique, Mudfoot Theatre’s River: A Puppet Myth is a lengthy, jumbled exploration of what lies on the horizon.


Mudfoot Theatre’s River: A Puppet Myth runs June 7 – 11 at the Joyce Dolittle Theatre (The Pumphouse Theatre).

For information about the show, including how to purchase tickets, visit: http://www.mudfoottheatre.com/projects.html

Mudfoot Theatre Ready to Set Sail Again, Infuse Canadian History With Magic

Promotional image for The Hudson Bay Epic. Pictured: Mudfoot Theatre Co-Founders and Artistic Directors Genevieve Pare and Ian McFarlane, with ensemble member Ryan Reese (right). Photo Credit: Chantal Wall.

Promotional image for The Hudson Bay Epic. Pictured: Mudfoot Theatre Co-Founders/Artistic Directors Geneviève Paré and Ian McFarlane with ensemble member Ryan Reese (right). Photo Credit: Chantal Wall.

Geneviève Paré and Ian McFarlane first met at the University of Lethbridge where they completed a BFA in Dramatic Arts (‘11) and BFA in Multidisciplinary (‘10), respectively. Paré and McFarlane met in their second year while working as designers on a show together. But Paré and McFarlane say one of their first real collaborations came later when a special room inside the university caught their attention.

“There was this miniature room that was built as sort of a ‘found space’ theatre space at the university,” Paré explained. “There was a microphone in the middle inviting people to sing songs and play music. The sound would be projected out into the atrium so everyone could hear what was going on in there. It was a way for people who were shy to share their music. Anyone had the opportunity to contribute.”

Sharing each other’s excitement for impulsive performance art, Paré and McFarlane decided to perform inside the space together. In the room, the pair washed their hands in a bowl of soap water, beat boxed, and performed improvised poetry.

Paré says the collaboration signaled to both her and McFarlane that not only were they “both weird” and into “super bizarre ideas,” but that they could also work together.

In 2012, Paré and McFarlane collaborated again for Junquatica, a performance installation that ran as part of We Should Know Each Other #100. McFarlane says Junquatica was inspired by the aquatic intertidal zone, an area of interest for Paré who was working as a kayak guide off the coast at the time.

“It was a fun project,” said McFarlane about Junquatica. “Gen had this great idea of [creating] this box where people looked in and there were performers. But when they looked in they were also looking at each other…They all became characters of this world.”

At the time, Paré and McFarlane performed under the name Deux Fous Frivoles. The name was later changed to English (Frivolous Fools) due to pronunciation difficulty.

It was also at this point that the pair became excited about using found materials, like garbage. Junquatica’s performance space was constructed out of reclaimed materials meant to reflect a concern for the health of the oceans. McFarlane says the idea of found materials carried over into The Hudson Bay Epic, a play that toured both the Winnipeg Fringe Festival and Calgary Fringe Festival in 2014.

A historical fiction, The Hudson Bay Epic stages the story of Henry Hudson’s last voyage into the Canadian arctic. On board the ill-fated Discovery, a forbidden romance develops between two crew members while the threat of violent mutiny grows larger with every passing day.

The production featured a ship-like structure made from reclaimed materials. The structure was unique for its ability to produce music and ambient sounds.

“The initial inspiration came out of a performance idea of creating a structure that we could play like an instrument,” McFarlane explained. “We were excited about having this machine that we turn a crank and runs some music.”

For The Hudson Bay Epic, Paré and McFarlane formally adopted the name Frivolous Fools Performance. But the two ran into a problem with the name when touring the show, McFarlane explains.

“It was when we started touring The Hudson Bay Epic, people started calling us ‘The Fools’. We can’t do that because in Calgary there’s already ‘The Fools’ [Green Fools Theatre]. [We thought] we can’t have – This is just not good for anybody! It’s going to confuse and disrupt.”

Unfortunately, this was not the only issue with the name. When it came time to apply for grants, McFarlane and Paré were advised to change their name to something more suitable, as McFarlane explains.

“Grant advisors would be like ‘you should consider changing your name because you are neither foolish or frivolous.’ And yes, it’s ironic because we are working with junk and we’re not frivolous at all. We’re being quite humble with our work, this humble magic we are working with. But when it comes to applying to Canada Council…”

Paré and McFarlane sought a name that better reflected their work and aesthetic. After much consideration, Paré and McFarlane finally agreed on the name Mudfoot Theatre.

“There’s a whole bunch of ways to look at a name and how it resonates with who we are as artists,” said Paré about the name change. “If you’ve got muddy feet, it’s because you’re doing something awesome…If you’ve got your feet wet in the mud, then you’re active and in some interesting process.”

As their history shows, McFarlane and Pare are no strangers to change. What began as a performance duo has now grown into an independent creation-based theatre company.

Mudfoot Theatre collaborates with interdisciplinary artists to create contemporary folk tales through simple, grassroots storytelling. The company primarily stages Canadian history, something some Canadian theatre artists avoid, says Paré.

“Theatre artists don’t want to be identified as Canadian theatre artists. There’s something….What’s the word? It’s patronised a little bit. Because we’re softcore Americans, we’re so nice…Canadian is like…It’s not cutting edge.”

“If you’re a Canadian artist, you’re not from like Berlin or New York where you’re cutting edge and taking chances. But we do, do that as Canadian artists.”

Paré and McFarlane believe there are other reasons that make Canadian history less enticing as both performance material and a subject of interest among Canadians. For McFarlane, one reason has to do with how Canadian history was documented.

“It’s written as a business account,” said McFarlane. “We traded furs for this much money. We set up a shop in this place. It’s all written by merchants who are writing back to the homeland.”

“One of the fascinating things about Canadian history,” McFarlane continued, “is that that there were so many details that weren’t written down. In Europe, quite clear that these are the stories and these are the people. Endless literature. But in Canada, someone in the bush had this crazy experience but didn’t know how to read or write.”

“One of the things Europeans have about their history,” Pare added, “is that because their history goes so far back and it’s not written about in such a clinical way, there is room for myth…There’s magic, actual magic in the soil where they live. I want to have magic in my soil too.”

For Paré and McFarlane, staging Canadian history is not just about finding our collective voice as a nation, but also infusing our identity with a sense of magic.

And it is this sense of magic that the company’s next project River will embrace.

Inspired by David Thompson’s expeditions, River will tell the story of the Bow River through live music and puppetry. McFarlane says River will be a very different production from The Hudson Bay Epic.

“In The Hudson Bay Epic, we were quite direct with our history,” said McFarlane. “We took a journal and pulled stuff straight out of the journal and created characters that were actually historical people. In River, we are being quite broad and quite loose. Making it more on the mythical side than the historical side.”

Paré says audiences can expect “a tragic love story between a glacier, a star and a trickster paralleled by some narrative from David Thompson’s personal journals.”

Joining Paré and McFarlane for River are pianist Jesse Plessis and guest collaborator Jesse McMann-Sparvier.

River will be presented this week as part of the Calgary Region One-Act Play Festival at Pumphouse Theatres. Paré notes that the presentation is a prototype, or launching point, for a larger show.

Looking to the future, Paré and MacFarlane say they are not sure what the company will develop next, but that they are confident they will find themselves doing something inventive and unexpected.


Mudfoot Theatre’s River will be presented at The Calgary Region One-Act Play Festival, March 26th at 7:30pm.

For more information about the festival and how to purchase tickets, visit: http://www.pumphousetheatre.ca/sections/calendar_s/calendar_2.htm

For information on Mudfoot Theatre, visit their website:
http://www.mudfoottheatre.com/