Port Dover students triumph in Sticks and Stones

Congratulations to Mrs. Val Smith and her Theatre Partnership class at the Port Dover Composite School on their very successful performance of Sticks and Stones in Port Dover on January 13th and 14th. Val Smith encouraged the cast by pointing out that this was “the most beautiful and most difficult text they had ever dealt with or would ever deal with in high school.”

Val Smith and the cast of Sticks and Stones, Lighthouse Festival Theatre, Port Dover

The students succeeded in both mastering the text and conveying the story to others. “This has been an experience they will remember for the rest of their lives,” says their teacher.

Program designed by Theatre Partnership students.

Riding Hood pulled no strings in ‘65

As a side note to Leith Peterson’s “Jamie and Jay’s 1965 Apple Butter Collaboration”, here is more about James Reaney’s adaptation of Little Red Riding Hood, one of three marionette plays commissioned by Jay Peterson for the Western Fair in September 1965.  Greg Curnoe created the Red Riding Hood marionettes and they are now part of the collection at Museum London. Jack Chambers made a film of the play (Little Red Riding Hood (1965)), which is available from the London Public Library.

Riding Hood pulled no strings in ‘65

By James Stewart Reaney © 2003

(Note: This article originally appeared in The London Free Press, Sunday September 7, 2003, page T6.)

Western Fair in 2003 has goat milking, cooking demos, racing pigs, a world-class Neil Diamond impersonator and much more.

For all that, this year’s fall classic has nothing as subversive as Little Red Riding Hood. In 1965, the fair’s lures included a marionette version of the children’s folk tale – a subversive version.

Subversive? Little Red Riding Hood? Yes, Red, on film, still looks unconventional. Back in the 1960s, a big, bad wolf with U.S. flags for ears and a little H-bomb for company stirred the pot a little. Still does.

The fair’s Little Red Riding Hood was avant enough to boast marionettes and sets devised by Greg Curnoe, the late London artist. It was Curnoe’s concept to cast the Wolf as a U.S. imperialist predator and use the Vietnam-charged imagery of the day. Red, the wolf and the other marionettes are being donated to Museum London by Curnoe’s wife Shelia.  They will be a terrific addition to the collection.

After its run at the fair, Red Riding Hood was filmed by another London artist, the late Jack Chambers. A copy of Chambers film is available on video from the London Public Library. A viewing of Chambers’ simple, direct and beautiful version last week brought back Western Fair memories and showed off Red’s arty side.

The plot is familiar. On her way to grandma’s house, Little Red Riding Hood is lured off the path into the forest. The evil wolf beats Red to granny’s, swallows up the old woman and then devours Red, too. Granny and Red are saved by a valiant huntsman who slays the wolf. Red – and the children in the audience – learn a valuable lesson about sticking to the straight and narrow.

From Jack Chambers’ 1965 film, Red Riding Hood and her mother.

Red was one of three marionette plays developed by my father and others for the 1965 fair. He’s the James Reaney credited as the “story adapter” in the Chambers film.

London writer and archivist Leith Peterson has mentioned the role played by her mother, Jessie (Jay) Peterson, in commissioning Red and other marionette works for the fair.

“Mom saw these shows as not just entertainment for children, but for adults as well. Red Riding Hood caused quite a bit of controversy because of its anti-Vietnam War message,” Peterson has written. Then a Western Fair board member, Jay Peterson was involved in helping create marionettes for other shows.

At the fair, it seemed dad and the others in the Red troupe were battling expectations that marionettes were the glossy creations seen on prime-time TV. Glossy is not the word for the stars of Red. They were really for prime Chambers, not TV.

The Free Press of September 1965 said Red “is another idiom again” – contrasting it with the other marionette plays at the fair. It calls Curnoe “a strong exponent of pop art” and says his “puppets have all been created out of ordinary kitchen utensils.”

As it says in the library catalogue, these Curnoe creations were “unusual marionettes… Red Riding Hood herself is a block of (brightly painted) wood with a red plastic sandpail for a hood and a (plastic) sieve fastened in front for a basket.”

From Jack Chambers’ 1965 film, Red Riding Hood and her grandmother.

Other characters were assembled from bits and pieces Curnoe had on hand. Granny was “just a teapot” with a teapot lid for a cap because she drank a lot of tea. The kids loved the teapot granny, even if adults saw her as “just a teapot.”

The Chambers film catches Red’s crazy humour. Courtesy of Curnoe, the huntsman had one of those toy guns  that make a great rrrrrrr sound when fired. In the film, the huntsman is ready to shoot the buttons off anybody.

In the film’s first five minutes, he fires at a marionette of a hired-man, a character from another of the plays on the bill [Victor Nipchopper from Apple Butter]. The hired man is only there to set the scene and introduce Red’s cast.

Later, the huntsman fires at Red after asking her to put the cake intended for her grandma on her head.  The gun-crazy huntsman wonders if she has ever heard of “Wilhelm Tell.” Bang, bang, bang. Rrr, rrr, rrr.

Red is terrified. There is a hole in her hood, she gasps.

“I guess your mother made it oversize,” the huntsman blandly says before pursuing the wolf.

From Jack Chambers’ 1965 film, the Huntsman and Red Riding Hood.

Seeing Red and company at the fair was magical. The young UWO [Western University] types and others pulling the strings were all friendly. John and Gillian Ferns, Chris Faulkner, Jill Bradnock, Ellen Richardson and Alvin Waggener are listed in the film credits. Hearing John’s booming voice and listening to granny singing a Welsh hymn –possibly the voice of his wife, Gillian – recalls an era when town and gown were smaller and closer.

They all worked hard. Red and the other shows were not just a matter of pulling a few strings. Some days, there were four marionette presentations at the Labbatt theatre. Most days, it was hot and noisy. It was never dull on either side of the stage.

Through all that, the collaboration of Curnoe, Chambers and many others endures.

Almost 40 years later, this made-in-London gem is still the best way to see Red.

September 1965 performance of Red Riding Hood at London’s Western Fair. Photo by Arnim Walter.

Marionette Plays

In 1965 James Reaney created three marionette plays: Apple Butter, an original work, and two adaptations, Red Riding Hood and Aladdin and the Magic Lamp. Leith Peterson describes how her mother, Jay Peterson, came to commission the plays and help create the marionettes. The plays were performed by James Reaney and friends at the Western Fair in September 1965 in London, Ontario.

Jamie and Jay Peterson’s 1965 Apple Butter Collaboration

Presentation by Leith Peterson for “Remembering Jamie,” July 7, 2008, Aeolian Hall. Prepared July 6, 2008 © Leith Peterson, 2003-2008

My mother, Jay Peterson, and Jamie [James Reaney] had a lot in common.  Both were highly creative people who were good at getting projects not only off the ground, but also seeing them through to fruition.  Mom, Jamie and Colleen teamed up on a number of adventures over the years, but the focus of this presentation will be Jamie and my mother’s 1965 Apple Butter collaboration.

In his 1990 Theatrum article entitled “Stories on a String,” Jamie said “…Jay Peterson was a cultural pillar of the town and she persuaded the Fair board to commission a marionette show from me…They actually gave me some money – one third of which went towards a tent, but the rest I salvaged to pay artists and manipulators for designs, puppets, theatre facades, as well as hours of gruelling work rehearsing, learning, and finally for ten days in mid-September, performing from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. on the fairgrounds…Most of the manipulators were my graduate students.  We still talk about those very happy, very busy days in the fall of 1965.”

From 1963 to 1970, my mother was a director of the Western Fair, so this is the fair Jamie is referring to.  Apple Butter was one of three marionette productions commissioned for the 1965 fair.  Greg Curnoe’s anti-Vietnam war piece called Red, and Jamie’s Aladdin rounded out the trio.  My mother saw these shows as not just entertainment for children, but for adults as well.

Jamie described his Apple Butter effort as a “new venture.  What I wanted to do in this fairy tale – where an orphan boy triumphs over the cruelties of his guardian – was to create a puppet hero for Southwestern Ontario similar to Russia’s Petrouchka and France’s Guignol.”

Hester Pinch, Solomon Spoilrod, and Apple Butter. (Inspired by the original set designed by James Anderson.)
Victor Nipchopper from Applebutter makes an appearance in the prologue to Red Riding Hood. Red Riding Hood says: “You’re not in my story, Victor Nipchopper!” (The Red Riding Hood marionettes and set were designed by Greg Curnoe.)

The Apple Butter marionettes were made at my grandfather’s old print shop at Leith, Ontario.  In his diary entry for August 23, 1965, Jamie chronicles my mother driving the Reaney family up to stay at the Peterson cottage, which was close to the print shop.  Then on August 29, Jamie pens that his sister Wilma picked up the Reaneys and took them back to London.  There is a wonderful photo of the Reaney family, including John and Wilma, on the front steps of the Peterson cottage.  Jamie is holding Apple Butter.

The Reaneys with Apple Butter, August 1965. Photo by Jay Peterson.

I was at camp at the time the Reaneys were at Leith.  However, Colleen, James, and Susan have provided details.  In addition, I have asked my brothers, Stuart and Donald, for their input.  Stuart remembers the Reaneys being at Leith and hanging out with James and John, but his only clear recollection is of James trying to convince him that the Dave Clark Five were better than the Beatles.

My brother Donald was just six at the time, but he enjoys reminiscing about “the making of Apple Butter and Moo Cow and how amazingly creative an effort it was.”  He recalls all the Reaney children being there, including Susan, who was closest in age to him.  What really stuck in his mind was Apple Butter and company hanging on the clothesline to dry.  He described the whole experience as “pretty amazing.”

Jamie created Apple Butter, Treewuzzle and Rawbone.  My mother made the heads as well as the papier-mache hands for the adult characters.  Mom also designed Moo Cow — an impressive-looking bovine, with the map of Canada on one side, built into the Holstein’s black and white markings.

Leith Peterson shows off Moo Cow, August 2008. Photo by Susan Wallace.

Jamie said that at the Apple Butter production in the Western Fair tent, “babies who cried for everything else shut up for Moo Cow, while backstage visitors enquired after Rawbone with a great deal of respect.”

Apple Butter went on to further acclaim in other locations.  After the Woodstock production, Jamie enthused that “children practically accompanied Apple Butter right to the station.”  In his 1968 biography of Jamie, Alvin Lee noted that Apple Butter was an adaptation from a simple folklore story “with a built-in appeal to the young, as the enthusiastic responses of hundreds of children have shown.” And there was also a built-in appeal for adults, including my mother and Jamie, who had so much fun bringing it all together.

James Stewart Reaney, James Reaney’s son, adds this news of Apple Butter and friends:

January 15, 2009

Apple Butter and Friends are on their way to the Canadian Museum of Civilization

I’m happy to know other people love Apple Butter, one of the marionettes created by my father in 1965, as much as I do. Apple Butter and several other marionettes from the 1965 play by dad were collected today & are en route to the Canadian Museum of Civilization. One of the marionettes, Moo Cow, was created by the late Jay Peterson, who helped clear the way for these remarkable characters to play the 1965 edition of the fair. The marionettes, including Apple Butter himself, have undergone some modifications since they first put their strings in front of the public. But it’s a real honour to see such interest & I know dad would be proud.

My only regret is that Jim Anderson’s magnificent set for Apple Butter disappeared somewhere over the years. It was a classic look at a Souwesto home.

James Reaney’s childhood home near Stratford, Ontario

One-Man Masque at Nuit Blanche tonight in Toronto

If you’re in Toronto tonight, there will be a special reading of James Reaney’s One-Man Masque as part of the Nuit Blanche performances at St. Thomas’ Church. Larry Beckwith, Artistic Director of Toronto Masque Theatre, sends this update:

I am writing with an update of information about my involvement in Saturday night’s Nuit Blanche performances at St. Thomas’ Church as part of the “Pillars of Fire” exhibit.

A number of artists and performers are showcasing their work from 6:57 pm on Saturday to sunrise the following morning. Muscians and TMT friends involved include Alison Melville’s “Bird Project” the Windermere String Quartet, Brass Conspiracy, Ashiq Aziz’ “Classical Music Consort”, the Larkin Singers and the Sonore Percussion Trio.

I will be giving a special reading of James Reaney’s One-Man Masque at approximately 12:30 am. (This performance has been moved up from the previously-announced 2:00 am slot!).

I hope to see you there!

Pillars of Fire

Saint Thomas’s Anglican Church

383 Huron Street

scotiabank nuit blanche

Oct 2, 2010: 6:57 pm to sunrise

Zone A Independent Project – Scotiabank Nuit Blanche

Light emerges from darkness, as the mesmerizing beauty of fire allows us to transcend the night. See video, installation, performance and interactive artworks inspired by the transient and eternal nature of fire. Come celebrate your creative fire!