Clay and Paper goes big by going small: Arts in the Parks 2020

October 9, 2020

Jodi Lastman

Clay and Paper Theatre is best known for doing things on an enormous scale; Huge papier-mâché animals, the disfigured faces of politicians on tiny human bodies and oversized, fantastical creatures from folklore have all been centre stage.  Clay and Paper Theatre has been the Resident Theatre Company (of Dufferin Grove Park) for twenty-six years and the scale of their productions really lends itself to big, wide open spaces.

This summer, Clay and Paper Theatre  was slated to perform their play Pigeon Pie in a number of parks as part of Arts in the Parks, a city-wide initiative, bringing free performances to parks across Toronto. Like so many other planned events, Arts in the Parks had to forgo in-person gatherings in parks because of COVID-19.

Of course in a year like no other, audiences would have really benefited from helping to build oversized figures that help us express collective supersized anxieties from a world in flux. No doubt, their performance of Pigeon Pie, one part dream quest, one part parable about species extinction, would’ve pushed the boundaries of theatre and consciousness.

Faced with the challenge of a big pivot, Clay and Paper Theatre decided to go small. Inspired by New York’s Great Small Works, a group of alumni from Vermont’s infamous Bread and Puppet Theatre, they adopted the Toy Theater format.  Toy Theatres were originally established in the 19th century and were tiny paper replicas of stages sold at the concession stands of popular plays. Great Small Works has hosted a Toy Theatre Festival since 1993 in which the proscenium is constructed out of cardboard and small paper figures and objects are animated by hand through slots, rods, or other simple mechanics.

Clay and Paper adopted the toy theatre format because it allowed them to retain their hands on approach to co-creating theatre experiences with their park communities. They called the series The Third Eye, both because they wanted to engage the deep wisdom of the mind’s eye and because the virtual format would need to engage the “third eye” of the computer screen.  Participants were challenged to create paper theatre storytelling on the theme of: “The View from Here.” The focus was on capturing life, from daily minutia to grand themes, during the COVID-19 pandemic.

People who registered participated in four engaging workshops, one-on-one coaching and culminating in a final online performance. The workshops were supplemented with engaging and creative resources including a zine, videos supplies lists and more.

David Anderson and Tamara Romanchuk of Clay and Paper Theatre found solace in the intimacy of the workshops:

“Not only were we honoured that people let us into their homes, but because we’ve been in our own kind of cage (when we’re usually working in the park), we didn’t want it to end.”

The intimate format also helped build bonds between families who collaborated on their paper theatre productions.

The paper theatre performances were screened live online. Like in -person live theatre, the virtual production also has an element of unpredictability. In fact, the first attempted screening of the showcase was delayed because of a blackout. But it was worth the wait.

Whereas almost everything I’ve watched online since the start of the pandemic has seemed to fall flat, the intimacy of the paper theatres was perfectly suited to the online medium. The productions were visually interesting but much more than that evoked feelings of both isolation and connection, closeness and claustrophobia, hopefulness and terror.

In My Mother is So Annoying, a teen and mom puppet act out the daily dramas that have punctuated our lives during covid. In fact, the teen’s most animated body part is their eyes, which constantly roll in response to the mom’s antics. Whether or not you’ve had the pleasure of sharing quarantine with a teen, pandemic-times interpersonal friction is all too familiar.

In another Third Eye piece, titled Reflections, the Yuseff family including Aamena, Aamir, Alifia and gives us an intimate view into their home during the pandemic where board games come and go as the light changes and days roll into one another. It’s a small window onto others’ lives. It all appears familiar, but when we see the mundane movements of our daily lives viewed in paper theatre, it helps us see our world anew.

For a break in the action, The Baby Billionaires, paper maché heads of five, famous billionaires including Elon Musk, Bill Gates and others (I won’t ruin it for you), are propped on each finger of a glove. The smallness of the figures does nothing to shrink the political commentary as one of the billionaires sings:

“I’ll invest in anything so long as it grows my portfolio. If it’d make me rich I’d give the whole world polio.”

Just to keep things from getting too serious, the baby billionaires bop together between verses singing: “beep, boop, beep, boop.”

The paper theatre performances each offer a new perspective and leave us both charmed and unsettled.

It’s not an easy undertaking, but this summer Clay and Paper went big by going small.

Watch the showcase yourself, and witness the beauty of the Third Eye. 



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