Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Poignant Magic: Erin Fleck's Unintentionally Depressing Children's Tales

Playwright Erin Fleck.
If you are one of those already well-versed in the world of fairy tales, you're well aware that their purpose isn't to provide a thinly-veiled metaphor to lift your spirits. Quite the contrary. Sometimes these magical stories show us the ways that life doesn't always work out happily-ever-after. Humour goes a long way though in providing the proper dose of absurdity to make life's hardships easier to take – and maybe even transcend. With the deft employment of shadow puppetry, projection and stop-motion storytelling, playwright Erin Fleck of Caterwaul Theatre has created for the Toronto SummerWorks Performance Festival the aptly titled, Unintentionally Depressing Children's Tales. Through a series of six puppet tales, Fleck and director Maya Radinovich take audiences inside a blanket fort built to the scale of their performance space where they completely immerse us in a world of whimsical tragedy and foreboding comedy.

Erin Fleck has written and performed other original work with Mixed Company Theatre, at Theatre Passe Muraille’s BUZZ Festival, Buddies in Bad Times Theatre’s HYSTERIA Festival, the Toronto FRINGE! Festival, and Tarragon’s Spring Arts Fair as a playwright. She is an alumna of the Stratford Playwright’s Retreat, Factory Theatre’s Natural Resources, Theatre Passe Muraille’s Upstarts, TheatreKairos’ Writer’s Circle and Nightwood Theatre’s Write from the Hip program. Fleck toured her popular one-woman show Those Who Can’t Do... to Victoria B.C. and New York City since the show’s premiere at Theatre Passe Muraille. 

Erin Fleck spoke to us at Critics at Large earlier this week about the excitement and challenges of Depressing Tales

kc: You've been writing and performing your own work for a number of years now. But how did the interest in puppetry develop?

ef: My interest in puppetry has been with me since I was a kid, but professionally it was a rediscovery for me, in university. I grew up obsessed with Sesame Street, The Muppets and Fraggle Rock, but I was also pretty fascinated by the scarier and more folktale oriented Henson projects. I remember also being obsessed with The Storyteller series, which was part of the Jim Henson Hour. You’d watch The Muppets on (I think it was) Sunday evenings and then this incredibly creepy show with trolls, footless devils and giant gryphons would come on and it was exactly the right kind of scary. And that led me to The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth. I kind of left it behind later in high school, but then happened to take a puppetry course that my university offered in my final year, and fell in love with it again. And what was amazing about that course was I realized that people did it for a living. I was introduced to the companies making work in Toronto, spent my first summer out of university working for Clay and Paper in Dufferin Grove, met the Puppetmongers, and through just being around the scene, and doing some puppetry while also focussing on playwrighting and performing, I met Marcus Jamin and Daniel Briere of Dutch Uncle Puppetry, and joined their company.

Unintentionally Depressing Children's Tales at Toronto's SummerWorks Festival.

kc: Through that kind of immersion, what did puppetry come to mean to you?

ef: For me puppetry is a pretty perfect combination of good storytelling, visual art and performance. And I think you get a lot of freedom to bend the rules in a puppet world. It seems like people are always so ready to fall in love with a puppet character, so it gives you a lot of freedom in experimenting because the audience will trust you. There’s just so much that is magical about it for me, and I get to really experiment with my imagination. Creating for puppetry has actually really helped me as a playwright for my more traditional playwrighting work.

kc: When I was a kid, a puppet show was usually something to lift your spirits. In Unintentionally Depressing Children's Tales, you and director Maya Rabinovich seem to be showing a shadow side of that experience – even using shadow puppets, stop-motion storytelling and projection. How did the idea for the show develop?

ef: The first story, Etoiles, came out of a writing exercise during a Dutch Uncle workshop week. We were just doing some free writing exercises and I started creating this sort of whimsical, but sad tale about a town surviving the sun running away. I was feeling pretty down personally at the time, and felt like writing something that complimented that (laughs). We all really liked it, and I decided to develop it for a puppet cabaret evening we were doing with Theatre Passe Muraille. Dutch Uncle primarily works in wood, hand and rod puppets, and I wanted to try something different. The scope of the world of the story really seemed to fit the visuals of shadow puppetry work, so I decided to just give it a try. Also, it was a story about the sun running away, so I liked the idea of telling it with light and shadows. The style is really a throw back to my love of folktales, fairy tales and even history lessons, so that was where the writing inspiration came from. And, there’s definitely a lot of inspiration from Edward Gorey’s dark whimsy and Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s magic realism thrown in there. 

Erin Fleck & Sarah Fairlie.
kc: I suspect that must have felt liberating.

ef: I loved creating the visuals for Etoiles, and the process of writing that type of performative short story was so enjoyable, so I just kept going. I started to want to play with overhead projectors and stop motion elements because they are mediums I’ve really enjoyed seeing other people create work in. And as all of the Tales are really descriptive and visual, that medium serves them. Also, as I kept creating new stories, I started working with Sarah Fairlie, who is an incredibly talented visual artist, mainly painting and drawing, and she was really interested in venturing into shadow puppetry and stop motion. That process has been really collaborative, with me stepping more into the writer role, working with Sarah on the general staging of the story, and then Sarah takes it and makes these incredibly exquisite puppets.

kc: You've described Unintentionally Depressing as being both "whimsical tragedy and foreboding comedy." While some might find those descriptions to be contradictions in terms, how intertwined do you find comedy and tragedy?

ef: You know when you’re experiencing something so horrible, that all you can do is find something that makes you laugh? Or you feel this incredible need to share a laugh with someone in the midst of experiencing something crappy together? Or you’re experiencing something awful, and that final straw of awfulness occurs, and it just hits you that if you weren’t in so much pain, the ridiculousness of what you are being asked to deal with, would be hilarious? That’s where I think that intertwining sits.

kc: Most fairy tales, or bedtime stories, are moral dramas where the best ones aren't moralistic. What concerns of your own are you addressing in the six stories that comprise Unintentionally Depressing?

ef: The main thing I'm trying to talk about is the belief that we all are the heroes of our own stories, and the fear that maybe we’re not destined to be heroes to anyone else. Maybe our place in the world isn’t one for the history books. Most of the fairy tales my parents told me tended to frame life positively, where things always work out in the end, even if the journey gets hard. Good things happen to “good” people, and “bad” people get what’s coming to them… there’s a universal recognition for one’s choices. But you grow up, and it becomes pretty clear that this isn't the case most of the time. Of course, there are a lot of beautiful things to celebrate in life, but things don’t always work out how we've planned them. And I think we have a tendency to want to attach poignancy to why things happen to us. When life throws us disappointments, unwanted responsibilities, lowered expectations, and tragedies we like to believe there’s a reason why. And so with the Tales, I'm playing with characters who are trying to survive their situations with heroism, trying to attach reason to their misfortunes, but are having that taken away, sometimes just by happenstance. They don’t get to be the heroes they thought they were. But then, at the same time, for this show, we are gathered in a blanket fort and telling their story to an audience, so there’s at least a little glimmer of poignancy, and justice.

kc: You've worked really well with your plays over the years in workshop settings – How important is the collaborative process for you?

ef: Hugely. I am really text-based when it comes to my work, so often the collaborative element doesn't start right at the beginning. But once I'm ready to start moving out of the initial writing stage, into dramaturgical guidance, I am definitely a writer that benefits from an outside eye. And then, moving into the physical production of this work specifically, I wanted to work with people who have expertise in mediums that differ from mine. Roxanne Ignatius is a textile artist, her interpretation of what it would mean to create a giant blanket fort for these tales had a scope that I would have never achieved. The way that Sarah has interpreted how to articulate the stories we’re narrating with our different puppets doesn't always parallel what my vision of the world would be. I could never have created the type of music that Brad Casey did for each of the Tales. And each of the puppeteers brings their own performative life to the puppets they’re inhabiting and the stories they’re narrating. Working with all of these different people brings a lot of texture to our world, which is exactly what a project like this needs.

kc: How did you come to work with Maya Rabinovich on Unintentionally Depressing?

ef: We've just worked together so well in the past. Maya’s a fantastic dramaturg and director, which is really helpful for my process as the writer/creator/performer. She’s got a very visual eye when she works with actors, and that carries really well to the puppet world. She’s also incredibly resourceful and likes to think big, which you need when you want to create a show that involves a 25x30 foot blanket fort, three projectors, 5 puppet shows and a very limited set up and take down time each show.

kc: That's huge. How long did it take you to develop the material?

ef: Etoiles was written a few years ago, and the interest in creating a canon of Tales has floated around in the back of my mind since then, but I would say serious development of this instalment of the Tales is about just under a year.

kc: Did the concept of the show grow out of the material or the other way around?

ef: Out of the material definitely. Once the style of the narrative starting getting quite clear, that’s when the idea of a theatrical bedtime story scenario started taking shape.

kc: Your work always combines a wry sense of humour with very pointed social satire – What is the key for you in combining the two? 

ef: Sincerity. Despite the title of this show, I am actually quite the optimist. And I think a lot of my social satire comes from the want for our world to be a better place. And often the things that I think are unjust, have a dark humour in their ridiculousness if you really step back and honestly take a good look at the situation. It sort of goes back to the “this would be funny if it wasn't so horrible/frustrating/anger-inducing.” I find that when you try to navigate that frustration or confusion sincerely, you'll also find the humour. And it’s amazing how open people’s minds can become, when you can make them laugh along with you.

Unintentionally Depressing Children's Tales continues at SummerWorks at the Lower Ossington Theatre: Studio Theatre, 100A Ossington Avenue (North of Queen) today at 4:00pm, August 14th 10:00pm, August 16th at 6:00pm, and August 17th at 7:00pm. Tickets can be purchased at:, by phone: 416-907-0468, at the SummerWorks Hub (Theatre Centre), 115 Queen St West, or at the door: starting one hour before show time.

– Kevin Courrier is a freelance writer/broadcaster, film critic and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of ZappaRandy Newman's American Dreams33 1/3 Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask ReplicaArtificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles Utopian Dream). Courrier teaches part-time film courses to seniors through the LIFE Institute at Ryerson University in Toronto and other venues. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.

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