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Bringing Trouble: An Account of a Travelling Bicycle Puppet Show

An audience watching a performer work a puppet.

Laura Stinson and Bimba the Bear in Troubling Joy: A Bicycle Puppet Circus by North Barn Theatre at Mayworks Kjipuktuk/Halifax: Festival of Working People & the Arts, 2020. Written, designed and performed by Ian McFarlane and Laura Stinson. Musical Composition and lyrics by GaRRy Williams. Directed by Lily Falk and Franziska Glen. Photo by Foundry Design.

The hill was revealed by oncoming headlights, beacons signaling the steep ascent before us. Our legs instinctively pedaled faster, the weight of our cargo pulling us backwards even as we climbed. The cargo consisted of two brightly colored boxes built around modified bicycle trailers, each mounted with a magenta flag that had the word “circus” stitched on it. Their contents included a dancing bear, a singing toad, a talking rat, and the strongest of all turtles. Our starlit journey carried us over the coastal terrain of the southern shore of Nova Scotia, Canada—another performance behind us, more to come in the next county.

This late-night bike ride took place during North Barn Theatre’s latest touring performance, Troubling Joy: A Bicycle Puppet Circus. Leaning into the archetype of a wandering spectacle of old, this traveling performance toured exclusively by bicycle around Nova Scotia in the autumn of 2021. Marketed as a show “for all ages,” Troubling Joy is a circus with a cast of more-than-human puppets who, in recognizing their discontent with the social structures that dictate how they live, discover the pleasure of change. This piece celebrates troublemakers, planting seeds of activism while providing entertainment and playing the game of “getting away with it.”

What does it mean to “get away with it?” To us, this question speaks to the rich relationship between theatre and activism. As theatremakers concerned with how performance can create change, we draw inspiration from two theatrical troublemakers: the swamp people and the puppet.

Those familiar with Jacques Lecoq and the school of Bouffon may know a common legend known more widely as “the swamp people.” In medieval Europe, it was not unorthodox for people who were deemed unpleasant to be exiled to the swamps outside of town, forbidden to influence the beautiful balance of society inside the city walls. It was only on Hocktide that they would be welcomed back in through the gates. These precarious visits could turn deadly due to the citizens of the city eager to flaunt their mockeries and affirm their superiority. The swamp people therefore had to appear likeable, even entertaining. Through a well-constructed theatrical facade, these exiles were able to hold the attention of their oppressors, offering them a mirror in which they could glimpse their own ugliness. Upon glimpsing this ugliness, first experienced as a good laugh and later processed as a poison, the city would be transformed, upending itself. This legend offers some insight into the value of “getting away with it”: because they were perceived as mere entertainment, the swamp people’s antics had the capacity to create change.

The puppet has always been perceived as a lowly tinkerer. It is harmless, ridiculous even, more akin to a plaything tossed aside in a nursery room than to elegant dance, grand theatre, or philosophical visual art. Its profaneness has kept it ever present in protests and street theatre, an undeniable ambassador with an uncanny ability to stir up trouble while suffering few consequences. (It is ridiculous, after all, to arrest a puppet.) The clumsy bludgeonings of Punch or the feeble squabbling of Kasper could lay insult to authorities through their disorienting fog of silliness while still appearing as a meaningless street art.

What does it mean to “get away with it?” To us, this question speaks to the rich relationship between theatre and activism.

In maritime Canada, puppetry is immediately assumed to be a form of entertainment for children. When speaking to people on tour and mentioning we were traveling with a puppet show, the response was most typically along the lines of, “Oh, my grandchildren would love that!” In general, to perform puppetry in Nova Scotia is to offer something soft and simple. Our challenge within this context became manifold: how could puppetry contribute to activism while remaining as accessible as possible? How could we expand expectations of puppetry without alienating our audience? How could we say something troubling while inspiring joy?

The North Barn Theatre Collective was formed in the Spring of 2020 by Laura Stinson and Ian McFarlane in the Ohio Valley, Antigonish County, Nova Scotia. We are theatremakers, scenographers, and puppeteers who have worked internationally across the United States, Canada, and Europe with companies such as Bread and Puppet Theater, the Canadian Academy of Mask and Puppetry, and The River Clyde Pageant. When an international tour was interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, we returned to rural Nova Scotia to establish roots as independent theatremakers and to connect with the communities that raised us. Our vision is to provoke thought around critical social and political issues by using playful imagery, landscape, objects, and spectacle. In keeping with our mentor, Peter Schumann of the Bread and Puppet Theater, we work from the belief that art is nourishment and should be available to everyone regardless of their social status.

A performer with a top hat and cane beginning a puppet performance.

Ian McFarlane in Troubling Joy: A Bicycle Puppet Circus by North Barn Theatre at The River Clyde Pageant: Sharing the Field, 2020. Written, designed and performed by Ian McFarlane and Laura Stinson. Musical Composition and lyrics by GaRRy Williams. Directed by Lily Falk and Franziska Glen. Photo by Faraaz Hussain.

A performer in a top hat with a cane, performing alongside puppets.

Ian McFarlane and Petunia the Frog in Troubling Joy: A Bicycle Puppet Circus by North Barn Theatre at Five Islands Provincial Park, presented by Ships Company Theatre. Written, designed and performed by Ian McFarlane and Laura Stinson. Musical Composition and lyrics by GaRRy Williams. Directed by Lily Falk and Franziska Glen. Photo by Foundry Design.

We are white settlers who can pass as straight. For us, it is relatively easy to keep a low profile and live quietly in the comforts of our privilege. We are therefore eternally grateful for the cracks in our non-thinking procedures of life as usual. We are grateful for the troublemakers who point out the oppressive structures that divide us and dictate how we live. Troubling Joy: A Bicycle Puppet Circus is an ode to these troublemakers. This show was strongly influenced by a book by Sara Ahmed, The Promise of Happiness, which highlights the limitations of pursuing happiness as a moral telos. Ahmed illuminates how traditional definitions of happiness have excluded, marginalized and controlled oppressed people, constructing numerous societal barriers through almost unperceivable pleasantries that prioritize a responsibility to be happy, or the “happiness duty.” In Ahmed’s view, happiness itself has become an agent of normalization, a forceful demand to follow social ideals, and a form of worldmaking built to favor privilege. Ahmed insists that we shift from a concern for happiness to a concern for what happens to people.

The circus surfaced in our creation process as a place where happiness is sold, often to the detriment of its performers. A place where chaos is made palatable and the thrill of seeing the “terrible” other makes an audience feel safe and happy in their “everything is fine” life. Our circus inevitably fails in the delivery of this happiness. Desperate to save tradition, the ringmaster pushes his more-than-human performers beyond their everyday tricks. A series of impromptu displays of beauty, shock, and horror backfire, and the puppets revolt against the systems that oppress them. The circus as we know it is torn down in a celebration of trouble and joy.

We work from the belief that art is nourishment and should be available to everyone regardless of their social status.

A large part of our personal joy (and trouble) associated with this show came from touring it by bicycle. This meant a welcome reprieve from tours where we spent most of our time sitting in a vehicle and burning fossil fuels. It also meant that our set, props, puppets, instruments, and basic camping gear had to be transported by two bicycles. Instead of large, street-performing puppets, we made smaller puppets carved out of basswood with intricate mechanisms for mouth, neck, and eye movement. Instead of playing saxophone, tuba, bass drum, and trombone (instruments commonly associated with a puppet circus), we played melodica, xaphoon, saw, and mandolin. The circus proscenium disassembled into sixty-centimeter sections that fit into the modified trailers that we bolted together to make up the stage. When we packed up, the circus curtains became cushioning for the puppets in their waterproof bins. To account for our slow travel, we booked shows in backyards and community centers between contracted gigs that determined our route. Our hope was that we could provide affordable live theatre for folks in their own communities by having shows with admission by donation.

Touring the show by bicycle offered us unique interactions with audiences we might not have encountered otherwise. Not only were we bringing live theatre to more remote communities, but our travelling itself was a performance that drew curiosity to our journey and our work. It was not uncommon for cars to stop in the middle of the road to ask us what we were doing, or for strangers to offer us food at gas stations to help speed us on our way. Traveling by bicycle placed the show into a larger spectacle of landscape and community. The show ends with a transformed ensemble of performers abandoning the wreckage of a stage to venture out on bicycle together, a charming if not clumsy assemblage of troublemakers stumbling into the unknown. The form became essential to the action of the work by pointing to a continuation or a carrying-on that illuminated a precarious yet hopeful portrait of activism.

In many ways, touring Troubling Joy was itself a journey of stumbling into the unknown. Aside from a handful of contracted gigs, a few festival slots, and partnerships with theatre companies and arts centers, we had little to no knowledge of what to expect from our audiences. On one occasion, we found ourselves in the village of Hubbards, a small harbor on the South Shore. We were the furthest distance from home yet. Following the Labour Day weekend in Halifax, all of our contracts had been completed, meaning that we could no longer rely on the buzz of festivals or the mailing lists of partners to bring in an audience. The evening was brisk, and the smell of autumn was in the air—a haunting indication that the summer was on its way out and the time for long evenings in the grass was coming to an end. We waited anxiously in the empty amphitheatre as the sun set, wondering if anyone would come. Perhaps it wasn’t too late to just turn it in and head home. Then people started to arrive from every direction. Families poured in from the park. Others filed in from the harbor below. In a matter of minutes, we found ourselves looking out at a packed house of strangers who were eager to give their evening over to us. After this experience we decided that it was worth carrying on, even just for the chance at another encounter such as this.

The form became essential to the action of the work by pointing to a continuation or a carrying-on that illuminated a precarious yet hopeful portrait of activism.

As the show’s creators, we delighted when the animals abandoned subservience for action, tearing the circus apart and embracing chaos and change. Our audiences, however, were mostly quiet during this scene. We were asking them to shift from wanting to save the circus at all cost to caring about the wellbeing of the performers. The ringmaster’s encouragements for the circus animals to “smile more,” or “be more terrifying,” grated at us (the puppeteers) while the audience seemed to let these loaded encouragements pass as acceptable. It was our hope that this tension would lead them to reflect on the worth of sustaining a familiar yet harmful system versus allowing for change to take place, even with the discomfort it brought. Fortunately, in our microcosm, arguing with a wounded turtle to maintain the system of a circus as usual was not a viable option.

What did this show actually do? There are some very practical, grounded, undisputed events that occurred. We took a puppet show to rural audiences, many of whom had never seen a puppet show or even live theatre, all within the context of a global pandemic. The shows took place in non-traditional outdoor spaces; fields, backyards and community center lawns were transformed with the energy of spectacle. We certainly surprised folks with our choice of touring method and opened up the possibility, in some minds, of travel by bicycle. These are some of the tangible impacts of our theatrical bicycle endeavor. What impact did it have on creating a more just world? This is certainly negligible, a drop in a bucket amongst other worthwhile drops. Was this activism or entertainment? Likely mostly the latter with a touch of the former, just enough to “get away with it.” Whatever our lofty aspirations, it is our hope that with Troubling Joy: A Bicycle Puppet Circus we were able to nourish spirit, silliness, and trouble both in ourselves and others.

Two men pushing a bicycle through a field.

Ian McFarlane and Laura Stinson in Troubling Joy: A Bicycle Puppet Circus by North Barn Theatre at The River Clyde Pageant: Sharing the Field, 2020. Written, designed and performed by Ian McFarlane and Laura Stinson. Musical Composition and lyrics by GaRRy Williams. Directed by Lily Falk and Franziska Glen. Photo by Faraaz Hussain.

Thoughts from the curator

Puppetry is an ongoing negotiation between human and nonhuman. Puppets play out the way things are, but also the way things can be; and in that regard, they allow us to see our positionality and imagine worlds beyond ourselves. This series showcases myriad shapes and styles and the ways in which these puppets, whether representational or abstract, can form solidarities among humans.

Creating Puppet Solidarities

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