The first thing Canadian ears notice about puppeteering siblings Ann and David Powell are their pronounced British accents.
Yet whenever they return to England, David says, they’re asked, “Where in the States do you come from?”
“It’s the intonation,” Ann says. “Where you put the emphasis on words.”
Ann, who lives in the Annex, and David, who lives in the Beach, are the co-founders and artistic directors of Puppetmongers, a theatre company which has been entertaining audiences young and old for nearly 40 years with its inventive puppet shows.
This year the pair is touring their Dora-nominated production Cinderella in Muddy York to schools during the holiday season, before mounting it for a week at Theatre Passe Muraille.
In this version, Cinderella’s wicked stepmother has recently arrived from England with her snooty daughters and can’t adjust to life in 1834 Toronto. “Princely Charming” is the son of Upper Canada’s lieutenant governor, while the ball Cinderella’s family is invited to celebrates “muddy” York’s official renaming as Toronto.
“We’ve had children say: ‘Did Cinderella really live here?’ ” she says.
Ann was eight years old and David seven when they started playing with puppets. They performed shows with marionettes for friends and at libraries during their time off from school.
During the academic year, the siblings would attend boarding school in England while their father, who worked for the British Army, was posted in different parts of the world.
“We first discovered Canada when our dad was posted here in the mid-1960s,” Ann says. “We’d come over here for the holidays and really fell in love with this place.”
The family permanently moved to Canada in 1968, when Ann when the pair were in their teens. Both attended the Ontario College of Art & Design, where they began developing puppets without strings, and even taught puppetry classes while they were students.
The siblings typically spend two or three years creating a show, using storyboards to develop an idea before choosing the best type of puppetry to represent it. Past productions have included string marionettes and shadow puppets.
Some shows, including Cinderella, even have different versions of the same characters built for different scenes. Many of the puppets in Cinderella are rod marionettes, with sticks protruding from their heads, while others are wooden figures manipulated by the duo.
After a story is developed, new puppets are designed and built, with scripts being written during rehearsals.
The siblings work with external directors whenever possible. Cinderella’s director, Sue Miner, helped them from the beginning.
“It’s incredibly important to have that outside eye,” Ann says. “We think we’re getting it right, but they can tell us, ‘nooo, that’s not it at all.’ ”
While performing, the siblings often share characters, which in Cinderella means playing both Cinderella and the prince during different parts of the show — voices included.
“Obviously David’s voice is a lot lower and mine’s higher, but in rehearsing we find it’s the tone of voice, not necessarily the height,” Ann says. “We find a balance between the two of us, and it works. None of the audience says, ‘but, but, but — now she’s got a guy’s voice.’”
They also perform non-puppet characters. In Cinderella’s case, David playing the pseudo-narrator, a newspaper social columnist, while Ann plays the fairy godmother.
In addition to Puppetmongers, Ann and David founded the Toronto School of Puppetry in 1996, to mentor emerging artists and run classes and workshops for adults.
Every yearthey run Puppetry eXploratory Laboratory, a program which invites groups of participants to collaborate on puppetry-based projects, then present their shows in late May.
They also have assisted other theatre companies with puppetry aspects of their productions. For example, they designed, built and performed the puppets for composer R. Murray Schafer’s 2001 production Palace of the Cinnabar Phoenix, and their work was featured in the 2007 film Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium, which was filmed in Toronto.
Do they have any plans to retire?
Ann admits that “stiffer knees” make certain movements, such as kneeling, tricky.
“It’s funny, when you build a show you don’t think about, ‘will I be doing this 30 years from now?’ ” she says. “We joke about doing the show with walkers one day.”
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