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Springbank puppeteer spearheads theatrical production

According to Dawn, adult puppetry is an unusual art form in North America, though it is very common in Europe. 

A long-time Springbank resident is bringing a unique artform to the west Rocky View County acreage community with her new puppet show production, called One for Sorrow, Two for Joy. 

Juanita Dawn, artist, puppet maker, puppeteer, and owner of Long Grass Studio & Workshop in Springbank spearheaded the show last year, to be showcased to audiences in 2023.  

She said the idea for the production came to her last spring when she partnered with other likeminded artists to create the Alberta-based puppet show production.  

“My goal was to produce a full-length puppet show and so I brought on board several other artists to work with me and we co-wrote this show based in Alberta,” Dawn recalled.  

She said because the show features puppets rather than live actors, it takes on some surreal elements. She added the show therefore possesses a magical quality. 

“Everything doesn’t have to be to scale, and it can be a little bit whimsical and magical, because all the performers are puppets,” Dawn said, adding the story “defies gravity.” 

The storyline revolves around Georgina Mae Brown, a resilient and tenacious woman, her best friend the gopher, and her sometimes friend, the bossy magpie. It's set in the early 1900s in western Canada.  

Dawn said the inspiration for the story was “pulled out of the rich soul of the unsung beauty” of the Canadian prairies during the early 20th century.  

“In the early 1900s, being resilient was most certainly essential to survival, but Georgina Mae had more than survival on her mind,” read the story synopsis. 

“Georgina Mae had an untethered imagination and stubborn streak that would impress any strong-minded mule from here to Ontario.” 

According to Dawn, Georgina’s tenacious spirit would not have been considered a desirable quality in a young lady at the time. She added the story line has some adult-centric themes and is centred on Georgina’s journey as she grows from a young girl into a woman at the turn of the last century.  

“The magic and wonder of this little girl’s imagination was the seed that germinated into the inspiration for our story,” Dawn said. “I created the world that Georgina Mae imagined and brought it to life.” 

The puppeteer said her leading lady doesn’t always take the road most travelled, but Georgina is willing to pay the high price for her independence.  

“Beneath the endless sky of the wind-swept prairies, the story of Georgina Mae unfolds, revealing a life of complex emotions, unbridled joy and heart-braking sorrow – the right stuff for an unforgettable tale,” concluded the story synopsis.  

Dawn has been a Springbank resident for 30 years and has been dabbling in puppetry for approximately two decades. Her current project has been in the works since last spring, and Dawn added the puppets have been in construction for the past eight months.  

“Next week we are taking [the show] to the workshop stage of the creation process,” she said. “This is where we set up a mock stage and see if our show translates well in real life.” 

The puppeteer said the cast will be testing out the puppets to see if they work well and if the storyline of Georgina Mae translates well on stage. All the artists, creators, and actors are invited for the creative session, taking place from Dec. 2 to 6 at the Springbank Heritage Club.  

According to Dawn, the project has received funding from Canada Council, to support the build of the puppet show. 

“It takes quite a long time to build all the puppets, depending on the complexity of the show,” Dawn said. 

She added the cast members are currently coming together to workshop the production – the step before official rehearsals get underway.  

“We’re going to see how all these new ideas are going to stand up, when we start putting them up, we call it putting it up on its feet,” she said.  

“When you’re doing a piece of theatre, you’ve got a script and you just get on with it, but this is new work, so we want to see how it actually reads to the audience.” 

Also involved in the production are Juno-nominated musician Jolene Higgins “Little Miss Higgins,” who co-created and is to narrate the production; and Kyla Read, who is a director and co-creator of the production.  

“The three of us got together last April and literally sat at the table for four days straight and came up with the concept of the show, which we’re really excited about,” Dawn said.  

She added once the show is up-and-running, she’d like to get it on stage touring to local festivals across the country, including the Calgary-based Festival of Animated Objects. 

Additional members of the production team include Stephanie Elgersma, puppeteer and puppet maker; and Jocelyn Mah, professional dancer, puppet maker, and puppeteer. Artists Kathryn Smith and Nicole Logan also supported the production with set design.

According to Dawn, adult puppetry is an unusual art form in North America, though it is very common in Europe. 

“In North America, we know puppetry is the Muppets, and children’s shows, but to see adult puppetry was mind-blowing to me,” she said of her introduction to the art form.  

The former registered nurse said she felt a big drive to be creative and had an interest in both sculpting and theatre. She said she started volunteering for a local puppetry festival and forged relationships with puppeteers from across Canada.  

“It was a really big eye opener for me. I started with volunteering and then I thought I wanted to get more involved,” Dawn said.  

The artist began to participate in puppetry workshops which slowly morphed into a practice of her own guided by books, mentors, classes, and videos. Thereafter, she and her husband built a studio beside their house in Springbank where they continue to work, and where she is building the show now.  

“It’s been about 20 years of growth to get to where I am today. It’s an amazing community that I stumbled upon, and you build this network of puppeteers around the world,” she said.  

She added she has a personal mission to educate people on the artform and to help it catch steam in North America.  

“Puppetry is kind of a weird little art form which involves everything from storytelling to fine arts and it’s all consuming,” she said.  

With regards to the upcoming production, Dawn promises the subject of the show and its setting in the heart of the Prairies will draw and captivate western audiences.

“The prairies are often a little neglected. It’s the big forests and the mountains and the oceans – they have all this magic, but there’s a lot of heart in the prairie,” she stated.  

She added the characters on the show are all mature prairie women who have lived in the region for their whole adult lives. 

“That was the real root for us. We wanted it to be a real prairie story. We wanted it also to be a story that embodies women that don’t follow the regular paths,” Dawn said of the show’s inspiration.  

She added the storyline takes place in a time period when women were starting to reach out for more opportunities, and to move away from the traditional paths prescribed to them. “That’s also what we wanted to focus on, which I think a lot of people are really interested in – there's history there,” she said.  

“It’s really a story of the prairies. It’s the story of a woman and her path that she chooses to become who she ends up being – who is Georgina Mae?” 

Carmen Cundy

About the Author: Carmen Cundy

Carmen Cundy joined the Airdrie Today team in March 2021.
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