UNIMA Atlantic Journal – December 2015 – January 2016

In this issue:

  • Profile: Pia Banzhaf
  • Update: Sara Tilley
  • Update: Tara Manuel
  • Update: Mermaid Theatre of Nova Scotia
  • UNIMA Canada postcard contest

Profile – Pia Banzhaf

by Tara Manuel – Shadowy Souls
Regional Director, Newfoundland & Labrador ACPA/AMCA 

After joining the Newfoundland Puppet Collective Facebook group last year, I soon noticed a lot of interesting puppetry-related posts by Pia Banzhaf. Who is this mysterious puppetry enthusiast, I wondered? And how did she come to reside on this windswept island? Banzhaf is not a common NL name, and as Pia has surely discovered by now, Newfoundlanders want to know who your people are, where you came from, and what you are doing here. So, I was very pleased when she readily agreed to share a bit about her background in puppetry with me. Pia was born to a Vietnamese mother and German father in Germany, and came to Newfoundland in 2004 after her husband started a position at Memorial University of Newfoundland. She lives in St. John’s and is working to complete her Ph.D. in Cultural Studies at Queen’s University. As part of her doctorate, she is creating the Poetics of Puppetry which emphasizes the cognitive psychology and neuroscience of perception of animate and inanimate objects.

 TM: What is your background in puppetry?

PB: My background has been foremost as a spectator. From a young age live puppetry performances were part of the culture I grew up in and then later there were marionette shows on TV as well. As I am currently developing a cognitive aesthetics of puppetry art for my PhD research project I am concurrently studying the practice of puppetry arts. In Prague, I learned to carve a marionette in the Czech tradition with Mirek Trejtnar of Puppets in Prague; I learned from generous teachers like the folks of the Old Trout Puppet Workshop at the New England Puppetry Intensive, and from marionettiste Frank Soehnle. Neville Tranter and his puppet Zeno taught me a lot and studying with shadow/light theatre master Norbert Goetz was eye-opening to the possibilities of contemporary shadow theatre and live light painting.

 TM: Can you tell us a bit about your research as it relates to puppetry?

PB: My research is multi-faceted. One angle I am taking is the investigation of the perception of puppetry from the standpoint of the spectator. I am asking questions like: Why does a spectator grant agency to an inanimate object? When does this happen? When does the projection not work? I am suggesting turning to cognitive psychology and neuroscience to explore these questions. Animacy perception has been an ongoing interest in developmental psychology and recently has come to the fore as well in robotics. So, I am harnessing the research that is being done in these areas and apply it to puppetry. It is my contention that understanding the cognitive underpinnings will offer puppetry artists the opportunity to tap into these insights and create stronger work that respects the specific aesthetic properties inherent only in performances with puppets.

My hope is to some day participate in a trans-disciplinary cognitive neuroscience project that involves the investigation of perception of puppets as well.

(8) Illuminated Jack puppet

Illuminated “Jack” puppet.  Photo by Alick Tsui.

TM: Are you involved in any puppetry performance development here in NL? If so what?

PB: I am involved with the Newfoundland Puppet Collective, a group founded in St. John’s last year. Our first project was to develop a stronger narrative element for the fire show at the end of the Victoria Park Lantern Festival. We had the very good fortune of collaborating with wonderful story-tellers Andy Jones and Mary Fearon for the most hilarious Jack tale script ever and created gigantic lantern puppets to tell the story. This year we explored building techniques for articulated illuminated puppets and were very pleased with the small teaser we were able to put out. Next year we are going to develop the play further, adding more scenes from the play in the evening performance. We have workshops coming up in the spring with Brian Woltjen, a UK based Australian puppet builder and set-designer with a lot of experience with community projects and giant puppet builds. David Lane from the Old Trout Puppet Workshop will be joining us again for the performance workshop. David lane and Sara Tilley will be co-directing and the story-tellers will have constant input. Once fully realized, it will create a transformative experience for the audience. There is something truly serene and moving to see the illuminated puppets spring to life an tell a story..


TM: Are you a puppet builder and performer as well as having an academic interest in puppetry?

PB: I built quite a few puppets but these rarely had a chance to perform, but during my studies at Queen’s, I was able to attend a course entitled “Storytelling with Puppets” for which I developed a script based on my interpretation of the Kafka short story “The Judgement.” I built the main character as a marionette and we had several shadow puppets as well. My goal was to translate the literary devices Kafka used to produce the emotions the reader experiences when reading the short-story into a play that did not use language. This was a great experience and actually made me change my original research project and switch to the investigation of puppetry instead.

I performed with the ODD Puppet Collective, an Ontario-based group I am a member of. We wrote as script based on the Greek myth of the judgement of Paris and translated it into the context of the Midland Butter Tart Festival competition and needle-felted all the Bunraku-style puppets and built the stage in the shape of an old stove. I also did a very short piece at the OUF! in Montréal in the context of the fantastic UNIMA-Canada immersion project and of course built and performed with the Newfoundland Puppet Collective. I certainly still consider myself an emerging puppetry artist as my theory is more advanced than my manipulation and building skills, but I believe that the theoretical understanding I have achieved has helped me enormously with my practice. I have a strong interest in conceptualizing and directing, so I am looking for opportunities to learn wherever possible.


TM: What are your puppetry plans for the future?

PB: I am primarily interested in performances that are not language-based. Since the Kafka show I have been dreaming of a developing five Kafka short stories for an evening of Kafka and puppetry. That is something constantly in the back of my mind. But I always have a lot of ideas floating around. With my expanding tool-box there are many more ideas that I think I can explore via the medium of puppetry. Another project is a contemporary shadow/light play on the topic of evolution. But before I get to that I want to delve into the depths of live light painting. So in the meantime I am planning to tell the Grimm’s tale of “Yorinda and Yoringle” as a contemporary shadow theatre. In contrast to traditional shadow plays, in contemporary shadow theatre the figure is liberated from the screen and the puppeteer can be visible as well. I commissioned a Swedish artist to create the character silhouettes that will be combined with 3D objects and figures to tell the story with the help of a narrator and a soundscape.

Right now, however, I am in the intense writing phase of my dissertation and until that is finished, all of these projects are on hold and I am living the life of a hermit.

Many Thanks to Pia. You can view some more of Pia’s puppets here:



Update: Sara Tilley

Sara Tilley, member from St. John’s, was the recipient of a grant from the Canada Council for the Arts and the Newfoundland and Labrador Arts Council in order to travel to Europe for three months this past summer and fall.


Shadow, the kitten heroine.   Photo by Sara Tilley

The grants allowed Sara to undertake two mentorships of six weeks each – one in Pochinko clown with Ian Wallace in Sicily, and one with Darka Erdjeli in Maribor, Slovenia, on puppetry, focusing specifically on design and building as well as generating content for puppet performance. Under Darka’s mentorship, Sara learned about various styles of puppets being made and used today, watched a wide array of performances from Eastern Europe, and designed and built a show for one performer based on a Slovenian folk tale.


Mrs. Badger.  Photo by Sara Tilley

The piece takes place on a restaurant table set for one, and is designed to be performed in small spaces, like kitchens and cafes, for an intimate audience, and to pack into one carry-on bag, yet without any compromise to artistic integrity. Combining storytelling, object animation, and both tabletop and shadow puppetry, Hungry Little Shadow is currently in development. Sara hopes to premiere the work in 2016 in St. John’s, and to take it wherever it’s invited after that.

Update: Tara Manuel

Tara Manuel is a multi-disciplinary artist and puppeteer. She lives on the west coast of Newfoundland and works as a Behavioural Aide to adults with intellectual disabilities.

Tara is currently collaborating on a site specific puppetry performance with Parks Canada for the Iceberg Festival which takes place at the Northern tip of the island in June. She is also very happy to be one of two UNIMA members from Atlantic Canada to win the UNIMA Canada lottery to volunteer at the Castelliers Festival in Montreal in March. Tara recently started working full time as a Behavioural Aide to adults with intellectual disabilities, and is developing ways of implementing arts into the programming, beginning with explorations in shadow puppetry storytelling.

Update: Mermaid Theatre of Nova Scotia

Launched in 2008 and housed in the Mermaid Imperial Performing Arts Centre (MIPAC), The Mermaid Loft is an open concept space dedicated to the pursuit of puppet excellence and the advancement of puppetry as an art form. Mermaid offers cost-free residency opportunities to individual theatre artists, organizations, or companies with a desire to use objects as a medium for telling stories. By sharing its facilities, creative and administrative skills and other resources, Mermaid continues to invest in the development of emerging theatre artists and companies here in Atlantic Canada, across the country, and beyond.

IMG_20151203_154057Currently in The Mermaid Loft, two talented puppeteers are working on their latest project. Silent Protagonist is a Toronto-based theatre company that explores storytelling through a variety of theatrical forms, including mask, clown and puppetry. Silent Protagonist was  founded in 2013 with its inaugural production Or Be Eaten.

IMG_20151203_154249Two members of the company have spent the past week in the Mermaid Loft developing a new project: Cryptids of the Canadian Shield, a nature show featuring a cast of imaginary creatures conceived of and constructed by company founder and puppet builder Graeme Black Robinson.


A selection of “Cryptids” from the Silent Protagonist company.

Graeme was born in Scarborough, Ontario and is a graduate the George Brown Theatre School. He attended the Mermaid Institute of Performing Arts Animotion program in 2014. Since then he has toured Mermaid’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar and Other Eric Carle Favourites throughout the United States, Canada and China.

German-born, Alberta-raised, Toronto-based writer and performer Scott Garland is also a George Brown graduate. Best known for his work with Pea Green Theatre and their award-winning production of Three Men in a Boat, which had its international premiere in Mumbai last November, and continues to be performed across Canada.

Graeme wanted to add the following note: “Silent Protagonist is extremely grateful to Mermaid Theatre of Nova Scotia for donating their time, facilities and expertise. This kind of mentorship is invaluable to the growth of a rich national theatre culture and as an emerging company, we cannot begin to express our gratitude.”

UNIMA Canada Postcard Contest

UNIMA Canada is launching a contest to produce a series of puppety-themed postcards for their promotional use.  See the image below for details (or check out their blog at http://www.unimacanada.com/journal).  Contest is open to all UNIMA Canada members — submissions are due by Wednesday, December 9.


Finally, we’d like to congratulate Tara Manuel and Marie-Ève Cormier, who won the UNIMA-CANADA MMM Breakfast Lottery for members who live outside of Montreal.

Tara and Marie-Ève, along with a third UNIMA member from Montreal, will host the breakfasts for the Casteliers guests in exchange for a room, breakfast and a take-away lunch and a wonderful Casteliers Festival Passport !!! Bravo !  Details about the festival are online at http://festival.casteliers.ca/en/


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