Puppeteers take on Tim Burton

Lesley Leroux
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Theatre artists earn grant for ‘The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy’ and Other Stories

Theatre graduates Samuel Bowen and Kayla Young have earned a Newfoundland and Labrador Arts Council grant for their puppetry adaptation of Tim Burton’s “The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy and Other Stories.”

The one-act play is in development over the summer, with performances expected in the province and at fringe festivals across Canada.

“The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy and Other Stories” is a collection of 23 poems by writer-director-producer Tim Burton, creator of iconic film characters Edward Scissorhands and Beetlejuice.

Bowen and Young’s play will focus on a select few poems, including “Junk Girl,” “Robot Boy,” “Roy, the Toxic Boy,” “Mummy Boy,” and, of course, the title poem, “The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy.”

“We tended to focus on the longer ones with a bit more of a narrative structure,” says Bowen, director of the play.

“Some of them are only two to four lines long.”

“The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy and Other Stories” was published in 1997 and features original poems and illustrations about a bunch of misfits who try to find love and belonging in a grim, Burton-esque world.

“It’s a mix of comedy and tragedy,” Bowen says.

“It’s kind of a bit of both. It makes you laugh and it makes you feel sorry for the characters at the same time.”

Bowen had initially adapted the poetry collection for his directed studies assignment at Memorial University Grenfell campus.

“It originally started as a class project. We were encouraged to pursue it further by several of our teachers, and we went for it and applied for the grant and we got it,” he says.

“And here we are.”

After taking a puppetry workshop in Halifax earlier this year, Bowen was sure that puppets would be an effective visual format for the play.

But just as Tim Burton required the help of stop-motion artists for the 2005 feature film, “Corpse Bride,” Bowen would need to enlist the help of one of his classmates to create the puppets.

Young, a stagecraft student specializing in backstage work and building props, was eager to get involved in Bowen’s project when a professor told her about it.

“I asked if I could design Sam’s show, because it was such a big design,” she says.

“So I got to design all the puppets and the set and the lights. Both of us kind of combined our skills and I ended up working with him because of that.”

The play is in the process of expansion into a 40-minute play from its previous 25-minute version, which means Young has another 15 to 30 more puppets to make.

“I’ll be making the puppets over the summer and designing them,” she says.

“And other money will be going into putting off a small production — basically workshopping the show and paying an honorarium for the people who are going to be in the show.”

A few of Bowen and Young’s Grenfell classmates are currently involved in the production as puppeteers, while another graduate will play the piano.

“Sam actually went through the process of training the puppeteers because he’s been through the workshops,” Young says.

Puppeteers will work with a variety of Young’s creations, including hand puppets and “flat puppets,” which are pictures set on foam board.

“It’s really interesting because I have to kind of take Tim Burton’s look, in a way, and put my own spin on it,” Young says.

“I really like how his stuff is kind of macabre and grotesque, and it’s kind of playful at the same time. So it’s taking that and putting it in my own eyes.

The main type of puppet used in the play, however, will be the rod puppet: a character with dowels for arms and a Styrofoam ball for a head. The dowels have wire rods running through them to act out more complex motions, like hand movements.

Bowen says that when they started the project, most of their time was spent figuring out the aesthetic and the movement of the puppets.

“We worked it out as we went,” he says.

“A lot of it we kind of settled on character designs and thought of what the main action in each poem were. Then there was a lot of experimentation and kind of playing it by ear and fooling around with it.”

Playing it by ear has become a challenge for the theatre graduates this summer, with Bowen in Trinity and Young working in Fort McMurray, Alta.

Other classmates involved have also left for work, so with everyone dispersed, Bowen and Young will have to rely on technology to keep them connected.

“We’re going to be meeting over Skype to discuss things and show each other designs and ideas,” Young says.

“The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy” was scheduled for rehearsals this month, but that has now been pushed to September, once all the preliminary work is done and everyone is in one place.

“We check in as often as we can and kind of talk about our imaginings of the characters and see if we’re on the same page,” Bowen says.

“Then we kind of let (Young) go to, and I’ll check in at various points throughout the construction.”

Bowen hopes that they will be finished in time to have a production in St. John’s in the spring, and possibly in Corner Brook.

The two also plan to bring “The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy” to some fringe festivals next summer, most likely in Edmonton and Halifax.

As for now, Bowen and Young are excited to continue work on the production, as both are fans of the book that started it all.

“I enjoyed it. I liked how fluid it was,” Bowen says.

“It’s the first piece I’ve directed, so I think it was a little more forgiving than just a straight narrative from start to finish.”

Young says when they get the show up and running, audiences will have something unique to look forward to.

“It’s a little dark, but it makes a lighthearted, playful take on a dark topic. The story’s about tragic boys and girls, but it does it in a funny, lighthearted, entertaining type of way,” she says.

“Lots of movement, lots of fun.”



Organizations: Newfoundland and Labrador Arts Council, Memorial University Grenfell

Geographic location: Canada, Halifax, Trinity Fort McMurray Edmonton

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