As a lead-up to its annual Vancouver International Puppet Festival in October, organizers will showcase local talent in their upcoming Homegrown Series.
In collaboration with the Granville Island Cultural Society, the Homegrown Series includes the family-friendly A Birdy Told Me So from ventriloquist Kellie Haines, and the adults-only, The Heart On Cabaret.
Headlining the Homegrown Series is a co-presentation of Monster Theatre’s award-winning Who Killed Gertrude Crump? in which Agatha Christie returns from the dead to perform a one-woman haunted house murder mystery puppet show.
In this Q&A with writer and director, Ryan Gladstone, and performer Tara Travis, we find out more about the show which finally arrives in Vancouver after being on tour.
This interview has been edited.
Is this show like The Wives of Henry 8? Are we in for more Tara Travis multi- characters and lightning fast comedy?
Travis: With my human body, I only play one character in this show, the ghost of Agatha Christie who has come back to share a very important story. However, she decides to tell it with puppets so, as Agatha, I animate and voice all the characters. So, there’s plenty of rapid fire shape shifting, but it’s limited to my voice, and grabbing the right puppet at the right time. Re-learning it makes my brain hurt, but it’s worth it.
As for the comedy aspect, this show has some cartoonish scale characterization, to be sure, but it’s not as laugh-a-minute as it is clue-a minute. It’s a real murder mystery, with laughs, certainly, but much of the fun comes from paying attention and trying to deduce Who Killed Gertrude Crump?
What is been the most fun in doing this show?
Travis: The multiple puppet scenes are just ridiculous, when virtually every character is on stage at once and I’m jumping back and forth. It’s also delicious to hear the little gasps and ohs as the audience puts pieces of the puzzle together.
Since you have been on the road with it, are there any changes for this version?
Travis: The first version in 2014 was built on a Fringe budget. It was impressive for what it was, but we never really got to realize our complete dream.
This version, thanks to the generous support of the BC Arts Council, and a residency in 2016 thanks to The Cultch, has gorgeous new puppets and a magical set built by Dusty Hagerud, and a few treats and visual surprises. The story is the same, with a few narrative tweaks for deeper audience engagement.
It’s taken us a while to finally get the new version on stage, and we’re so excited.
What has been the audience reaction on the road?
Travis: Our premiere in Ottawa in 2014 was embarrassingly bad. We spent that festival fixing things and pulling out our hair. By the next city, Toronto, although the puppets and set were held together with glue and a prayer, we were getting rave reviews and great feedback. By Edmonton, there were folks who came to see the show multiple times to try and catch all the clues they missed the first time!
Generally, I found that maybe ten percent or less of the audience saw the end coming, and most people are shocked, which is fun. Ryan has written an amazing rollercoaster of a mystery.
You and Tara have collaborated a lot, what is it like working with her?
Gladstone: It’s amazing. When you work with someone so often you develop a shorthand, where we both understand what the other is talking about.
Even though we have our shorthand, Who Killed Gertrude Crump? is a different beast requiring both of us to be discovering and exploring and problem-solving.
I’d say my favourite two qualities Tara consistently brings to the table are hard-work and delivery. I’ve set her up with some of the biggest challenges and Gertrude is no different. Her ability to execute and deliver always amazes me. Once all the rehearsing and preparations are done I always have faith and confidence that she can deliver all that work for the audience.
You went back to school a short time ago. Why, and has it come into play with this production?
Gladstone: In this business, you’re never finished learning. The way my career has gone, working almost exclusively for my own company, I sometimes don’t get exposed to new ideas and practices as often as I would like. My experience at UBC was excellent and I learned a ton. People have asked me before why I got my MFA and I always just say, to become a better artist.
What do you want the audience experience to be?
Gladstone: When we first did this play back in 2014, I had an epiphany, and realized that a mystery play is a completely unique beast.
In a comedy, we can hear the exchange between performers and audience; if they laugh we know it’s working. In a drama, you can feel the energy passing between viewers and performers. In a mystery, the currency of audience exchange comes in the clues. Either the audience is taking them and actively trying to solve the mystery, or they are passive observers.
So, we have tried our best to engage the audience’s inner detective, to force them to constantly be on the lookout for clues – and there are a lot of them – to ask themselves one question: who killed Gertrude Crump?
The Homegrown Series plays Performance Works on Granville Island, February 13-18. Visit https://vipuppetfest.com for tickets and information.