Saturday, December 25, 2010

Christmas Production

The Neffs, about to perform...

George and Ann Neff have been sharing the Christmas spirit in a very unique way over the past day or so on Facebook.  I still can't believe I didn't figure it out right away!  Ann was hinting a couple of times...

"They are almost to Bethlehem now, to be counted. May YOUR travels in preparation for the holiday be safe and blessed.", and
"They made it to the manger. The Babe is born! Hope you all are having a most Merry and Blessed Christmas. Ann (and George ) Neff"
As Ann posted the updates, I wasn't noticing at the time, but I'm thinking now that her Facebook profile icon was changing to different scenes from their "Nativity" toy theatre play.  They were once again putting it on this Christmas season, and from the series of photos from it that Ann posted today, it looks like an amazing production. 

The first angel tells the shepherds, "Be not afraid!"
[Click to enlarge]
I asked Ann if I could share about it here, and she kindly said yes.  In Ann's words, she describes it as "...The Neff's toy theatre production of The Nativity, as conceived and drawn by Stephen Langdale for A Service of Lessons and Carols. Watercolour, stage and lighting by the Neffs." (All Photos used here are from a 2008 production of this play...)
Shepherds come to the manger to adore the Baby Jesus...
[Click to enlarge]

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Library Display

Earlier this year I changed my whole life.  Part of that change involved resigning my job of 23 years, moving to another state, and getting another job in an entirely new field - as a librarian.

Reddington proscenium at left,
some character sheets at right,
& a Dover "Peter Rabbit" below
At the small-town library I work at, they have a glass display case.  For the holiday season, I decided to put up a modest display of toy theatre and puppet-related items from my personal collection.  While I would have loved to put up my entire Reddington toy theatre, the display case isn't deep enough to accommodate it.  What to do?  I removed the proscenium from the front of the theatre to bring it alone, along with a schematic of what a wooden toy theatre looks like to hang behind it, for context.

I also brought along both plain and colored character sheets, as well as a few exhibition catalogues, and books about toy theatre history.

It's been fun answering questions about toy theatre, from library patrons!

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Exhibitions & Workshops

Cotsen Children's Library exhibition
focuses on Aladdin (Webb & Skelt)
Over the weekend, I became aware of another ongoing exhibition featuring toy theatre, and some workshops for another I wrote about before...

The Cotsen Children's Library's exhibit (through March 15, 2011), "Making the Toy Theatre", concentrates on one production ("Aladdin") from start to finish.  Besides examples of scenes, characters and even scripts, on view will also be "...copper and stereotype printing plates, lithographic stones, metal dyes, and other tools of the toy theatre trade."

Publisher: J.S. Schreiber
 Prozenium mit
, sheet number 300
Scenery for
 Kriegerzelt (War Tent)
Figures for
Germany, ca. 1901
Facsimile/ original lithograph
Collection of Eric G. Bernard
Ongoing is "A Child's View:  19th-Century Paper Theatrers" at the Bruce Museum (through January 30, 2011), showcasing approximately 35 colorful, antique paper theaters plus related materials from the personal collection of Eric G. Bernard of New York City.

Coming up as part of this exhibition is “Paper Theaters School Vacation Workshops,” December 28 through 30, 2010, from 10:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m., suitable for students in grades 1-3 of all abilities.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Memoirs of a Muse

The Muse discovers her powerful relationship with mankind...
I received a wonderful surprise in the mail the other day.  I opened our rural delivery mailbox to find a fat envelope addressed to me.  I looked at the return address and was delighted to see it was from my old friend Gail.  I thought to myself, "Hmmm, I wonder what Gail has sent me?!"  I was excited to find out...

The contents of the envelope turned out to be two volumes of a planned trilogy, a 'graphic novel' of sorts entitled "Memoirs of a Muse".  I sat down later and devoured them both, then of course started to wonder where the inspiration for the books (ironically about that very subject of inspiration, aka the 'Muse') came from.  I went to the source...

Gail shared that "...I was reading a book called The Story of Painting, where the author connected each artist to the next and I thougtht it's like the muse is a groupie that goes from one star to the next. Then I was walking around at work and thought what would be the beginning of the muse's story?"

The first volume follows the beginnings of the Muse's relationship with mankind through several characters including Enoch and Moombi.

In the second volume, the Muse meets up with General Lakhdunlim, King of Mari, and thus later his bride - Ariadne, a "Minoan princess from the Knossos palace on the Island of Crete." Theirs was an unhappy marriage, but lucky for her, she had an opportunity to start a new life.  It came with a price, out of which she created a memorial in a form of a statue.  In turn, the statue came to represent a legend of the real woman it was once inspired by, and thus a cult was born.  Eventually the Muse moved on to a young potter Nashuja.

Nashuja and the Muse end up on a journey to Egypt, and we are left with a cliffhanger - the Muse thinks she might be able to get back in touch with her first artist, Enoch, because she has heard the Egyptians had special knowledge of the afterlife.  But that will be another story, in Volume III.  I look forward to it!

Friday, December 10, 2010

Toy Theatre Influence: Nutcracker

The Harlequin, from the NYBT's Nutcracker
Productions of the Nutcracker abound during the Christmas season. One particular annual production in New York caught my eye because of the heavy influence of toy theatre in its conception and design over 25 years ago that stays with it to this day.

I contacted the man behind the design, Keith Michael, and he was kind enough to share this article he wrote about it...
Choreographer and Scenic Designer Keith Michael created the Toy Theater-inspired production of The Nutcracker for New York Theatre Ballet in 1985. Led by serendipitous practical and aesthetic considerations, Toy Theater was the perfect metaphor for this re-imagining of the classic holiday ballet fantasy tale. New York Theatre Ballet, founded by Artistic Director Diana Byer, is an acclaimed chamber ballet company which maintains its prominence through meticulously detailed dance creations on a personal scale. The Nutcracker ballet is traditionally a grandiose endeavor often deliciously festooned with spectacular scenic effects and sometimes literally hundreds of performers onstage. NYTB and Keith Michael’s vision for a more intimate tale focuses attention on the story of the heroine Clara’s wonderful adventure within an equally delectable visual environment.

The Company’s frequent performances in smaller theaters, without the luxury of fly-space for multiple drops or generous offstage space for rolling scenery, made the logic of Toy Theater with the potential for grand opera house-scale production values “on a tabletop” was ideal!

Mr. Michael’s background as a teenage puppeteer, touring all through high school with his own 35-marionette version of The Nutcracker, made the leap to envisioning a candy box ballet version completely a natural.

The primary Toy Theater scenic element of the NYTB design is a back-of-the-stage Victorian-detailed proscenium arch within which backdrops are hung and revealed with the high “technology” equivalent of pulling a living room drape! Four stages of Clara’s journey - A “Nutcracker” act curtain, The Stahlbaum Drawing Room, The Snow Forest, and The Land of Sweets - are each evoked with a separate painted drop. Additional rolling scenic elements are a Doll House, a Window Unit, a Sleigh, decorative Land of Sweets Heraldry Banners and, of course, (what could be better?) an Ice Cream Throne.

In particular, Uncle Drosselmeyer’s Doll House, which is also the magical revelatory cabinet/stage for the Nutcracker doll, further enhances the playfulness of scale, by containing a miniaturization of the Drawing Room Scene complete with a miniature proscenium arch frame (more in the scale of a true Toy Theater) mimicking the “large” proscenium arch onstage immediately behind it.

Further Toy Theater references include Clara’s “real world” with her parents illustrated, a la the MGM The Wizard of Oz, in penny-plain black-and-white, and as Clara is transported to her own “Oz”, the stage is transformed to vibrant tupence-coloured. The rolling scenic units are relatively small and self-contained, and travel onstage primarily only right and left like Toy Theater props or characters manipulated through slots in the floor. And, indeed, all smaller hand props are likewise created with a “flat” design, even the Nutcracker doll, to emphasize the paper cut-out aesthetic of Toy Theater. The dancing, however, is fully three-dimensional, often bursting from the stage space.

The elaborate yet cozy stage pictures would not be complete without the masterful costume designs of Sylvia Taalsohn Nolan, who uses color and line as a story-telling sixth sense, and the recent re-imaginings of the backdrop paintings by Gillian Bradshaw-Smith add lusciousness to all of the visual sweetmeats.

Finally, it is the exuberance, insight and humor of the dancing in The Nutcracker which brings Victorian-inspired tableaus and grandeur to this magnified miniature Toy Theater world – still a delight to audiences after 26 years!
Clara & Prince, from the NYBT's Nutcracker

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Toy Theatre in Reverse

Toy Theatre grew out of live theatre. But several productions of live theatre in recent years - including a new one now in production, seen in the video above - have been influenced by toy theatre.

Toy Theatre-inspired sets surround the play's live actors and puppets...
The production design has used toy theatre as the main inspiration for the play's sets. "I love the simplicity," says Jessica [Grindstaff] (of Phantom Limb, the set designer). "In a way, the set is a puppet too, a giant puppet."

To read more about the people behind this production, go here...

Seen behind the performers is another Toy Theatre-inspired backdrop...

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Technology Provides Toy Theatre Innovation

Exciting news - An entrepreneurial spirit [who I have since found out is none other than Benjamin Pollock's Toyshop] has developed an iPad app with which you can create - and perform - a toy theatre production.  I'm excited because I was thinking even I could maybe pull off a production using this...!  The release date is December 26th which makes it unfortunately NOT available in time for Christmas, but that's OK.

The application was recently mentioned on the toy theatre group, and I asked the person [the developer of the program itself] who posted if it would also be available to people who don't own an iPad or other such small device, but would like to use the application on a desktop or laptop.  The developer's response was...
...there is a good chance that app would be available for download on a computer but the software we use only puts out iPhone, iPad and mac version (in saying that, there is a way we can put it on the web as well, which we are investigating more...)
I sincerely hope they will find a way to bring it to a wider audience.  For various reasons, there are many of us who cannot use iPad or iPhone devices.

In the meantime, I can hardly wait to see more - it looks like a LOT of fun to play with - it could be used for brainstorming, education/learning, practicing - who knows what else?!