Solving the Toto puzzle

Puppetry brings Dorothy's dog, flying monkeys to life


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Nicholas Mahon’s work as a puppet and theatrical designer has taken him everywhere, from Sesame Street to the 2018 Winter Olympics Opening Ceremony in Pyeongchang, South Korea.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 30/04/2019 (1489 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Nicholas Mahon’s work as a puppet and theatrical designer has taken him everywhere, from Sesame Street to the 2018 Winter Olympics Opening Ceremony in Pyeongchang, South Korea.

So, when the yellow brick road led him to the world of ballet, the Canadian-born, Emmy-nominated designer jumped at the opportunity to create almost 20 puppets for Septime Webre’s The Wizard of Oz.

Puppetry is “absolutely” unusual in ballet, Mahon says. A co-production between the Kansas City Ballet, Colorado Ballet and the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, Webre’s ballet retelling of the Frank L. Baum classic makes its Canadian première in Winnipeg this week.

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Toto and the flying monkeys just before they are packed up to be transported to the Centennial Concert Hall for the RWB production of The Wizard of Oz which will be running May 1-5.

“I think that was something Kansas City and Winnipeg and Denver were really excited about, bringing something very different to ballet,” says Mahon over the phone from his home in upstate New York. “To incorporate puppetry seemed like an exciting fit, especially for this piece.

“You want to use puppetry only when you need to. You don’t want to use it as a gimmick. I usually tell people that if they can solve a problem without puppets, they should do that. But this is a natural fit.”

Indeed, puppets proved critical in the execution of some of The Wizard of Oz’s more surrealistic moments. Take the harrowing flying monkeys scene, for example. Three sizes of puppets were created to make a “field of monkeys,” with larger ones in the foreground and smaller ones in the distance.

“You really get a sense of perspective, that there’s this giant cloud of these monkeys,” Mahon says. The physical monkeys, combined with all the other production elements, including music and projections, make for a tense scene that Mahon promises will leave audience members on the edge of their seats. “I’m very proud of how (the puppets) integrated into that scene,” he says.

A puppet is an obvious solution for Dorothy’s little dog, too. Casting an actual dog as Toto would have be distracting as well as impractical — having a wiggly pup underfoot of the corps de ballet seems like a sprained ankle waiting to happen. But an inanimate prop dog wasn’t ideal, either.

“Toto is a very important character for Dorothy,” Mahon says. “We really want to believe their connection. Toto is all she has in this strange world. He’s her anchor and her link back to home and who she is. Having that emotional connection resonate and read for the audience is important.”

And so, Mahon created a naturalistic puppet with expressive, animatronic facial features. Creating a believable-looking dog is only one part of the equation, however. For the dog to become Toto, the show needs a finely attuned puppeteer.

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Cameron Fraser-Monroe is an RWB aspirant who control Toto’s moves.

“They need to be sensitive to the movements and coax out the personality of the puppet and lend their soul to the puppet,” Mahon says.

“We also took an approach where we acknowledge the puppeteer. We didn’t put them in a ninja suit; we have them be an echo of the puppet’s character. So when we look at the performer, they aren’t just a person holding a puppet. They are also Toto. In the scene, you could take away the puppet, and he’d still be Toto. They are extensions of each other.”

For the show’s run, RWB aspirant Cameron Fraser-Monroe has been tasked with bringing the Toto to life.

“It’s been challenging and quite self-directed,” he says. Fraser-Monroe doesn’t have formal choreography to work with, per se, so he’s been able to figure out how Toto might react to someone, or how he’d kiss Dorothy’s face. “It’s been fun to have that freedom we don’t always get as professional dancers,” he says.

Toto has a big personality for a little dog. “He’s come out as very adventurous and not really afraid of anything, which can be a little worrying when the Wicked Witch is about,” Fraser-Monroe says with a laugh. “He’s very loving. He’s quick to make friends. I wouldn’t say my personality is Toto’s — I wouldn’t say I’m adventurous — so getting out there and making him that has been really fun.”

For Mahon, putting his unique fingerprints on a time-honoured classic such as The Wizard of Oz was a thrill.

“It’s such a part of the DNA of western culture, so it’s exciting to be able to take part in the tradition,” he says. “It can also be a little intimidating to work with something that is so iconic. You walk that fine line between giving respect and homage to what it was and also understanding that this is a new thing and it has to translate into our world.

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Cameron Fraser-Monroe an RWB Aspirant with Toto just before it is packed up to be transported to the Centennial Concert Hall for the RWB production of The Wizard of Oz.

“Creating the hybrid of those two was fun. I think we struck a cool balance between playing the hits and giving people what they want to see, and doing it in a way that served our story and put a funky kind of twist on it.”

Twitter: @JenZoratti

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Jen Zoratti

Jen Zoratti

Jen Zoratti is a Winnipeg Free Press columnist and author of the newsletter, NEXT, a weekly look towards a post-pandemic future.

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