New characters debut with Alberni’s Tin Pants

Mary Dwolinsky

Mary Dwolinsky

The Tin Pants Theatre Troupe has added a few new members to this year’s show at McLean Mill National Historic Site.

Colourful yet quiet, one female and two males sat silently on chairs along a wall at the Alberni Valley Museum as they were introduced to media, Tuesday afternoon.

Shy folk, the new characters did not want their names used, and they declined the opportunity to be interviewed. But Tin Pants artistic director Kerry Robertson assured that these special characters are  getting excited about performing for the crowds once the mill opens for the summer season later this month.

Robertson has developed a new spin on historical interpretation at the mill this year, museum director Jean McIntosh said.

“What it’s really doing is stretching our resources with the troupe,” McIntosh said.

Oh yes, one important point: the new characters are Folkmanis puppets.

Robertson is no stranger when it comes to incorporating puppets into stage shows. “I first fell in love with them when I was teaching and bought some for the (Alberni District Secondary School) drama department,” she said.

Robertson saw how effectively puppets can be used in New York, with the popular off-Broadway show Avenue Q, a Tony award-winning musical comedy that is half flesh, half felt.

“Puppets are so approachable,” she said.

There are three female and four male Folkmanis puppets, as well as a menagerie of animals that typically can be seen at McLean Mill: a raccoon, several rabbits, a squirrel, beaver, raven, and eagle.

“When you go on a tour of the site you’re going to meet these characters,” Robertson said.

The puppets will give the Tin Pants actors characters to engage with as they conduct tours of the site, McIntosh said. “There’s a conversation between the actor and the puppet. So it draws people in.”

The heritage commission was able to purchase the puppets using funds raised from Christmas wreath sales. Commission member Darlene Coulson created the program (and the wreaths) two years ago to generate revenue for heritage projects, and this year the money will pay for the puppets.

Mary Dwolinsky, who creates costumes for dance studios in town, created the puppets’ costumes. One of them is wearing  a mack jacket made from material found out at the mill. Another has caulk boots using authentic metal spikes from Dwolinsky’s husband’s caulk boots.

Other costume pieces were gleaned from clothing found at local secondhand stores. She also had to modify some of the puppets, as none of them looked like loggers when they arrived in their shipping package.

Any similarities between the puppets and any local logging characters is purely coincidental, she said with a smile.

“This has been a dream of mine for quite awhile,” Robertson said. The puppets can also be used in interpretive programming at the museum, giving them dual purpose, she added.

This year’s show at the mill will move away from the traditional song and dance revue and toward spoken word, “to get into some good old storytelling,” Robertson said.

The show, Timber Talk, will have some singing, and someone has donated a washtub to make a “gutbucket” or stringed washtub bass for some old-fashioned jug band-influenced entertainment. Greg Falls from the Alberni District Secondary School music department has also loaned Robertson some musical instruments and she’s hoping to get summer audiences involved in the percussion end of the performance.

Robertson and the rest of the troupe are developing characters for the new puppets. Former cast member Mariee Devereux held a workshop with them last weekend. She has some experience with puppetry in her role with Parks Canada’s travelling play.

Entertainer Rick Scott, who will be at McLean Mill on Saturday for a show, has been hired through the museum to do a workshop with Tin Pants all day on Sunday, Robertson said. He will help them with their scriptwriting, while another former troupe member, Myra Wright, who now has a PhD in English, will assist with the writing.

“The troupe is fabulous,” Robertson said, adding that the new members have been interviewing people connected with McLean Mill to glean information and characteristics for the upcoming show.

While they haven’t been introduced to the public yet, Robertson assures that they are indeed human.

editor@albernivalleynews.com