Brad Brackenridge picks up the limp figure draped over a chair in the corner and fiddles around with it for a moment. The figure suddenly straightens up and looks me right in the eye with an intense stare. What was once a discarded puppet has become the stern and regal Sir James Franklin of the Franklin Expedition. “You always have to be aware of where the eye line is,” says Brad, as he makes Sir Franklin point and move. “If you want them to come to life, they need to be looking at you. You want to make sure it’s both eyes, because if the puppet is talking at you, but looking somewhere else, it takes you out of the performance. There’s nothing worse than a dead puppet. It’s like bad acting. It takes you out of it.”
We’ve come to visit Brad at his workspace in the back studios of Peterborough’s Artspace during the final weeks of his year-long residency. Although his time in the space is quickly coming to an end, the rooms are still scattered with dozens of creations and materials – foam, wood, paper, tubing, rope and other substances making up a collection of puppets of all shapes, sizes and functions.
One of Peterborough’s most celebrated and respected performers, Brad Brackenridge has been flexing his creative muscles in the city’s vibrant arts scene for thirty years. From comedies and dramas to character parts and one man shows, Brad is versatile and professional, making him a favourite of directors and audiences alike. In fact, in my previous life as a theatrical reviewer, Brad was the star of the first show that I wrote about, and throughout my years of immersion in local theatre he remained one of my very favorite performers. I knew if Brad Brackenridge was involved in the show, it was probably going to be worth seeing.
But beyond acting, Brad has proved himself to be a gifted set builder, prop designer and, most importantly, puppet creator and performer. Via his own puppet company, The Nervous System, Brad has created productions that have been haunting, moving and cerebral, challenging the local audiences’ perceptions of what puppetry is and how it can be used as an art form.
Despite his reputation as a reliable and gifted performer, Brad didn’t start in the arts at an early age like most professional performers. Instead, Brad fell headlong into it while working in the unlikely world of butchering. “Theatre wasn’t something I did in high school,” Brad tells. “I goofed around after school, and I was a butcher at Franz’s Meat Market for seven years. I did butchering until about twenty-seven and in the last year a good friend, Phil Oakley, conned me into going to this ten-week improv class with Rob Winslow.”
Actor, playwright and director Rob Winslow is a local institution in the Kawarthas, and the founder of the nationally revered 4th Line Theatre in Millbrook, Ontario. However, when Brad started studying under Rob, 4th Line Theatre was just an idea about to take off, and Brad was in line to ride along with it. “So, I went to the improv class and at the end of it Rob said, ‘We’re doing this little play at this tiny little theatre called The Union,’” Brad continues. “Well, I didn’t know what I thought about that. I enjoyed doing the workshop, but I didn’t know who the people were. Phil said, ‘Come on. Let’s do it’ but three rehearsals in, Phil had to quit and I just stayed. For a year I did that and the butcher shop, but then I made the decision that I was going to go into the theatre. Around this time Rob had begun production of The Cavan Blazers at the Winslow Farm. It was an experiment at the time, but when the CBC discovered the show and reported on it, it became a runaway hit.”
Cavan Blazers made its debut in 1992, launching Rob Winslow to national fame, and Brad as a local favourite on the stage. But as he continued in the arts, his creativity continued in other directions, which led to a new opportunity to study puppetry. “Growing up I always had dolls, and GI Joes and little figures, but I never thought much about working with puppets because I thought it was mostly kids’ stuff – especially when I was younger,” Brad admits. “But at some point, I sat down with a very generous friend of mine — I don’t want to mention who that was — but we were into our cups. I said, ‘Banff has a puppet intensive workshop. It’s three weeks and everything in. All puppets puppets puppets.’ Well, she said, ‘Just put your name in.’ I said, ‘Well, I don’t have the money. It cost two grand plus room and board.’ She said, ‘You call and put your rename on the waiting list, and if you get in, I’ll pay for it.’ Well, I called her a month later and said ‘Hey, do you remember the night that we were hanging out and I told you about the puppets?’ It was a very generous gift, and I don’t know what my life would be without it. I might still be performing, but I doubt I’d be involved with puppets.”
“I think most people who aren’t overly familiar with puppets automatically assume I work with kids’ puppets,” says Brad. “I mean I’ve fiddled around with kids’ puppets, but most of the things I do are for adults. They might think I’m into soft puppets, or Muppets, because there is such a strong association with that kind of puppetry to most North Americans. But that’s slowly changing. With social media, puppetry has exploded, and lots of people are getting their work on-line.”
“But if you go to Europe, it’s an entirely different story,” Brad continues. “Puppetry is huge. It’s so tied to their culture. Kids and families go to puppet shows all the time there. Most countries have anywhere between thirty to fifty puppet companies, depending on the size of their country. Russia is really huge, Poland is massive. The only place that translates from Europe in North America is Quebec, because they are tied to Europe more than anywhere in North America. In Quebec, there is probably over a hundred puppet companies. Quebec has a number of puppet festivals. I go to a small one in Montreal every year. It’s five days during the March Break and you get to meet other puppet people, and it’s great.”
Brad’s first puppet performance when he returned from the workshop featured the intense puppet he greeted me with, and was a telling of the Franklin Expedition. “Prior going to Banff, I found this book of poems by Gwendolyn MacEwen, who is a Canadian poet, and there was a story in there about the Franklin Expedition through the Northwest Passage,” Brad tells. “I really dug it, and it was pretty short, and it was written as four characters. I was fascinated with it, so when I went to Banff, and got my hands into puppets, I came back, and I knew I wanted to make a show from this book of poems. I wasn’t sure how I was going to do it, but I started envisioning it and I ended up doing it. I knew it had to be outdoors, and part of it was going to be in the water. It was ridiculous and involved. I knew I didn’t want to make small puppets, so I made these massive ones.”
Throughout his workshop Brad shows us the different creations that he made for three different adaptations of the Franklin Expedition show, along with other creations from his following shows. In 2012 Brad, when he began The Nervous System, I began to notice Brad’s puppetry skills in a number of creative productions, starting in 2016 with a clever production based on a short story by the late Bernie Martin, The Moment of My Death, which was a collaboration between he and writer/performer Kate Story for a month-long celebration of Bernie’s work throughout different venues in Peterborough. Brad and Kate teamed up a year later to combine puppetry and human performance in Kate’s brilliant original dystopian tale, Festivus Ratus Ratus 2035. Collaborations with local musicians and artists continued in 2018’s haunting Komachi on the Shrine, and most recently in a haunting and intimate production Vertrep that put Brad and his creation in an intimate experience with his audience.
Although Brad is the heart of The Nervous System, he brings in other colleagues and performers to help him create the productions, and to find people whose expertise in design may go beyond his own. Brad has also acted as a mentor to people looking to experiment in the art of puppetry. The result is a collaborative experience of creativity and storytelling. “The Nervous System is primarily me, and I invite other people to collaborate depending on what the show is,” Brad states. “For instance, I don’t sew, so any clothes are done by somebody else. I want a certain level of something to do something good. I’ve had all sorts of people who have worked with me.”
“As years go on, you weed out in things you don’t want to get involved with anymore. With puppets, I’m more in control of it. It speaks to my design sense. I have more control and I can see it. It’s not that I have to control everything, but you get to make the decisions. The more control, it speaks to the design of it.”
Posted on a wall near a darkened workroom, Brad has note cards with different show ideas and subjects. “These papers are my ideas and my projects,” Brad tells me, pointing at the cards. “Some of them are being created, and some of them are just half started. I just want it to be clear and have it out there so when I’m bored, I can do something. So, anytime an idea comes to me I write it down and put it up there.”
It’s a collection of fascinating ideas that tickled my obscure culture sensibilities, but while I’m tempted to reveal what they are, I am also reluctant because they are shards of brilliance still in development from Brad’s mind, and so good that I’d fear the ideas might be stolen before Brad brings any of them to fruition. But what they show me bodes well for projects to come.
“One of the things that keeps drawing me to puppets is that the sky is the limit in terms of your imagination,” Brad says. “You go to see a regular theatrical show and, for whatever reason, the acting’s not great and it can take you out of the show. Generally you are limited to what you can do. But with puppets you can do anything. You can have them flying the whole time. You can have different sizes of puppets. You can play with scale. You can have a little puppet come out, and then he goes away, and then all of a sudden you see just his face. It’s like film in a way, where you are seeing him in close up. I think people, once they get it, , they settle in, and they just believe in the story you are creating. You’re not limited.”
PHOTO GALLERY BY JESSICA SCOTT