Nfld. & Labrador

Pivoting a play to an online puppet show amid a pandemic

Last summer, The Tales of Dwipa drew people to St. John's parks. Just like many other things, COVID-19 changed that.

The Tales of Dwipa, a series of short plays, were performed last summer in St. John's parks

The Tales of Dwipa moved from performances in parks to online, amid COVID-19 restrictions. (Vaida V. Nairn)

This year, three actors were supposed to bring Prajwala Dixit's The Tales of Dwipa to life in St. John's parks—just like they did last summer. But when the pandemic hit, those plans had to change.

"We thought, 'OK, maybe we can pivot this — that beautiful word, 'pivot' — pivot it to being online," said producer Ruth Lawrence.

At first, the team wasn't sure what form the series should take. They toyed with the notion of filming the tales over Zoom. But in the end, the show's collaborators — White Rooster Theatre and RCA Theatre — landed on reimagining Dixit's plays as puppet shows.

Dixit first dreamed up The Tales of Dwipa for her daughter.

"I've read to her since she was very young," Dixit said, "and when I would do that, I would find that the stories were either Indian or Eurocentric/Canadian. And I wanted her to see herself as both, because she is both."

So Dixit created a world based on the ancient Indian stories she grew up with — but in Dixit's hands, characters are as likely to speak with a Newfoundland accent as an Indian dialect. Her tales follow the adventures of Mima (a young South Asian girl), Lok (a Labrador retriever), and Neena (a Newfoundland dog) as they explore the mysterious island of Dwipa. 

Safety first

As it turns out, making a physically distanced puppet show is no easy feat.

"We had very strict COVID protocols," Lawrence said.

Prajwala Dixit wrote the play, which blends ancient Indian stories with a Newfoundland touch. (Vaida V. Nairn)

According to guidelines set by the Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Artists and the LSPU Hall, only two masked puppeteers could perform at one time in the show's puppet theatre.

This means that instead of writing for three actors, like she did last year, Dixit now had to write for four puppet hands. (Some puppets require two or more hands, while others do fine with just one.)

"It was an interesting writing exercise in terms of pacing, in terms of making sure the actors were always socially distant, and that the most optimal use was being made of those four hands," Dixit said.

Santiago Guzmán, the show's director, held the first rehearsals for the show over Zoom. Because the show's performers had to wear masks while puppeteering, they then recorded dialogue for the show before filming the puppets. 

"The actors performed to the vocal. So it was almost like doing a music video," Lawrence laughed.

Guzmán also directed The Tales of Dwipa last year. Visually, he wanted both productions to have a sense of a DIY play — and this year, especially, of kids "playing at home during COVID."

"I wanted to see the show as though the kids were putting on a puppet show in their living rooms under a tent," Guzmán said.

From left to right, Santiago Guzmán, Ananya Antony, and Robyn Vivian recorded their dialogue before puppeteering. (EunJung Cho)

Working at a distance, set designers Jamie Skidmore and Azal Dosanjh built a blanket fort backdrop to evoke this feeling. And since the main characters — Mima, Lok and Neena — wore costumes to play other roles in last year's live action version, the puppets created by Sara Tilley wear costumes to play these parts, too.

'Space for more' puppet diversity

When the team began turning The Tales of Dwipa into a puppet show, they started searching for other South Asian characters in Canadian puppetry. But they couldn't find many.

Dixit said she knows there's always space for more diverse characters.

"Having a brown or an Indigenous or a person of colour puppet is important for young kids. Not just for kids to see themselves represented — that's brown kids like my daughter — but also for other kids to see their community represented on screen," she said.

Lok the Labrador retriever plays the role of Usura, a demonic monster. (Vaida V. Nairn)

The last episode of The Tales of Dwipa airs Aug. 1 at noon on RCA Theatre's Facebook page — where the first three episodes have garnered more than 10,000 views — and YouTube channel. But while the numbers are exciting, Dixit said her daughter's reaction mattered most of all.

"She's not even four, so I knew it would be brutally honest," Dixit said.

"She watched the first episode once and then looped it five more times."

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Andrea McGuire is a journalist working with CBC in St. John's.