Louis Riel : Puppeting Chester Brown’s Graphic Novel

Louis Riel and Zach Fraser. Louis Riel and Zach Fraser.

Talked about mixed media! Sure, books are adapted to the stage, and there’s even been an animated film adaption of a graphic novel (Persepolis). But a puppet show of Chester Brown’s graphic novel of Louis Riel, now that’s something! Zach Fraser and Attila Clemann, the brains behind RustWerk Refinery, have adapted the work for the stage. I spoke to Fraser about creating this unusual piece.

Just to set the background, Fraser explains who Riel is. “Riel was the spiritual leader of the Métis rebellions or uprisings, depending on whether you want to give it a more violent slant,” Fraser says, and then explains that Riel is a complex personality with much controversy surrounding nearly every area of his life. “Riel is an educated man, who studied in Montreal and he became the Métis’ leader because he was bilingual individual and well-spoken. He became a leader, but it also got complicated. He wasn’t just a straight-up hero. He spent time in a mental asylum. He had bouts of megalomania. At a certain point, he thought he was the chosen prophet for his people. He was an elected member of Parliament, and is considered a founding father of Parliament, even though he never actually sat in Parliament because of bounty on his head. He was ultimately hung for treason, though there are mixed views on that. Overall, he is an intriguing, complex personality.”

Chester Brown’s novel, and RustWerk Refinery’s show focuses on four chapters in Riel’s life, including the Red River Rebellion, the second rebellion, and his court trial for treason the court trial for treason, high treason, which ends in his execution. Fraser points out that these are the early days of Canada. “John A. McDonald is the first prime minister and the focus is on expanding West. Canada ends with Ontario and everything west of Ontario is called Rupert’s land, owned by the Hudson Bay Company.”

Riel. Photo Sabrina Reeves (4)

Fraser was drawn to the story because of how it reflects on the individual. “What’s interesting is the voices of the people who chose to stand up against the government and try to protect their land,” says Fraser. “They wanted to join Canada, but not on Canada’s terms.”

Fraser encountered Chester Brown’s graphic novel while studying puppetry at UQAM. “I like how he mixed image storytelling with simple dialogue, a bit caricature, and how he was naïve in storytelling, but historically accurate though. It’s efficient.”

Louis Riel. Photo Sabrina Reeves

Louis Riel. Photo Sabrina Reeves

Transposing the graphic novel to a puppetry context initially seemed like a “fun exercise.” Though, he needed Brown’s permission to carry out the project. Fraser explains, “He’s from Chateguay, but lives in Toronto. I contacted Drawn & Quarterly [who publish his book] and through them, he was willing to meet with me. I think at the beginning he was reluctant, just because anytime someone uses your work, your name is still attached to it. Either we’re going to make him look good or bad. We met for lunch and I spoke about the project and he was intrigued. He said okay.”

Louis Riel. Photo Sabrina Reeves

Louis Riel. Photo Sabrina Reeves

Brown has largely been hands-off, but in the years of working on the project, there has been some interaction. “He came to an early script development workshop at the Playwrights Workshop in Montreal and I invited him to come early in our process, just to be in the room, and he joined us. I wanted him to feel that he had a voice and that I, as an adaptor of his work, have his permission to go in the direction I need to go. I wanted to make something he would be proud of.”

“He’s been hands off, but encouraging form the sidelines. More than anything, he’s intrigued to see how it can work.”

The puppets are based on Brown’s original drawings. “For this piece, I celebrate and embrace his visual style,” says Fraser. “I decided to make the puppets black and white like his piece, and two dimensional. The challenge I’m excited by is embracing the two dimensional, but making it feel three dimensional. I’m curious about that universe between the two-dimensional and the three-dimension, and animating two-dimensional objects.”

Fraser elaborates on how successful the puppets are. “These are as naïve and as simplistic as the caricatures, yet, they emote and can draw us in and be complex. Two dimensional puppets can evoke emotion, and its a fun piece of magic. “

Working with two dimensional puppets has its challenges. “Take the head, a flat head, it can look one side or the other, but not straight forward. The head lives in profile, and a bit of an angle. The first time we took those cut outs to the actors, they looked at them and looked at me, ‘Oh God how is this going to happen? This can’t work.’ But it took us about 15 minutes. We had to find the vocabulary that exists within that. How does a cut out walk. Does one have a head that moves and an arm that moves, but no legs that move. Every choice of every movement is a choice.”

One of the coolest aspects of the production is how it combines French and English. “I’m scared to mention this, but the way the graphic novel was written, Chester wrote it in English, but anytime a character speaks French or Cree, he has parentheses to remind the reader that the conversation is happening in French or that its an English speaker speaking to a French speaker. We’re playing with the French-English mix in the production. My best comparison Bon Cop, Bad Cop in the way our show exists in two languages. It’s not because it’s fun or fancy, but because it’s central to what the story is about. We have a cast that is fully bilingual. I believe that we’re doing it in such a way that even if you only speak one language you won’t get lost.”

Louis Riel, A Comic Strip Stage Play based on Chester Brown’s graphic novel is at Theatre La Chapelle (3700 St Dominique) on February 25-March 5 at 8 p.m. For tickets click HERE. $32.50, $25.50

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