Gil Garratt and Gemma James-Smith tried to create a puppet of Derek McCormack, but it didn’t work.
The husband-and-wife team behind the small Toronto theatre company Clawhammer attempted to construct a marionette of the author for their stage adaptation of McCormack’s 2008 novel The Show That Smells (ECW Press). The Show That Smells (or the Last Temptation of Jimmie Rodgers) runs at Theatre Passe Muraille’s Backspace from May 13 to 31.
“A Derek puppet didn’t have the effect we wanted – something to pierce the veneer a bit,” says Garratt.
McCormack put a veneered version of himself in the book, as an otherworldly fashion writer. Though the autobiographical character doesn’t make it to the stage in strung-up form, the author’s other characters do.
There’s Jimmie Rodgers, the real-life country singer and yodeller who died from tuberculosis in 1933 at age 35. In McCormack’s story, Rodgers is visited on his deathbed by Italian designer Elsa Schiaparelli, whose conceptual styles helped define 20th-century fashion. In The Show That Smells, her fictional desires and creations are much darker, which are reflected in the deal she offers Rodgers: in exchange for eternal life and headline-performer status at her carnival, Schiaparelli wants his soul.
James-Smith, who works as a studio assistant for the Ronnie Burkett Theatre of Marionettes, studied Schiaparelli’s designs, and researched images, print stories, and audio recordings for the production. She also researched the backgrounds of McCormack’s other characters, which include actor Lon Chaney, the Carter Family Singers, and Coco Chanel.
“We wanted to find ways to make objects that were themselves beautifully conceived, meticulously and deliberately constructed, but also hideous and nightmarish,” says James-Smith. “I’m proud of this, especially. They’re simultaneously portraits, caricatures, and monsters.”
Leading up to a public workshopping last year, James-Smith and Garratt regularly corresponded and met with McCormack. “He’s been an integral part of this process,” says James-Smith. But the writer plays down his role in the production. “Mostly I’ve stood by ‘oohing and aahing’ at how lovely everything is,” says McCormack.
The Clawhammer duo have shown him the puppets and shared the script, songs, and staging, including collages and sculptural objects. It’s like an art installation, says McCormack, one that’s inspired by the work of his friend, the award-winning Canadian artist David Altmejd, who created the cover art for both the Canadian and U.S. editions of The Show that Smells.
“The stage is part stage, part display case, and a bow to the big mirrored boxes that David has made,” says McCormack. “It’s an amazing idea and it reminded me of my debt to David.”
As he wrote the book, McCormack visualized the physical setting in Altmejdian terms. So, when Garratt and James-Smith conceived of their set in that same way – for example, lighting that reveals an object or “nook” to coincide with the script, and the use of mirror mazes – without his influence, the author was delighted.
For the roughly 70-minute production, Garratt and James-Smith operate the puppets, sound and lighting, and perform the voices and music. “Music’s so central to the novel, but I don’t attempt to capture the music in words,” McCormack says. “I don’t have the chops.”
Another realization came to McCormack as he watched the stage production. “They revealed to me how preposterous my novel is,” he says. “I sat at the workshop performance and couldn’t believe how silly the story was.”
But that silliness is vital to the work, according to Garratt. “Derek has done this brilliant thing with the tone of the piece. It’s outrageous and very silly, and yet incredibly disturbing, too.”