What's Upintheair with puppeteer and actor Stephanie Elgersma?

With one week to go until we open A Brief History of Human Extinction created by Jordan Hall and Mind of a Snail and directed by Tamara McCarthy, we thought it would be fun to offer you a glimpse into the intricate and exciting work of one of our puppeteers Stephanie Elgersma. Stephanie is a puppeteer, puppet maker/director, and actor who works in both Vancouver and London, England. The majority of Stephanie’s puppet work is in the UK: she has studied with a wide variety of England’s puppetry icons; she has been a puppet maker on shows for Disney Paris, The Old Vic, and Birmingham Rep; and she most recently made puppets with Mervyn Millar (of Warhorse fame) for a musical in China. In Vancouver, she has puppeteered for the rEvolver Festival (Kolejka), the Vancouver Children’s Festival, The Only Animal, and Axis Theatre. She has directed/coached puppets on a number of projects and has made puppets for many of the shows that she’s puppeteered. Her training is in acting from Studio 58 and from a myriad of puppet workshops and intensives. www.stephelgersma.com

We asked Stephanie what’s up and many other questions!

Stephanie Elgersma hard at work.

Stephanie Elgersma hard at work.

Describe yourself in the format of a character synopsis.

Stephanie is a bubbly, tall woman in her 30’s. A walking contradiction: a young face but with an older presence, innocent but sexy, seemingly confident and in control but she talks to herself and her room is always a mess.

What do you consider your greatest achievement?

Oh heavens. I think having a thriving career in the two things I love (acting and puppets) in both Vancouver and London is just astonishing to me. I have to pinch myself most days.

What’s the craziest thing you’ve ever done for a theatre project?

At Studio 58 we created a show called Falling Upstairs, which was a physical theatre show with a number of unconnected scenes. In one I played a shy clown who asks an audience member to be her first kiss (and I got one every night!). And in an another I did a rather raunchy strip tease in mask, which always ended when I tripped over my own pants, and then slinked off stage with my pants stuck on my heels and my wig in my hands. I don’t think I’ve topped that yet.

Stephanie working on Ommie the Otter puppet in rehearsal

Stephanie working on Ommie the Otter puppet in rehearsal

Do you have any hidden talents?

Hidden talents. Nope. But I’m a bit of a ‘jack of all trades, master of none’ kind of person, so maybe there’s one yet that’s hidden even to me?

What's one show and/or event in the Vancouver theatre scene you have loved?

A really formative show for me was ‘Studies in Motion’ by The Electric Company. It was one of the first shows I had seen that celebrated the body in all its forms and actions. And it really solidified my love of specific movement to music/rhythms, which a lot of my puppetry is based on.

If you could only put one prop for every single show you do from now on, what would it be?

An egg. They can be messy, yummy, gross, smushy, hard-boiled, raw, gooey, cooked, eaten. They can roll, break, smell, crack… All the possibilities!

If you could sit down with any theatre artist living or dead and have a long chat, who would you sit down with?

Even imaginary me feels intimidated by this! But I think at this point in my life, I would want to chat with Emma Rice. She is both an actress and a director, and has been the Artistic Director of both a hugely successful puppet company (Kneehigh) and the Globe. She is such an inspiration to me.

How did you first become interested in puppets?

I wish I could say I started playing with puppets when I was kid and they have always been a part of my life, but I actually discovered puppets quite late… when I was working on Falling Upstairs only 9 years ago. We had one puppetry scene where I operated the head on a human sized puppet, and I discovered that I felt more open and expressive through a puppet than by myself on stage. And I’ve wanted to explore that relationship ever since.

steph-0020 - Stephanie Elgersma.jpg

Seeing as how one of Upintheair Theatre's mandate involves supporting the next generation of theatre makers, what advice would you give to an emerging artist living in Canada?

I have always been a theatre artist that wants to do more than one thing in theatre. As soon as I graduated from Studio, I found work as a stage manager, scenic artist, costume designer, associate producer, front of house manager… all alongside acting and puppeteering. If it was in theatre, I wanted to do it. One of the most important things I learned while trying to figure out who I was with all these hats was this: define what success looks like to you. Not by what is expected of you by your peers or those who hire you or by what you THINK your career SHOULD look like. The most beautiful thing about a theatre career is that no one else can have yours. It’s entirely based on who you are and what you want and what you do with that. And once I learned that, I felt like a huge weight had been lifted from my shoulders! Who am I kidding though; I’m still learning it.

What would you tell someone who has never seen a puppet show before? Or someone who thinks puppets are just for kids?

Puppets are for EVERYONE! And the world of puppetry is so vast and varied! There are so many different types of puppetry and different ways of puppeteering within each of those types. It’s endless and exciting. To reduce puppetry to being ‘just for kids’ is closing yourself off to MAGIC. And who would want to do that!? What I love most about puppets is that they have the ability to communicate to our soul in a way that actors can’t. That is, if the show is done well. That’s pretty important. There’s a lot of bad puppetry out there.

What about being part of 'A Brief History' excites you most?

The most exciting thing for me on this project is making Ommie, the sea otter. I’ve been working with and learning from so many amazing puppet designers overseas, and this is actually my first opportunity to put a lot of that knowledge and curiosity into practice with my own design and build. Sea otters are complex creatures! They have to be able to twist and turn and walk and swim… And be ridiculously adorable while doing it. She’s by far the most complex puppet I’ve designed, and I’m super excited to puppeteer her on stage and introduce her to Vancouver audiences!

Now finally… what’s Upintheair? Give us the details of your show? Juicy details.

A Brief History of Human Extinction! As part of the Cultch Mainstage series. Oct. 10 - 20th


And after this I'm off to Calgary to make puppets for GhostRiver's production of GIANT.

Ommie the Otter (in progress) crafted by Stephanie Elgersma

Ommie the Otter (in progress) crafted by Stephanie Elgersma