Puppeteer Profiles:

Annerose Schmidt

Riding on a B.C. Ferry this summer, I recognised a fellow passenger. She was small, with soft face, grey unruly hairdimples and a pair of large wire-framed glasses. Alone and a little slumped in a seat, she was munching on a sandwich. She was unmistakably Hazel. But I didn’t greet her. The Hazel I know is a puppet, a creation of Annerose Schmidt.

I’d like you to meet Annerose, a multifaceted artist and community leader, a playful animator and adventurer. Mostly known for her leadership of Puppets Elora, she plays many other parts in our community.

Annerose’s artistic life has its roots in her childhood in East Germany where, despite the repressiveness of the regime, traditional art forms were encouraged. Annerose fondly recalls two children’s TV shows, ‘ Piti Platsch’ and ‘Sandmännchen’, in which puppetry was a major component. Her father, Fritz, was fond of cracking jokes, singing humorous songs and playing the accordion. Her mother, Ingeborg, bought a set of traditional puppets for the three sisters, with which they entertained their family and neighbours. As the youngest, Annerose was the ‘minion’ to Eva, the director, and Marie, the designer.

In high school Annerose was a member of the Staatsoper youth club. She was enthralled by the activity backstage and loved the rehearsals. Thanks to the educational policy of a gender-equal syllabus she was introduced to metalworking and needle working.

Given such an artistic start, it is hardly surprising that in her new homeland she has continued in her enthusiasm for creative skills of many kinds, nor is it any wonder that puppetry should have provided her with the ideal outlet for further development since it calls on such varied abilities. It has motivated her also to develop these skills for their own intrinsic interest. For example, she was frustrated by the realisation that her first sculpted puppet heads, regardless of their intended roles, looked like clones of one another. Eager to give them greater depth, she took life sculpting classes in clay with Beverley Cairns and Hannah Boos and later in twig, wire, foam and casting by others. The result has benefitted her puppets, but at the same time opened other avenues of expression.

Take her clay sculpture. One face in particular, a study of a man, has an intensity that is arresting. Annerose claims the French sculptor, Houdon, as her inspiration, particularly in his technique for portraying the eyes that seem to follow the viewer.

What she has learned in clay has informed her use of other media, such as foam. Hazel is an outstanding example, all the way down to her dentures and her sparkly eyes, which surprisingly are just a bead and a white pin. Any puppeteer who works with Annerose’s mannequins is already aided by this life-like effect. That includes performer James Gordon, and the puppet which he commissioned: a cartoon version (foam dummy) of the Canadian prime minister at the time.

Having achieved so much in her use of malleable materials, Annerose turned to experimentation with twigs. Also, as a professionally trained gardener but now turned hobby-gardener, she has collaborated artistically with the plant life that surrounds her house to foster swaths of colour and texture. She is a passionate environmentalist.

Recently, using brightly-coloured tissue paper Annerose fashioned a set of lively display masks of the seasons and elements. What she refers to as ‘the artistic highlight of my dabbling’ was further enhanced when she and her husband, Jonathan photographed the masks against their appropriate outdoor backgrounds. The result was a vivacious display in the Creperie last year of the originals and their photo-portraits.

Jonathan has long been a humorous, humble, happy collaborator in Annerose’s oeuvre. He composed the play script for the successful (but daring) ‘First Noel’, a spoof based on the Elora Festival. He has co-constructed several monster puppets for parades, including an enormous octopus and a flying pig, and he has used his photographic skills to produce publicity material and those mask portraits. He can paint scintillating patterns on butterfly wings.

Teamwork is fundamental to Annerose’s style and philosophy, underscored by her slogan: ‘community through puppetry’. She sees puppetry as a vehicle for the transmission of myth and legend, of values and of a variety of art forms, which can be as diverse as African drumming and European folk tales. To sustain this vision she writes grant applications, negotiates performances and rehearsal venues, interacts with local organisations like the Elora Arts Council, the Wellington County Museum and the Rotary Club, contacts local media and keeps in touch with other puppetry groups, like the Ontario Puppetry Association and Studio Babette, handles the group’s finances, experiments with sound and lighting systems and yet still finds time to create gems of apparel for her miniature actors.

Her eye for design and for detail has enabled her to produce anything, from hair to heels, including a wig, dress coat and court shoes for Georg Friedrich Haendel, gauntly veined hands for ‘old Noel’, Hazel’s dentures, rubber boots, stiletto heels, net stockings… The list is endless.

Continuing to venture into new territory, Puppets Elora has gradually moved out from the traditional form of box theatre to techniques that involve the puppet moving out into the audience, engaging in social interaction, a skill that endows the puppet a heightened illusion of autonomy, but requires the puppeteer to have the confidence to place their own spontaneity on loan. “Stone Soup’ is the group’s first successful venture in this. It has been played to many child and adult audiences.

‘Stone Soup’ is fundamental to Annerose’s philosophy of ‘community through puppetry’ since it exemplifies that good things may come of generous co-operation. Like Hazel in this fable Annerose’s role continues to be that of a catalyst. Within the group she is an encourager, a celebrator of special occasions, the first to summarise by email the most recent performance or rehearsal. Out in the community she looks for recruits, especially the young, and spreads the infectious fun and enchantment of her art. Annerose is my kind of elder: one who carries the wisdom-torch joyfully into the next generations … Just ask Hazel!

Peter Scott

Elora, July 2016