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Tuesday, August 9, 2022
Shaw puppet show is like ‘skipping a stone across history’

The Shaw Festival has condensed the majestic scope of Niagara’s history into a new 30-minute program performed by Alexandra Montagnese and Mike Petersen – with puppets.

“A Short History of Niagara” only runs until Aug. 15 and features over 70 puppets telling the story of Niagara from pre-colonial times to the modern age.

“Everything’s a cameo. We’re literally skipping a stone across history,” Montagnese said in an interview.

The show is non-verbal. All expression and storytelling is done through the puppets and the carefully composed music by Ryan Cowl made to reflect the eras and drama on-stage.

It may seem difficult to compress 12,000 years of history into a half-hour show but that’s where the unique storytelling abilities of puppetry come in.

“You ask the audience to believe even more when you are using a puppet,” Montagnese said.

“It’s another step further into the suspension of disbelief.”

That suspension of disbelief enables the performers' and audience members' imaginations to run wild more than theatre or film allow, she said.

“You’re not just walking out on stage wearing a uniform and saying, ‘OK everyone, believe I’m a doctor.' You’re saying, ‘Let's believe this object is alive, all together.’ We know it’s not true, but we believe it together.”

The art form inspires empathy and allows one to individualize the performance, she said.

“It’s like an abstract painting. It’s simple enough that (the audience) is reading into it based on their background.”

Montagnese and Petersen worked with Shaw artistic director Tim Carroll and Tim Johnson, an Indigenous historian and former director of the Smithsonian Institution, to bring history accurately to life.

“(Johnson) is brilliant, first of all, and he’s extremely generous. He was instrumental in the creation of the piece. He gifted us the knowledge of the legend of the Maid of the Mist,” Montagnese said.

She started puppeteering when she was 13 growing up in Kirkland Lake, Ont.

“Small town – gold mining town. That’s where I got my start. I worked with a little company called Kids On the Block. We would teach other kids about things like fire safety and diversity through puppetry,” she said.

She pursued acting in Montreal and Toronto but her love of puppeteering always returned.

“I was just surrounded by puppets. There’s a great culture of it (in Montreal).”

When she moved to Toronto she met Petersen and when he was approached by the Shaw to do “A Short History of Niagara” he contacted Montagnese.

It’s Montagnese’s first show with the Shaw, though she also collaborated on puppetry for “Flush,” which is running until October.

“A Short History of Niagara” is on until Aug. 15, outdoors at the Shaw's BMO stage. Tickets ($10 or $5 for youth) are available at