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Gateway's Halloween-themed paper theatre kit designed to cut into screen-time

Article by Shawn Conner originally published in the Vancouver Sun.


Gateway's Halloween-themed paper theatre kit designed to cut into screen-time

The Gateway Theatre has come up with a paper theatre kit that contains everything needed to stage a miniature play at home.

With everyone spending so much time on their screens, Jasmine Chen and her colleagues at Gateway Theatre decided they wanted to offer something other than a livestream.

“While we were exploring digital offerings, we thought about the fact that so many people were spending more and more time online, and I think a lot of people have experienced screen burnout,” said Chen, who is the artistic and community producer at the Richmond company. “And a lot of parents are concerned their kids are spending eight hours a day in front of a screen. We asked, What is something we can offer families that doesn’t involve a screen, and that can promote creativity and encourage kids to use their imagination?”

What Chen and Gateway came up with is a paper theatre kit. Each kit contains everything needed to stage a miniature play at home; a script, cut-out characters, set pieces and backdrops (printed on card-stock), and instructions. Chen wrote the story, a Halloween-themed and family-friendly tale about four characters (based on Richmond wildlife) who are exploring a spooky old house when one of them goes missing. Artist Keely O’Brien provided the illustrations.

“I knew that Keely had a lot of experience in creating paper ephemera, and that she’d done paper puppetry,” said Chen, who collaborated with O’Brien in 2019 on Gateway’s The Language Exchange Game Show! “I also saw this absolutely stunning pop-up book that was also a mask that she made for a theatre show. I thought, if anyone can figure out how to construct a paper theatre, it’s her.”

“We went through a few phases of trying to figure out what was an accessible but satisfyingly intricate design,” the artist said in a separate interview. “Then we went through various stages of developing a story, figuring out how the story could be translated into this design. And we did some playing around with the puppets and storytelling as well.”

The concept of paper theatre dates back to the early 1800s, when patrons could buy the kits at concession stands. The kits were usually home versions of the play the theatregoers had just seen, not an original creation, as is Hallows’ Eve.

Chen says putting the project together was “an all-hands-on-deck” situation.

“I have to commend everyone at Gateway because we produce live shows,” she said. “We’ve never sold merchandise before.”

The kits are hand-packaged by staff and mailed out. “It was a massive learning curve for everyone. Usually, you’re planning a theatre season years in advance. We only had two or three months to pull off this project, which we would normally spend a year planning.”

Chen and O’Brien also collaborated with a graphic designer, Lydia Avsec of Co-pilot Design, to come up with the packaging.

The paper theatre kits are now available, but rather than applause, audience response will come via social media. Participants are encouraged to post photos and videos of themselves performing the play on various platforms, with the hashtag #MyGTPaperTheatreKit.

“I’m excited by how this project puts participants in a creative role,” O’Brien said. “Rather than sitting in an audience watching a play, people are able to try their hand at puppetry and storytelling, and entertain themselves and their families.”

“The script ends on a bit of a cliffhanger,” Chen said. “We’re inviting our audience to invent the end of the story and to share their version with us.”

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