Articles written for various community newspapers in the Lower Mainland, B.C. and special interest print and online magazines

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Move Over, Ronnie Burkett

Mention shadow puppets and most people think of making rabbit or cock shadows with their hands during an overhead presentation in primary school.

But sit through a magical genre-(and gender)-bending show put on by Vancouver lesbian shadow puppet duo Mind of a Snail and impressions change.

Jessica Gabriel and Chloe Ziner first started making puppets – and love – in 2003. When a friend asked them to put on a shadow puppet show for a birthday party, they hardly imagined the experience would magnify into something bigger. Combining Ziner's music and visual arts background with Gabriel's painting and collage background, they began creatively tinkering with Gabriel's dad's overhead projector. They then became known in niche circles for their innovative creations.
“People kept asking us to do stuff so we kept saying yes,” said Ziner.

Performing all over B.C., Mind of a Snail shows have gained a momentum that is surprising for their moniker. More surprising still is fact their almost exclusively word-of-mouth success has lead to curated gigs with the Vancouver Folk Festival, Shambhala, Parade of Lost Souls, In The House Festival, Under The Volcano, ArtsWells and the Dusty Flowerpot Cabaret. They've travelled south of the border on a West Coast tour as far as San Diego, staging pieces for theatre companies, forest raves and outdoor weddings.

In December, they'll be performing in Down the Rabbit Hole, an Alice In Wonderland dinner theatre collaboration put on by the In The House Festival at the Baldwin House near Burnaby's Deer Lake Park.

Watching a Mind of a Snail show is part early moving picture, part zany textile art, part masked performance. The audience is both hypnotized and tantalized by the impossibly-detailed miniature world they bring to life.
“Because we're hidden, we can only really hear 'oohs and ahs' from people. It's a little bit like a magic show. They want to know more. They're very curious to see the puppets and ask what's been happening behind the screen,” Gabriel said.

The puppets are cobbled together from street trash and odds-and-ends from their junk drawer. You might find either Gabriel or Ziner combing back alleys and picking up garbage like good Samaritans in their spare time. But in reality, they are moonlighting as art collectors.
“There is so much garbage around and garbage and plastic looks most beautiful on the overhead projector. When we're walking on the street and see a shiny piece of plastic on the ground we get into the habit of picking it up and holding it up to the sun and saying, 'I'll take that for later',” said Gabriel.

In Plasticity Now – a show entirely constructed from plastic, including the instruments created for the soundtrack – they embedded thumb tacks, candy wrappers and pocket lint in bubble wrap to depict ocean debris.

The jellyfish character was made from a Safeway grocery bag. “I couldn't find any other plastic bags that were that particular texture and weight that would move that way,” said Gabriel.

One of their queer-themed shows at Cafe deux Soleil featured a racy lesbian love scene involving a vagina puppet. Gabriel projected the puppet onto Ziner and, holding a pan of water over the projector, illuminated “the shadowy love side of cunnilingus. Kind of like a wet orgasmic scene but only using shadow hands to touch,” she said.

Their work isn't influenced by sexuality, aside from the seductive and fluid use of material and shapes hidden out of view. In fact, when it comes to sex, Gabriel and Ziner are like snails.
“Most species of snails are hermaphrodites so they can become either gender as they need to,” said Gabriel. “Usually our shows are not personified as a man or a woman, but centred around a creature. We try to avoid gender stereotypes in our shows unless it's part of the theme.”

To create more of an understanding of their work, Ziner and Gabriel host Shadow Jams, a monthly community puppet-making workshop held in their East Van home.

“People describe it as a shared dream. It's like a flow of consciouness that's made visual and sonic in a group,” said Ziner.

For more information about upcoming Mind of a Snail performances, visit