Homegrown Holiday Arts: Pippa Mackie finds her puppet power in East Van Panto's hyperlocal Pinocchio

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      What might Pinocchio look like if he’d been born, bred, and indoctrinated on Commercial Drive?

      In this year’s East Van Panto: Pinocchio, the fairy-tale puppet who comes to life hails from hippie-heyday-holdover Beckwoman and is raised by an old ice-cream vendor named Gelato.

      True to the title character’s sustainability-minded ’hood, Panto star Pippa Mackie is today dressed in a costume that is equal parts blue-box chic, dumpster-bin rescue, and hopelessly disorganized thrift store. The knotty-wood-grain-print tights under her shorts are a nod to the original puppet, but her arms are all recycled materials—one a row of repurposed plastic cups and the other a cluster of discarded metal duct pipes.

      “The original little puppet made of pine I’m not,” declares the well-known local playwright and actor, smiling as she takes a break from rehearsal at the Drive’s York Theatre.

      “I’ve been focusing a lot on the physicality. Basically, Pinocchio comes alive, and what would he do, moving from not being physically present to being alive? It’s using the joints, how a puppet would move,” she says, jumping up to swivel a hip and an elbow. “It’s a bit like how a toddler would walk for the first time.”

      It’s pretty clear here, as it just was during the Theatre Replacement production’s tech rehearsals, that Mackie—who’s performing in her first Panto—is having a blast. Her friend Christine Quintana, who starred as Dorothy in last year’s East Van Panto: Wizard of Oz, had warned her it would be a marathon; tech rehearsals run 12 hours and Mackie will be on-stage almost every minute during the Panto’s extended seven-week run, singing, dancing, and perfecting her puppet walk.

      Still, she’s calling it a “dream gig”. The show represents Marcus Youssef’s second year in a row as Panto playwright (and second holiday show this year; see story above). Arts Club Theatre associate artistic director Stephen Drover is directing his third edition. And songstress Veda Hille is on hand with her newly arranged hits. “When you feel your energy drop, it’s too much fun not to be having a good time,” Mackie says. “And I live eight blocks away—so the reworked characters from East Van are very familiar to me.”

      The National Theatre School of Canada grad is also stoked at getting an inside look at a production that’s been built from the ground up—always with new, hyperlocal characters, settings, and touchpoints—in time for the holiday season. The artist is as well-known for stage appearances in works like 2017’s dark and deranged hit The Society for the Destitute Presents Titus Bouffonius as she is for JULIET: A Revenge Comedy (cowritten with Ryan Gladstone) and The Progressive Polygamists (cocreated with Emmelia Gordon). Among the many hats she wears these days, she’s also working as associate producer with Upintheair Theatre. But she’s never really witnessed something this big being turned around with such success.

      “It’s very rare for a show to go from page to the stage in one year—especially with the amount of people that are working on this show, with this calibre and positivity backstage,” she observes. “There must be 100 quick changes backstage, then there are all these kids to keep track of. It’s an incredibly well-oiled machine.”

      It’s also a wonderfully warped take on life in East Van. But if Mackie has noticed anything about this year’s rendition, it’s that it manages to move you as well—at least when it’s not making you laugh at jokes about the Cappuccino War between the Abruzzos and the Calabrias, or at the kids skipping school to go to the Hastings Racecourse.

      Pinocchio is, after all, about a lonely old man who longs for a little boy to raise and love. Or, as Shawn Macdonald’s hilariously handlebar-mustachioed Gelato sings (much to the chagrin of the pets on-stage) in faux–Andrea Bocelli mode, “A family, that is my wish; not just a cat and a fish.”

      “It’s the story of a parent and their child, and in a lot of ways it’s modern parenting,” Mackie hints. “It’s really going to tug at people’s heartstrings.”

      East Van Panto: Pinocchio plays the York Theatre from Wednesday (November 20) to January 5.