Amphibian provokes conversation about environment

Puppets help tell tale about eco-anxiety in a world of greed

The world today is a troubling place. Not least of the many global-scale worries is the state of the planet’s health. In fact Downstage artistic producer Ellen Close says “eco-anxiety” is a neurosis that is gaining official recognition today and it’s not limited to adults.

Close along with actor and writer Braden Griffiths have adapted Carla Gunn’s young-adult novel Amphibian for the stage. It makes its world première as Downstage’s final show of the season. At the centre of the story in a nine-year-old boy Phin who suffers from a severe case of eco-anxiety. “It impacts his relationships with his mother and his friends and is overwhelming for him” explains Close.

Close and Griffiths recall their trepidation in approaching Gunn about a possible adaptation. “We only had a couple of hundred dollars to offer her to secure the rights. We felt we had to make a good case for it. We were expecting to be turned down” says Close.

As it turns out however Gunn replied almost immediately to the email they had spent weeks crafting. In fact she was on a camping trip when she fired off her positive reply. “She was so warm and so lovely” says Close adding that Gunn has provided feedback and support throughout the project.

“We want to maintain the spirit of the book. The book really lives in Phin’s character” says Griffiths adding that it was Phin’s character that drew them to the project more than three years ago.

“We were both worried youths and are worried adults” adds Close. “We related to that experience about caring for something very deeply and then it negatively impacting your daily life.”

Intertwined with Phin’s narrative — including his scheme to rescue a frog from the Grade 4 classroom — are the narratives he spins about an imaginary planet called Reull. “On the planet are alien creatures that stand in for some of the creatures he sees on Earth” explains Griffiths. In particular the “Gorach” is Phin’s proxy for the human race. “They are greedy. They steal things and leave a trail of ashes in their wake.”

To make the world of Reull and its alien inhabitants come alive onstage Close and Griffiths have spent 500 hours since the fall building a half-dozen puppets under the mentorship of The Old Trout Puppet Workshop’s Pete Balkwill.

Griffiths says to expect an eclectic mix of puppets — from wooden ones to those made of bedding foam to one assembled from a soccer ball and LED lights. “This show is not by any stretch of the imagination a puppet show. They are the icing on the cake of Phin’s imagination” he explains.

Close says it makes sense for Downstage which came on board over a year ago to première the work because the company’s mandate — “theatre that creates conversation around social issues” — aligns closely with her own vision as an artist.

“I’m very interested in using theatre for provoking conversation and even social change. To bring people together from all walks of life and start a conversation that benefits us a community” she says.

While Close and Griffiths say My Family and Other Endangered Species is suitable for children 12 and older it’s an adult play. “Phin is very precocious. If I had read this book at nine I may not have understood the depth of what he was going through. Phin’s story means more to me as an adult than it would have as a kid” says Griffiths.

“One of the themes is how do we as adults empower youth to feel they can have an impact on some of these larger issues like the environment and social justice?” says Close.