NO STRINGS ATTACHED
Order of Canada recipient has created 50-plus likenesses of Almonte residents
Puppets have been a key part of Noreen Young’s life for more than 50 years. As a child, she says, she haunted her local library in Ottawa and borrowed as many books as she could find about puppet building.
“I also had a friend who owned an art store and he let me do shows in his shop window,” she recalls, adding, “I even bullied my brothers into putting on the shows with me.”
Her childhood fascination was to turn into a full-time career and stardom in her field. As well as creating the children’s television show Under the Umbrella Tree, which ran on CBC television from 1987 to 1993, and on the Disney Channel from 1993 to 1997, Young’s puppets and shows have been featured reg- ularly on TVOntario. In addition, she frequently offers workshops on puppet building and other puppetry skills, and makes presentations in local schools. In large part because of her presence, Almonte has become known for its puppet connections since Young and her family moved to the town in 1983.
“At that time, I had a really busy career as a puppeteer and puppet builder for CBC and TVOntario and as an independent producer,” says Young, who was made a Member of the Order of Canada in 1995 in recognition of her artistry. “We had a large studio in our country property, where I was able to do a lot of building. We even did some actual recording there.
“Gradually, people got to know me as I got involved in the community doing puppet projects and employing local people to help,” she adds.
Eventually, her commitment to the community led to the annual Puppets Up! International Puppet Festival — now heading into its 12th year with Young as its artistic director. In addition, the municipality of Mississippi Mills (of which Almonte is part) commissioned her to create a puppet mascot. “Miss Mills” has appeared in various places around town for the last eight years. Her image even adorns local garbage cans.
Many local businesses also feature puppet likenesses of their owners, and several local politicians and other residents have commissioned puppet caricatures of themselves.
“One of my puppet-building skills has been that I can do likenesses of real people,” says Young, whose work includes puppets of former governor general Adrienne Clarkson, news anchor Peter Mansbridge and hockey commentator Don Cherry. “They are more friendly caricatures than real portraits. Over the years, a number of local residents have asked if I would do one for them, often to display in their businesses or as gifts, often retirement gifts. I have built more than 50 likenesses of local residents and I take it as a great compliment that people want them.”
Each year during the Puppets Up festival, many local residents — with their puppets in hand — take part in the daily parade. In January, a joint fundraiser for several local festivals displayed many of the local puppets, voiced by the people that they resembled, in a standingroom-only concert, scripted by Young’s younger brother, Stephen Braithwaite.
This year, the Puppets Up festival — set to run Aug. 5-7 — will include outreach activities by mounting shows in outlying communities in the lead up to the festival. As well as puppet shows of various types from across Canada and the U.S., the 2016 event will feature a marionette troupe from India.
Meanwhile, Young also continues to build her signature puppet likenesses. Currently at work on a commission from an Ottawa client, she says, “I don’t think an artist ever retires. You just keep doing what you do. It’s like breathing.”
For more information on the Puppets Up festival, visit www. puppetsup.ca.
Noreen Young with the multitude of puppets she has created for the Puppets Up! International Puppet Festival held each summer in Almonte.
Many Almonte residents have commissioned Noreen Young to create puppet caricatures of themselves.