Mention shadow puppets and most people think of making rabbit or cock shadows with their hands during overhead presentations in primary school.
But sit through a magical genre- and gender-bending show put on by 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 soon became known in niche circles for their innovative creations.
“People kept asking us to do stuff, so we kept saying yes,” Ziner says.
Performing shows all over BC, Mind of a Snail has gained a momentum incongruous with its moniker.
More surprising still is the fact that Gabriel and Ziner’s almost exclusively word-of-mouth success has led 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.
This month, they’re 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, as well as at the Winter Solstice Lantern Festival on Granville Island.
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 Gabriel and Ziner bring to life.
“Because we’re hidden, we can only really hear ‘oohs and ahs’ from people,” Gabriel says. “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.”
The puppets are cobbled together from street trash and odds and ends from the couple’s 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,” Gabriel says. “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.’”
In Plasticity Now — a show constructed entirely from plastic, including the instruments created for the soundtrack — Gabriel and Ziner 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,” Gabriel says.
One of their queer-themed shows at Café Deux Soleils 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 says.
“Most species of snails are hermaphrodites, so they can become either gender as they need to,” Gabriel notes. “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.”
Ziner and Gabriel also host Shadow Jams, a monthly community puppet-making workshop 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,” Ziner says.