Pulling Strings

By Kevin McKay

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As Christmas approached, Elizabeth Elwood wanted to do something special for her young daughters - something they could marvel at and remember forever. By chance, she discovered an old box containing six marionettes. It inspired her.

"My parents had bought me the marionettes when I was a child," she recalls, "and somehow I never got rid of them. I must have put them away. I got my husband Hugh to secretly build a stage out in the garage while I wrote a script. On Christmas Eve, we set up the theatre in the basement and put on a show for them. They were most intrigued."

Who could have predicted where that one night of fun would lead? Elizabeth had no idea she would form her own marionette company a few years later - a company still going strong today. And yet, in many ways it was the perfect vehicle to allow Elizabeth to showcase her many talents and abilities, including writing, singing and music composition.

Elizabeth was born in England following the Second World War, and grew up there with her older brother until the family followed her father to Canada in 1957, eventually settling in West Vancouver. They lived close to Lighthouse Park.

"My father had four dogs so we all spent a lot of time walking them in the park. After my father passed away a columnist named Trevor Laughton wrote in his column about how he missed the erudite gentleman in the hat shaped like a pith helmet!"

After high school, Elizabeth studied English at UBC on her way towards obtaining her teacher's certificate.

"I loved English, and did very well in it, especially when it came to writing stories," she says. "I also really liked drama, but since I was so shy I never tried to get into any plays or anything like that. As things turned out, my Dad was with me the day I was signing up for my third year courses. I wanted to take this class in Theatre History, but my Dad would not hear of it. He wanted me to challenge myself and made me sign up instead for a course in Drama. I was taking singing lessons at the time, as well, so he made me bite the bullet. I really didn't like it but forced myself to go. I endured it until it gradually got easier. Then, a friend suggested we try out for the chorus in a local musical. I agreed to audition and landed the second lead in *Can Can* playing the role of Claudine! After that, I started doing theatre and wound up in plenty of performances."

Music and drama would continue to play important roles in Elizabeth's life. For many years, she landed roles with Lower Mainland theatre companies including the North Shore Light Operatic Society. In 1970, she won that organization's initial scholarship presented for best performer of the year.

"I took a workshop on singing opera and then sang in the opera chorus for many years," says Elizabeth. "I actually sang on stage with the wonderful opera star, Joan Sutherland, and she told me I had a lovely voice."

Once Elizabeth landed a teaching job at MacPherson Junior High in Burnaby, she started cutting back on her performances, concentrating instead on teaching her classes in English and Drama, and directing the school's dramatic productions. While there, she also met her future husband, a math teacher named Hugh Elwood. They were married in 1976 and soon came Caroline, in 1980, and Katie, in 1983.

"Before we had children, I was determined to never put them in day care, and I was still keen on doing my arts activities. I told Hugh that I could do any two of the three: teaching, working on my arts projects or having children, but not all three, so I gave up teaching."

While raising her girls, Elizabeth spent time serving on various boards including stints as President of the Burnaby Arts Council and the Northwest Opera, as well as serving on various other committees and working actively to get the Shadbolt Centre for the Arts built in Burnaby. While all this volunteer work was very good, still something was missing.

Following the Christmas show for the family, Elizabeth says, "We started doing shows for some of the classes in the school on special occasions and then we took the show on the road, doing performances for local schools, church groups and the George Derby Centre. Hugh had always wanted us to be involved in some sort of a family business so one day I asked him, 'why not puppets?'"

Thus, in 1998, the Elwoodette Marionettes were formed and the family business was off and running. Until that point, even though Elizabeth was writing all the scripts for the shows, she was using music written by other artists.

"I knew that once you start doing something for money there are copyright issues, so I said to myself, 'this can't be that hard!' This is when I discovered that I could write music. It has become something I really enjoy, and I found it to be a great learning experience. I have now written the scores for 20 shows!"

In this way, the marionette shows have allowed Elizabeth to keep her hand in singing. "I would not have the stamina anymore to perform live on the stage as a singer," she says, "but now by recording my music on these CDs to play at the show it has allowed me to keep my singing going."

In addition to creating 20 shows for the Elwoodette Marionettes, Elizabeth is also a successful writer. "I'd written a mystery story called *To Catch an Actress* and when Hugh read it, he suggested it would make a good play. I took his advice and turned it into a three-act mystery play called *Casting For Murder*. It was produced at the Bernie Legge Theatre in 2000 and is going into its fifth production, this time in Scarborough, Ontario."

The success of this play brought even more success. One of the characters, a feisty city councillor, proved popular with the audiences, so Elizabeth expanded on him, giving him a daughter who sings in the opera and a son who serves as a police officer. Then, she proceeded to write a series of 10 short mystery stories around this family. In 2005, these stories were collected in the anthology *To Catch An Actress and Other Mystery Stories* and successfully published to good reviews. She has also written a second play, titled *Renovations*, which went into production for the first time in 2004, and a second anthology, *A Black Tie Affair and Other Mystery Stories* was published in 2008. A third anthology is currently being edited for release later in 2009.

Meanwhile, the marionette company is going strong, despite a setback in the summer of 2008 when thieves made off with a locked up trailer that contained the travelling sets, both theatres, Valentine's puppets and some technical equipment. Despite the summer robbery, Elizabeth and Hugh were still able to put on their annual Christmas show at the Bernie Legge Theatre in Queen's Park. To date, the company has produced 11 Christmas shows there, and is booked to do their 12th this December. In all, the Elwoodette Marionettes have 20 shows they could do, and somewhere between 60 and 100 puppets, many of them built by Hugh.

According to Elizabeth, they make a great team. "Hugh builds the theatres, the sets, the costumes and the puppets, while I do the painting. He sets up the lights and I control them. I write the shows, I write the music, I perform the music and I record the music. The only area we rely on anyone else for help is with some of the voice-overs, for which we pay honorariums. I couldn't have done this if not for Hugh. We have complementary talents. He is a wonderful craftsman and his skills allow me to use my creative abilities. I taught myself how to do it. We figured everything out as we went along."


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