Theatre Interview: Punchy Ker Wells
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Theatre Interview: Punchy Ker Wells

2005_04_21punchjudy.jpgFor the next three weeks, Toronto audiences will have a chance to see the most (in)famous husband and wife puppet duo of all time — in the flesh. The Confessions of Punch and Judy, arriving from New York and opening in previews tonight at the Theatre Centre on Queen West, is “an all-night showdown that jump-cuts between quarrel and confession, song and dance, and absurd comic violence.”
Toronto actor/director Ker Wells from Number Eleven Theatre plays Mr. Punch, the British National Puppet, in the show. Wells dropped by Torontoist’s office earlier this week to answer a few question about the play he co-created and Mr. Punch’s anarchic resistance to Walmart. (NB: Torontoist’s office is the Internet; that means we e-mailed back and forth.)

We are refering to you as a Toronto actor/director, but you seem to move around so much. Can you explain briefly where you come from and where you’re living right now?
Where I come from: I was born in Munich, Germany, raised till the age of ten in Scandinavia and England, then moved to a sheep farm in PEI. Got a B.A. at Mt. Allison University, then went to the National Theatre School in Montreal. After graduating from NTS I co-founded a theatre company called Primus, based in Winnipeg for 8 years, with a lot of touring all over Canada, and to the U.S. and Southern Italy. Moved to Toronto in 1997, but continue to teach and tour elsewhere as much as here. My company, Number Eleven Theatre is based here. My stuff is here – my my desk lamp, my old letters, my books – is here, in an apartment in Parkdale. My older stuff (pellet gun, comic books, cub scout manual) is in the attic of the farmhouse in PEI.
The Confessions of Punch and Judy is about “the minefields of long-term relationships.” Have you had any luck maintaining long-term relationships as an actor who has to travel and tour all the time?
Some good luck, and some bad. Though as I get older I don’t think it has so much to do with luck.
Where did you meet your Judy, Tannis Kowalchuk, and director Raymond Bobgan?
Tannis I met in Winnipeg 15 years ago – she joined Primus the year after we founded the company. We both met Brad [Krumholz, Tannis’s husband, and co-founder with her of NY state-based North American Cultural Laboratory (NaCl)] when he came to study with Primus a few years later. Brad went on to work for several years with Raymond Bobgan in Cleveland, and since then we’ve been in fairly consistent contact and occasional collaboration. Raymond is currently a director in residence at Cleveland Public Theatre, and CPT was also co-producer of The Confessions of Punch and Judy.
NaCl has a beautiful training and performance facility (an old church and rooming house) in the Catskills, where they host the yearly Catskill Festival of New Theatre. My company, Number Eleven Theatre has toured there several times, (as has Raymond with his own work) and we’ll be performing our most recent piece, The Curious History of Peter Schlemihl (premiered at last year’s Cooking Fire Festival in Toronto) there this summer, as well as working on a new piece.
Whose idea was it to revisit the classic duo of Punch and Judy?
In the earliest stages of working on this piece (our first day of rehearsal was Sept. 11, 2001) before we had asked Raymond to direct us, Tannis and I knew we were interested in making a piece about a couple, and we brought in ideas and material about couples from historical, mythical, fictional, and personal sources. Tannis proposed Punch and Judy in those first days, and we both knew pretty quickly that it was going to be a key element in the piece we were making.
Your Punch and Judy are, obviously, not puppets. What else distiguishes you guys from the past four centuries of Punches and Judies?
Better representation, legs, dressing rooms.
The traditional Punch and Judy script follows a very strict trajectory; and I think every couple has had that sensation, particularly when they’re fighting or arguing of ‘Here we go again’, when you feel like you’re trapped in a familiar and perhaps inescapable script. Part of what you’re watching in our show is two people struggling against that – struggling to break out of their own established script, their personal tradition.
But our Punch and Judy are more evenly matched than the puppet characters are. Traditionally Punch is the ultimate unrestrained manifestation of the id and the ego, of uninhibited, selfish impulse. He survives in his relationship with Judy by whacking her over the head and killing her when she contradicts or criticises him, and he exists in a similar fashion in the world at large, whacking anyone and everyone who attempts to rein him in and make him responsible for his actions. And there you have, in an absurdly exaggerated version, the challenge of existing in a couple – of restraining and moderating your selfish desires and impulses and considering their consequences and effects on your partner and on your relationship together, and the first step in that consideration is recognising and accepting those selfish impulses. The struggle for control, the struggle for freedom, the resentment of feeling possessed and controlled, the desire for security are all buried in the traditional Punch and Judy script; in our show we draw them out a little, we give Judy equal time in the ring, and we see what happens when you don’t knock each other off in the first scene.
Do you think it’s harder for audiences to appreciate “deformed, child-murdering, wife-beating psychopaths who commit appalling acts of violence and cruelty upon all around them and escape scot-free” like Punch nowadays?
I guess it depends whether they’re appearing in a feature film or in the news. Or running for office.
Really, I think that really extreme side of Punch is all around us. Apparently the rise in popularity of the Punch and Judy show coincided with the growing popularity of the county fairs in England, which was in turn a result of the Industrial Revolution and the increasingly restrictive work week that came with it as people moved into factories and mind-numbingly repetitive and/or crippling jobs, and the correspondently increased bureaucratisation and control of work and life. The county fair was a way of breaking free of the increasingly codified and regimented restraints and demands of work and society (not all of them bad, of course), and Mr. Punch was a contained but anarchic little explosion of resistance in the face of all this.
I find some appeal in idea of Mr. Punch, as an anarchic figure of the resistance, appearing in the parking lot of a Walmart.
At the same time, there is of course no shortage of contemporary representations of (apparently) consequence-free violence, and there doesn’t seem to be a shortage of audience for it.
Your show closes at the Theatre Centre on May 8. What will you do to celebrate Punch’s 343rd birthday the next day? (NB: The first written reference to Punch as in protoblogger Samuel Pepys’ diary on May 6, 1662.)
I don’t know yet, but I’m sure that after spending 10 hours driving in the van with Tannis (we’re going to the On The Waterfront Festival in Halifax as soon as we close in Toronto) I’ll be able to think of something.
What is your favourite flavour of Punch?
I don’t have one, though I’m rather partial to the really dark wine gums. Also, the son of our director, Raymond, calls punch “candy water”.
The Confessions of Punch and Judy. Previews: Thursday April 21 and Friday April 22. Opening: Saturday April 23 through to Sunday May 8. At The Theatre Centre, 1087 Queen St. W (corner of Dovercourt)
Tickets: or 416.538.0988
Wednesday – Saturday @ 8 PM, $15
Sundays @ 3 PM, Pay-what-you-can