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Artist Features

I Am YEG Arts: Randall Fraser

July 4, 2024

Randall Fraser is a man of many talents: he is a theatre designer, puppeteer, fire performer, actor, director, festival producer, and the Artistic Director of the National Stiltwalkers of Canada. In this week’s I Am YEG Arts feature, Randall tells us how his practice has expanded through the years, why sharing knowledge as an artist is so valuable, how the National Stiltwalkers of Canada came to be and how the organization continues to evolve.

How did you get your start as a theatre artist and a stiltwalker? Was a career in the arts always plan A? 

In a way, it became plan A. I started my relationship with theatre when I took the acting class – the drama class in high school, thinking it was an easy 5 credits – and discovered that I really liked everything about it. I like the acting, I like building sets, I like the lighting; I did all that stuff. And then I discovered the Drumheller drama summer camp and I really fell in love with theatre and everything about the theatrical world. I went back for the subsequent two years, and I even went back as a counselor. 

I acted with different theatre companies around the city. I moved to Toronto and toured Northern Ontario with a touring theatre company as a dancer, actor, storyteller. Then I got into doing technical work. I got my ticket as a stage manager and tour manager, and then I ended up designing and being the House Technician for Leah Posluns Centre in Toronto, which connected me with a director who was doing workshops out in Kelowna at the Sunshine Theatre, and they asked me to design some pieces. And while all of this was going on, I was getting fascinated by masks and puppets. Somebody found out about my hobby and asked me if I could design some masks and puppets for a show, and that got me into the design world. So, I went from being an actor, to a stage manager, to a technician, to a designer. 

And then I met David and Sheryl from Trickster and ended up touring their school shows and then the AFA School Residency program started. David had this crazy idea to do an entirely original theatrical production based on the ideas of the students and the teachers and the whole school would be involved. That was 1990, and here we are 34 years later. I stopped touring with them back in 2000, so I did about 12 years of nonstop residency work with them. We were doing an original theatre piece a week, and I was acting, directing and creating all through that. Now I still do the odd thing for them because they’re lifelong friends and companions, and I love what they do. 

In 2001, I got an opportunity to make a presentation for some elements for the opening ceremonies of the International Amateur Athletic Federation’s (IAAF) World Games, which were being hosted here. I showed one little idea which would require two stilt walkers for this animal character. By the time that project was completed, we ended up adding another 20 stilt walkers to the show and I ended up training over 50 people. It was so successful they invited us to the closing ceremony. 

Afterwards, I had all these stilt walkers wanting to do more. So, we founded the Edmonton Stilt Walker Society in November of 2001 (in September of 2010 we officially changed our name to the National Stiltwalkers of Canada). 

Our first our very first gig was with the St. Albert Children’s Theatre Festival. We continued doing odd gigs here and there, and by 2010, we had a really solid core team of about 15 – 20 people doing probably 50 to 60 gigs a year. 

Three years ago, we celebrated our 20th anniversary. To live up to our new mandate and name and become a representative for stilt walkers across Canada, we now host a national symposium for stilt walkers. We held one last year as a prototype idea, and it went quite well. We had people from three of the western provinces. This year, we’re hoping to do it again and double or triple our numbers and get more provinces joining in. 

As a longtime member of Trickster Theatre, you’ve had the opportunity to direct and develop hundreds of plays and performances with students from K‑12. What is it about working with youth that inspires you as an artist? 

That has so many layers of relevance. I still have relationships with my mentors who taught me in high school and university and onwards. I had these great mentors who basically changed my life. I thought I was going to be a marine biologist or something in the sciences, and when I found the arts, it was because the people who taught me we’re so passionate, enthusiastic and generous. 

As I got into it more and more, and as I toured theatre, I saw the response that we got from kids, the buy-in, the willingness, the curiosity and enthusiasm. I thought that’s something that I want to do. So, it became a kind of a core focus in my life – to make sure that any kids I worked with got the same opportunities and inspiration that I did. When we started doing the residencies it became even more amazing because you got to spend a week with kids and get to know them and teach them something really fundamental about creativity and art. One of the reasons I stuck with Trickster was because I realized the real lesson we were teaching was how to take an idea and turn that original thought into something that you share with people that becomes a reality. We were giving them those skills without them even realizing it until the end of the performance. What I really love is the idea that we’re opening and enriching people’s lives and giving them opportunities for greater expression and greater opportunity to explore the world. 

I also work with Theatre Prospero, and they do Shakespeare residencies in schools. I remember this one student, she was 13 at the time, and she just fell in love with it. She was there first thing in the morning, and she was the last one to leave every day. Several years later she ended up working with the company doing residencies. And then she got her MFA as a director, and she’s currently the Artistic Director of the Street Performers Festival. We now get to work with her as an equal and she’s gone on to become a leader in the community, giving back in the same way. That’s why it’s so important to engage with the youth; because they are the future. 

Tell us more about the National Stiltwalkers of Canada, and what makes the organization special to you and the city.

In 2001, when I came up with this idea, I had this love for stilt walking but it was pretty solitary. I knew one or two other stilt walkers. One was the person that trained me (Sheryl), and the other one was another friend from the Green Fools in Calgary (Dean). When we did the World Games, suddenly I had a community of 50 plus people. Between now and back then, we’ve never had less than about 20 people as members of the group. We started with 10 puppet costumes and now we have a closet of over 100, representing about 30 or 40 characters.

Edmonton is special because it’s my hometown. It’s where I discovered myself as an artist. It’s where NSC has grown up, and while we’ve toured all over, it’s centered here. We’re part of the Edmonton festival scene and I’m also on the board of Arts on the Avenue, which puts on Kaleido and Deep Freeze. We’ve also been doing things with the Edmonton Arts Council in Churchill Square with Bob Rasko for the better part of 10 years or more. We’ve done New Year’s Eve festivals, Canada Day festivals, we’re entrenched in the Folk Fest, we were at Heritage Days. This is home for us.

Out east they’ve got Cirque du Soleil and other stuff that gets all of the big money and is really known, but there are hundreds and probably thousands of stilt walkers across Canada, either as professionals, professional companies, amateurs, enthusiasts, people who do it culturally (because stilt walking exists in every culture across the globe in different forms). There are so many varieties of stilt walking that exist in Canada alone and I thought, well, if we’re going to live up to our name as the National Stiltwalkers of Canada we need to reach out to stilt walkers across Canada. And I would love to make Edmonton, and the West, the cultural hub for all stilt walkers. The idea is that we become a resource for information and networking. The symposium we had last year demonstrated that we had people from several different stilt backgrounds and several different layers of ability, from professionals to people who bought a pair at a garage sale and are trying to learn. For me, it’s about preserving, promoting and presenting the art of still walking locally, regionally, nationally and making Edmonton the star on the map from which all of our activities flow.

As the founding Artistic Director of the National Stiltwalkers of Canada what have been some of your most memorable experiences? 

Every festival has highlights and feature moments. One of my favorite moments is seeing a little kid and they see us, and they start to cry. But then we bring them around, and the next thing they’re giggling, reaching out and high fiving. That never gets old. 

But one real highlight, we got to perform in Nanjing, China at the Western Circus Arts Festival in the heart of downtown in this amazing old stadium. When you walked into the entrance it had these two silver statues of athletes and the Olympic rings over the arch in the entrance. This stadium had been around so long that there were trees and grass and vines growing, literally growing out of the stadium seating. We performed every day for a week and performers from all over North America were there, and a couple from Europe as well. It was really extraordinary and a lot of fun. 

And then of course, performing across the country from Victoria to Halifax and being able to say I’ve dipped my stilts in both oceans. 

What’s something you knew instinctively that’s still serving you today as an artist? 

I figured out really early on to be open to collaboration and sharing my knowledge generously. A good example of this is the stilt walking community. I’ve trained most of the stilt walkers in the province. Over the years that’s developed and now some of my graduates have gone on to start their own companies. You’d think there’s only so many opportunities and we’re all competing for the same opportunities, but that’s not what actually happens. In fact, because there are more of us doing it, more people are tuning into it and getting inspired by it and it’s made more work for everybody. We all do something a little different, and we are contacting different people constantly and broadening that awareness. What I’ve learnt is that if we work together, there’s always going to be more for everybody. No matter how you work it, the competition doesn’t actually serve you. 

The other thing that’s come from sharing is this idea of being open to collaboration. We’ve done a number of co-productions with different companies that we never would have thought of approaching if we had stayed in our little market. We’ve done productions with the Alberta Aboriginal Arts Association, Firefly Circus, Theatre Prospero, and others. I learned how to hoop dance on stilts, because of doing a production with the Aboriginal Arts Association and that would never have been something I would have thought I would get to try or learn. 

Tell us a little about what you’re currently working on or hoping to explore next. 

The thing that I’m working on right now is our second symposium, which is going to be the first week in October (46) at the Fringe Theatre Adventures. There’s going to be workshops and seminars and the trade show, but because we’re performers and we like to show off, we also have live performances. Some workshops will also be open to the public. We’re going to have an event called the Olympic Stilt Challenge where anybody can come and give it a try because engaging with new people and youth is central to what we do. 

To keep it national we’re also going to be broadcasting live across the country. So, a community can tune in and watch their hometown team perform with other performers from across Canada. This is part of sector development because the people that are aware of stilt walking are really the stilt walkers themselves, their families and the communities that they perform in. But outside of those they don’t necessarily know each other. Hopefully [the symposium] will be something we do every year and eventually we’ll have people from every province represented. 

My other side career is as a carver, which may be my next career if/​when I’m done with stilt walking. I’ve been a carver since I went to Bali in 1992 and I have a real passion for it. I’ve been carving ice and snow at Silver Skate Festival and all over the province for about 15 years now, and I work with the Sculptures Association of Alberta. 

One of the highlights of my life involves carving. I was stilt walking at Fort Edmonton, and I met the guy who was the lead carver for the re-creation of the carousel at the zoo. On one of my breaks, we got chatting and he invited me to help with the project of repairing and maintaining all the horses and the carousel. For the last six or seven years, I’ve been going down to Fort Edmonton Park and I’ve been learning from these master carvers. I ended up carving a great horned owl and it is now in the Valley Zoo carousel where kids ride it every day. When I was a little kid, I remember when it was the Storyland Valley Zoo and riding that carousel with those aluminum horses. To work with the team that completely refurbished it into this brand new gorgeous thing and to know that it’s going to be there for Edmontonians and tourists for the next 20 years or more is amazing. 

About Randall Fraser

Randall is the founding Artistic Director of the National Stiltwalkers of Canada, and is celebrating 21 years of promoting preserving and presenting the art of stiltwalking. Randall’s history in theatre and special event creation is long and varied. From his origins as a young actor, Randall has become a Designer, Director, Producer, and Performer for many major festivals and events locally, nationally, and internationally. Randall is also a puppet designer, performer, and instructor. If it’s fantastic and spectacular, Randall is probably nearby.