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Big fish bring great joy to Whitehorse continuing care homes

Nakai Theatre Ensemble performed musical puppet parades for residents at three facilites last week
Nakai Theatre artistic director, Jacob Zimmer, leads the parade manipulating a jellyfish puppet. (Magan Carty/Yukon News)

From Arts in the Park and the Fireweed Market to National Indigenous Peoples Day and the Arctic Arts Summit, Nakai Theatre has kicked off their 2022 summer programming with a wide range of festival performances and community-engaged puppetry.

Closing off what the company called its “Big Fish Summer” were visits to three continuing care homes in Whitehorse during the first week of July.

Artistic director Jacob Zimmer, managing producer Norah Paton, and an ensemble of summer staff, musicians and volunteers brought parades of fish puppets to Copper Ridge Place, the Thomson Centre and Whistle Bend Place.

Many residents were accompanied by caregivers to experience the colourful parades outdoors on the terraces next to their buildings. Others watched the puppets go by from their balconies or bedroom windows.

Singer-songwriter Claire Ness was one of many local artists who took part in the parade. She brought a musical layer to the spectacle with her brand-new song called “Big Fish.” Some of the lyrics to this “ear worm,” as other performers called it, went like this: “I’m a big fish in a tiny little pond.”

“It’s about being Yukon famous,” Ness said while laughing.

“And it was a really good fit for the giant fish puppets, so I finished the chorus and a verse the morning of the [first] parade. Now I am going to polish it up and I hope to get it recorded so Nakai can use it for their video.”

Ness loves bringing joy, music and art to the continuing care homes and says she finds this type of work particularly gratifying. Entertaining the residents is a way for her to connect with them and make a difference doing what she loves.

“I imagine how isolating and depressing it can be to live there sometimes,” she said.

“Our elders deserve our appreciation. This is one way I can make an effort to help.”

Ness played the guitar and kazoo in addition to singing. She was accompanied by musicians Andrea McColeman and Marc Paradis who added percussion instruments and an accordian to the mix.

Susie Anne Bartsch has been a puppeteer for these parades since the project’s inception in 2020. She said the idea came about during the first pandemic summer.

The puppets weren’t limited by social distancing in the same way people were. They could walk and dance towards each other and find ways to hug, interact and connect in ways “we humans” could not, she explained.

According to Bartsch, each year has been a lot of fun to bring this procession to the continuing care facilities and “watch the people take such delight and interest.”

This year, she was quite literally “inside a fish,” manipulating the biggest puppet of the parade, playfully named Carpe. Because of this, Bartsch said she couldn’t connect with people in the same way she had the opportunity to in the past.

“And yet,” she said, “I could still feel the energy and impact of swimming up to people and listening to them interact with the fish itself.”

Her father, Chris Bartsch, has participated in the parades every year. His first performance was at Copper Ridge Place and fell on the same day as his birthday. All the puppeteers, musicians and audience members sang “Happy Birthday” to him.

“He was wonderfully surprised,” his daughter said.

“This year, he was admitted into Whistle Bend Place, so it was quite a thing to go and fish him out of there to perform for his friends inside. They had no idea of his history with this event, so it was a great deal of fun for us to surprise them last Friday.”

The school of fish puppets has since swam into storage, but they will come out again at the end of the summer for Nakai Theatre’s performance installation at Wondercrawl on Friday, Sept. 2.

Disclosure: Magan Carty is professionally affiliated with Nakai Theatre.

Contact Magan Carty at

Susie Anne Bartsch animates the biggest fish of them all, with her father following closely behind. (Magan Carty/Yukon News)
Puppeteers loop into the terrace at Whistle Bend Place to perform for residents. (Magan Carty/Yukon News)
From left, Andrea Colemand, Claire Ness and Marc Paradis underscore the parade with an original song called “Big Fish.” (Magan Carty/Yukon News)