2019 Next Stage Festival Review: Raising Stanley / Life With Tulia (Raising Stanley / Life with Tulia collective)

Raising Stanley / Life with Tulia, playing at the Next Stage Theatre Festival after its sold-out premiere in Ottawa, is a multi-disciplinary piece that combines storytelling and painting to take the audience on a journey through the experience of raising and partnering with guide dogs for the blind. 

Storyteller Kim Kilpatrick shares the stage with her guide dog Tulia and the projected artwork of Karen Bailey. Without any distracting or cloying embellishments, without overstatement or clever schtick, she takes us through her earliest education in using a cane, her discovery of canine service, and her life with several dogs with which she has been partnered. 

For me, who knew little to nothing about the training and handling of guide dogs, this was highly informative! We are led through the process of applying for a guide dog and the many joys and struggles of living with one. 

Kilpatrick’s delivery is gentle and clear. Her voice doesn’t waver or rush. She doesn’t belabour any moment and yet each one feels fully realized. Most of her story is upbeat and amusing, with endearing anecdotes that sparkle. I was particularly tickled by the “charm offensive” employed by one of her pups. There is some heartbreak too, but it is handled with such grace that it never feels heavy or grim. 

Filling her descriptions with simple and resonant details, she gives each of these dogs that have enriched her life its proper due, then moves on from one to another just before our attention wanders. It felt as if I had truly met each of these playful, hard-working companions and could appreciate their vivid and unique personalties. 

Bailey’s artwork, projected on a small screen centre stage, is the main visual element. The impressionistic images of dogs and their owners in various settings are lovingly rendered, made even more emotive by our knowledge that their creator has a deep investment in her subjects—one she shares with our storyteller. Bailey’s voice is also heard as she describes some of the paintings and their inspiration, sharing her experiences of raising guide dogs.

The director, Bronwyn Steinberg, adds her own voice to the presentation by providing audio descriptions throughout the performance. At first, I worried that I might find this distracting, but very quickly it felt an integral part of the show. 

Raising Stanley / Life with Tulia is full of charm, wit, and quiet innovation. Both conceptually and viscerally, it feels like a fully realized and functional model for a theatre of inclusivity—where both performers and audiences of varying ability can properly participate. 


Image: Kim Tulia Karen Stanley by Karen Bailey