Calgary’s Old Trout Puppet Theatre brings out the inner-child
Puppetry is an artform that some may think of as archaic, but Calgary’s Old Trout Puppet Workshop aims to confront those views with each production, their newest, Jabberwocky, being no exception.
Originally a trio of artists looking to wait out the Y2K bug crisis that predicted all computers would essentially implode on us and destroy life as we knew it, friends Judd Palmer, Peter Balkwill, and Steve “Pityu” Kenderes started Old Trout as a way to prepare for the fate of humanity without computers.
“We were driven by a kind of apocalyptic fervor to gather together in a rural location where we were well armed and had access to fresh water and cows in case of apocalypse,” Palmer says.
While prepping the Palmer family ranch west of Calgary sometime in late ‘99, Palmer and his buddies realized they would need something to do, or make a living from while airports and traffic lights were down for the count.
Their solution was puppetry.
“In all that frenzy we figured we needed some kind of job in the dystopian future and so we thought ‘Well yeah, let’s make puppet shows; we’ll be the roving puppet theatre of the Mad Max world that is about to come.’
“At a certain point,” he laughs, “even while sending off cannibal-mutant Hutterite motorcycle gangs or whatever, you need to stop for a moment and ponder the delicate things in life.”
But when the world’s computers didn’t implode like originally thought, the trio realized they didn’t really care. They had found something they all enjoyed, and, as Palmer jokes, it was the potential to work as artists.
With Palmer’s background as an illustrator, Balkwill’s knowledge of writing and theatre and Kenderes’ background as a sculptor, the trio set out on beginning their puppetry workshop, “Fort Trout.”
“Puppetry, really,” Palmer says, “is the sum of all arts, you take all arts and stick them together, which is why it’s the highest of all the arts.”
Much like their Luddite-esque roots, the Old Trouts believe there is something enthralling about bygone gadgets and gizmos built by hand in a time where entertainment and knowledge can connote torpidity and withdrawal. The Old Trouts instead generate engagement with their trademark slightly twisted humour and edge of nihilistic retort.
“It’s the creak of the joint or the squeak of the hinge that makes it joyful,” he says. “And reminds us of the simpler origins to our imaginations.”
While the trio has moved from the realm of puppet dabblers to puppet masters over the past 17 years, Old Trout continually test themselves and their arcane skills on new and enigmatic endeavours. Their newest production is no different.
Jabberwocky, Palmer says, is inspired by two peculiar Victorian traditions from around the time the poem was written. Traditions feature cardboard “toy theatres” and cut-out paper puppets from books that to attach to sticks. Though simple in concept, it was with these simple puppet theatres that Victorian children would tell Rumpelstiltskin and Little Red Riding Hood for decades.
Old Trout Puppet Workshop have something slightly more avant-garde than a cardboard box for their production, though the set is also inspired by Victorian-era gadgetry.
Moving panoramas were used on stages in the mid-19th century to create the illusion of movement for an otherwise stationary set piece, adding dynamic and visual interest on stage in a time where film and camera hadn’t even been incepted in a man’s mind.
“You combine these two things—the miracle of the scrolling panorama and the toy theatre esthetic—what it ends up being is an anachronistic proto-animation,” he says. “It’s like a live-animated movie or a pop-up book coming to life.”
Originally commissioned by a festival in France, the poem was chosen for its ability to play with the wonderfully weird and regularly macabre folklore and fable. No one knows who the Jabberwocky resembles, nor do they know what sounds may erupt from its belly. But that’s the whole point, says Palmer.
“It became a metaphor for us about the things that keep you awake at night, staring at your ceiling unable to sleep, tossing and turning; the thing that’s drooling outside your existential window; what’s prowling and making you slowly go crazy?”
Thu., Nov. 9 – 26 (8 pm)
The Roxy on Gateway