The art of puppetry is an interesting medium for artistic expression. For years, artists have been using puppets as a way to push artistic boundaries and express the sentiment of counter-cultures by allowing a friendly face to deal with wacky and subversive content. By using puppets, certain topics and forms of comedy are able to be portrayed that might not be as acceptable with human actors. Just take one look at the work of Jim Henson, either his Sesame Street characters or the Muppets, and it quickly becomes obvious how far boundaries can be pushed through the use of puppetry. While some people may associate puppeteering with children’s entertainment, it’s the use of puppets to deal with mature topics and themes that has gained the art form such cultural significance.
A Calgary-based artistic community picked up on this notion back in 1990 and set forth to develop what is now known as The Old Trout Puppet Workshop. Judd Palmer and Pete Balkwill, along with a few others, had just formed the local Calgary roots act The Agnostic Mountain Gospel Choir. While they all share an obvious affinity for musical creation, their artistic talents seemed to stretch beyond that of the musical realm and they still needed an outlet for that creativity. Combine the artistic mediums of theatre, music, sculpting, writing and carpentry, and out comes a puppeteering troupe.
“That’s what puppetry is,” states Balkwill, while basking on his back porch during one of the last sunny days of summer. “It’s the convolution of every artistic medium you can think of. The idea was that we wanted to spread our strengths amongst the company and draw from our specific experiences.”
While The Old Trout Puppet Workshop is responsible for producing a number of different art forms, its main focus is that of puppetry and it is through this medium that they have gained widespread attention over the past 12 years.
“To go beyond theatre and not brand ourselves as a theatre company was really exciting for me when we started because I loved the idea of accessing different artistic senses of myself. The notion was that the Old Trout Puppet Workshop Society, where puppets is a very primary feature of the company, would be an umbrella for all the different artistic mediums and that the company would actually be a collective of artists and we would push ourselves into visual art and into written word and into music.”
The latest artistic creation of The Old Trouts is entitled Ignorance and will be playing at the Pumphouse Theatre from October 23 – November 4. While the production was previously shown to Calgary audiences as part of the Magnetic North Festival back in June, this will be a much longer run for Ignorance and will be the company’s first shot at self producing in our fine city. With ideas for the production being drawn from their previous play, The Erotic Anguish of Don Juan, this next production looks at notions of happiness and how it has evolved from our pre-historic beginnings to its current commodification in our technologically driven society.
While the Old Trouts have always worked in a collective based form of artistic creation, they took that concept a step further when creating Ignorance and decided to open it up to the world as part of an open creation form of writing.
“We thought, why not invite reviewers to be involved in the process before they see the show and view it?” states Balkwill. “Why not give them a place where they can go look at some of the dialogue and discussions, join in that discussion, see the show, then review it from a much more objective point of view?”
While Balkwill admits that the open creation process was tedious at times, he seems quite pleased with the end result of this ambitious endeavour.
“It can only make it richer, regardless of whether it’s incorporated into the show or not. [These ideas have] some sense of resounding presence even in a subliminal way. It’s bouncing around in the back of your mind, even though you’re not choosing that concrete idea. Your idea is being coloured by all the other ideas that are rolling around back there.”
Spoken like a true member of a collective, Balkwill claims that by incorporating the ideas of more people into the creation of their art, the creative palette can only become greater.
Running alongside Ignorance this fall, the Old Trouts are trying their hand at creating the first annual Brief Festival, which will also be happening at Pumphouse Theatres. The event will be free to the public, but tickets must be obtained in order to reserve a space as the festival is based around a series of short productions that take place in small, creative spaces throughout the theatre. By using a site-specific style of theatre, the festival will draw audiences into unique settings and allow them to catch brief glimpses into a variety of different subjects.
Spoken like a true artist, Balkwill explains the festival as being “more for the interest and the love of the art, and the curiosity of experience.”
By Kaely Cormack