Prehistoric pursuit of happiness

The Old Trout Puppet Workshop looks way back to where we went wrong

Somewhere somehow something went terribly wrong in the course of human neurological evolution with the result that we’re all pretty much miserable most of the time. According to the Old Trout Puppet Workshop — whose latest show features in the Magnetic North Theatre Festival — we can trace the path of our error back to caveman times when Neanderthal Adam and Eve got a little too happy with the apple and gave birth to a whole whack of troubles and woe. The appropriately titled Ignorance then is a searching investigation of the human fall from happiness informed by a broad and nuanced understanding of historical pseudo-fact and presented in the grand Herzogian documentary tradition.

With puppets.

Really massive topics told on an epic scale are familiar territory for Calgary’s long-standing (and magnificently talented) premier puppet ensemble: other recent works include The Erotic Anguish of Don Juan (love) and Famous Puppet Death Scenes (death). The impetus to tackle happiness as the next big issue says Old Trout Judd Palmer grew out of a general sense — garnered in the course of extensive cocktail party-type field observation — that nobody ever seems to be happy.

“We all seem to be struggling” he says. “Everyone seems to be miserable. There’s this preponderance of books coming out by strange and gnomic mystics telling us how to be happy. So we had this impulse to figure it all out for everybody — it seems like a big social issue — and maybe we could solve it.“

At the same time the Trouts brought a fetish for cave people to bear on the same sorts of cocktail-infused conversations collecting and recording various tidbits of pre-historic half-truths and were struck in the process by the extent of general interest — and nostalgic investment — in our origins.

“It turned out everybody had a pre-historic pseudo-fact about cave people that they could lay on the table” says Palmer. “And what’s interesting about it of course is that whether these pseudo-facts are true or not — and most of them are spurious no doubt — is that they tell us about who we are. They speak to a kind of anxiety that I think is pervasive. That we’re way out on a limb. That we’re not at all designed to live in the world we live in.”

This rapacious quest prompted an innovative step in the Trouts’ creative process: the World Wide Open Creation Puppet Show Project a blog launched in September 2010 which brought the conversation from the party to the electronic page. Over the course of the show’s development the Trouts offered ideas images and rough drafts of the script-in-progress inviting their prospective audience to comment criticize and contribute ideas. For the ensemble the invitation to contribute was not solely a bid to pillage ideas from the larger community but also a logical extension of the theatre’s inherently collaborative process.

“What makes a show beautiful” Palmer says “is this sense that we’re all in it together. That it’s not an audience sitting there asking ‘so what’ve you got?’ It’s more like a bunch of people audience included being in a room and trying to make something kind of odd or strange or wonderful happen. And so we thought ‘why not extend that notion even further?’”

Although — disappointingly — none of the bloggers accepted the Trouts’ invitation to “send us a video of your interpretive dance called ‘Mastodon by Moonlight’” postings nonetheless offer everything from sketches of prehistoric Romeo and Juliet masks to a bit on Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams (which came out in theatres after the work on Ignorance had begun) to an impassioned objection to one version of the ending (eventually discarded) that features Neanderthal Eve giving birth to a yellow happy-face balloon.

Ignorance is — well — bliss but asked whether offering up so much material in advance might rob the audience of some of their sense of surprise the Trouts demur. On the one hand photographs and images and bits of discussion do not equal a performance; on the other — and more importantly — theatre itself is always inevitably a collaborative enterprise.

More than just a story about happiness and cave people and where we all went wrong then Ignorance is also a reflection on the nature and origins of theatre and puppetry itself (which closes the circle of investigation because puppets make us happy). An undisclosed — and likely heavily pseudo-factual — work of puppet history cited by Palmer theorizes that fertility icons like the Venus of Willendorf were in fact primitive puppets.

“Many of these figurines had hinged joints — so they were actually puppets not statues. They were used to build social coherence or something like that. But they were probably thought of as manifestations of the goddess here in your hand. As puppeteers we found that exciting that [early people] made puppets that that was one of the first things they did. In fact there’s a group of chimpanzees found that were carrying around a kind of rock that was shaped like a chimpanzee. So puppets go way way back and it’s a very mysterious magical thing. And that’s one of the reasons we thought it would be interesting to do the show because it’s a sort of investigation of our art.”

Such pseudo-factual scholarly assurance licensed the Trouts’ choice of design and materials for the pre historical puppets which Palmer notes “are built as though they were made by cave people out of primitive materials — rocks sticks bones antlers. There was a fairly significant push to collect antlers from hunting friends.”

The Royal Saskatchewan Museum also contributed artifacts to use as models in the designs.

“There’s a joy in what you find as opposed to what you invent and that ties into the puppet design” says Palmer. “Things surprise you — they have their own kind of peculiarities. You could never take a twig and carve it — it has its own jogs and turns in the same way as the warbles and cracks of an old recording.”

A primitivist found aesthetic then also informs production choices in the documentary framework of the show both in the use of 78 rpm records for an “older crackly” (and rights-free) sound and in video that mimics the wobbliness of early film. For Palmer this approach to the show’s audiovisual design places the documentary in a kind of historical no-place that allows the Trouts to distance themselves from their own pseudo-factual claims or as Palmer puts it: “to throw a bit of a wink into whatever we’re saying.”

“A lot of the inspiration for the show came from Totem and Taboo by Freud who was clearly in many circles an unacceptable source — he was totally wrong on all fronts — but nevertheless a powerful and poetic writer about the origins of humanity” says Palmer. “So by placing it in this indeterminate historical realm we could kind of get away with it without necessarily having to stand by Freud.”

Whether at this juncture you choose to believe them or not the Trouts unanimously claim — in the course of more than two years’ creative development — to have solved the problem of happiness.

“It’s…. Do I love the people around me?” offers Trout Peter Balkwill. “Do they frustrate me at times? They totally do. So do they make me happy? Probably not. But then again if you let go of that need to be happy you realize that life is much greater than that thing. It’s like when you’re fighting about an idea — you’ve got your idea and the other person has their idea and you’re resisting it…. You’re arguing and you’re discussing ‘Why? Why? Why?’— and then something within you lets go of it needing to be your idea and you start investing in the other person’s idea. You start to feel lighter and I think that happiness is the same kind of thing: it’s your idea that you need to let go of.”

Like a balloon with a happy face on it?

“Yeah” the Trouts unanimously concur with applause.