This Little Piggie gives a sneak peek

Old Trout’s dust bowl folk opera prepares for festival première

The Old Trout Puppet Workshop’s latest production This Little Piggie is a “dust bowl folk opera” that promises “pigs puppets and pump organs.”

Peter Balkwill who does double duty as part of the Old Trout ensemble and the Agnostic Mountain Gospel Choir says the show is a dramatic departure for the group. A project three-plus years in the making This Little Piggie began life at a script workshop funded by Alberta Theatre Projects. Afterwards Eric Rose (who is co-directing Piggie with Balkwill) asked where the production was headed and it began to grow from there. A series of random conversations over the next few years eventually led the group to convene at the Rocky Mountain YMCA where they wrote 22 songs over the course of two weeks.

“That environment fuelled a huge amount of creative spirit for me personally” says Balkwill. “From the rich Native heritage to the leagues of children out there you make immense discoveries in just running through the forest and pretending.”

Jolene Higgins (a.k.a. Little Miss Higgins) says a couple of years had passed since she chatted with Balkwill about the show. “I’ll forget that it happened then Pete will email everyone and say ‘We’re gonna do this again’ and the music just comes flooding back” she says.

This Little Piggie follows the trials and tribulations of a young pregnant couple trying to survive life in the dust bowl the great agricultural disaster that precipitated the Great Depression. Balkwill says the show was inspired by the desperation of those times and the measures people took to survive. “We look back on it and talk about how horrible it was” he says. “But I think our technology blinds us to the fact that we’re in the midst of the same thing now. We’re fooling ourselves that we’re not.” Like the damaging effects of the tarsands Balkwill says people knew about the effect they were having on the land and it turned on them. “It was then the worst man-made environmental disaster” he says. “We could be walking into another one.”

Balkwill says the band including Kris Demeanor Higgins David Rhymer Bob Keelaghan Bessie Wapp and Balkwill was hand-picked with only a vague idea of what the story would be. “In that regard it’s like a dream band of sorts” he says. During the early composing process he says each member of the ensemble was given “emotional snapshots” of various character traits and situations letting the musicians explore and create their own responses to the tale. “The project then begins to say what it wants to happen next” he says. Balkwill says the process so far has been mostly seamless. “I’m a drummer and the drummer always gets told what to do in the band” he adds laughing.

The resultant creation says Balkwill was much more concert-oriented so he approached the Calgary Folk Music Festival as a potential home for it. “Kerry (Clarke) was gracious enough to invest in it as something that could play in that environment challenging perceptions of something people can see at a music festival” he says.

Balkwill says audiences expecting “highly contrived puppetry” will be surprised. “The puppetry in this project is being layered in like the songs” he says. “It has a similar affect to the music adding another swath of emotional context to the story. The show isn’t resting on puppetry — it’s added in like an instrument in a way that offsets the music.”

He says the different approach to using puppetry has its benefits. “Puppets are a pain in the ass they rebel against you” he says adding that it’s difficult finding a way to subtly integrate such a dynamic visual element.

Balkwill says the preview shows will give the group a chance to experiment in preparation for This Little Piggie’s première in July at the Calgary Folk Music Festival. “We’re still in the exploratory collaborative part of the production discovering where the puppet moments can happen” he says adding that there are future plans in the works though that will be determined by the musicians’ various schedules.

Balkwill says the idea of a folk opera isn’t something people are familiar with and the challenge will be meeting audience expectations of the Trouts’ past acclaimed work. “The notion of opera carries a notion of grand mythic themes” he says. Higgins adds that it’s not really a period piece though they’ve done plenty of research on the Dirty ’30s. “When you think of a musical you think of just simple song and dance; that’s definitely not what this is” she says.