All is right in the puppet kingdom as Festival of Animated Objects kicks off

You think that you’re out of the puppet kingdom … and they keep pulling. You. Back. In.

Sure, it sounds like a horrifying nightmare that we’ve all experienced once or twice in our lives (in my house it’s known as “being Snuffleupagused”), but in the case of Xstine Cook it is a very, very real thing.

The founder of this city’s biennial International Festival of Animated Objects thought she truly was out of the kingdom that she had built for the past decade and a half. She thought she had found a worthy successor in fellow puppetmaster Pete Balkwill, and assumed she had officially handed over the reins and, well, reign two years ago.

“We did this big ceremony of passing the torch at the launch of the 2015 festival,” Cook says.

“And when the festival wrapped then we actually started doing the work of, ‘How will this happen?’ ”

She understood that it was a pretty involved two years process that meant looking to raising funds, booking acts and artists and all of the other things that come with putting on a four-day festival.

“At a certain point I said to Pete, ‘Who’s actually running this thing once it gets running? Because you’re going to be mounting a show and I’m going to be doing this mask (project) and I’m not going to be staying up at night fixing the website and making sure the passes are where they need to be and coordinating all of the volunteers,’ ” Cook says.

“And I think Pete thought that I was going to do that.”

She laughs. “In fact he as much as admitted that in print on Friday in Swerve (magazine, the Calgary Herald weekly publication). He realized I wasn’t going to walk away. I had no idea that he was tricking me that way.”

So she didn’t. She stayed, of course. But they did the next best thing — or perhaps bestest thing — which was to assemble a team of people to help them pull the 2017 event off, including managing producer Gwen Murray, who had previously worked with ATP and One Yellow Rabbit, and who Cook calls “a lovely, sane, intelligent being who actually really, genuinely cares about puppetry in Calgary.”

Cook laughs again. “It’s only taken 15 years to find her.”

But it has, she says, been worth it. With her and Balkwill sharing the co-artistic director duties — she focussed on curating the film aspect of the fest; he involved with the live-action puppet shows — and the other members of their group taking care of the logistical aspects and the marketing, they are poised for what should be their best event ever.

In fact, for the first time in its history some of the shows for the International Animated Objects Festival, which runs Thursday through Sunday at various locations around Calgary, had already sold out before opening night.

It’s something that Cook marvels at, the fact that somehow people in this city have been made to care about a puppetry festival.

“I have no fucking idea,” she roars when asked how that happened. “I’ve been trying for 15 years.”

“It’s really quite incredible to see it growing and evolving,” she continues. “I think it’s getting better and better.”

A bit part of that is the programming, which she and Balkwill can certainly take a bow over.

On his side of things, there are some highly anticipated offerings including: new show The Umbrella, which is an adaptation of Calgarian Judd Palmer’s book that was nominated for a Governor General’s Literary Award for Children’s Literature and which Cook calls “odd and metaphysical” and one of the few shows for families; Portland troupe The Wonderheads’ Fringe Festival hit The Loon; and, of course, the main show of the fest, which is a remounting of The Unlikely Birth of Istvan from Balkwill’s own company, Old Trout Puppet Workshop, which Cook calls a “national treasure.”

Cook’s curation skills have allowed her to assemble programming that features: an evening called Animovies, featuring mature-themed, “curious, dark, intriguing, and hilarious puppet and stop-motion films from around the world”; Handmade Puppet Dreams Vol. VII, which is a collection of shorts assembled by Muppet-man Jim Henson’s daughter Heather; and Cook’s aforementioned mask project, which saw her working with 300 school-children to create masks based on their identities.

Along with all of that there are the usual workshops, cabarets and assorted events that make the festival a truly unique event in this city, or any other.

And although she hasn’t entirely removed herself from the puppet kingdom, one would think with her reduced workload and removal from many of the other, perhaps, more banal aspects of its operation, that Cook would be looking forward to it a little more this year, excited to be able to  relax, take it all in and enjoy it for once.

“Well, you know what, I always said the best thing about the festival is the festival — all the hard work that goes into it is totally worth it in the days that the artists are here and the people are coming and the shows are happening, those connections between local and international artists are happening, and you see some young kid who’s here from Winnipeg to perform in the cabaret literally running to attend someone’s mask performance workshop,” she says.

“That is why I do it, is to get the artform to evolve and develop and grow beyond where it currently is. And that’s on an artistic level as well as an audience level, where we bring interesting stuff for the audience but we also create opportunities for the artists to network and see each other’s work and be influenced by each other.”

The International Festival of Animated Objects takes place Thursday through Sunday at various locations around Calgary. For tickets, more information and a full schedule of events please click here.

Mike Bell has been covering the Calgary music scene for the past 25 years with publications such as VOX, Fast Forward, the Calgary Sun and, most recently, the Calgary Herald. He is currently the music writer and content editor for, and the co-host of the show Saved By the Bell, which airs Wednesdays from 4-6 p.m. on CJSW 90.9 FM. Follow him on Twitter/@mrbell_23 or email him at He likes beer. Buy him one.