Back in the 1980s, Pityu Kenderes, better known as one of the founders of the Old Trout Puppet Workshop — along with Peter Balkwill and Judd Palmer — was an art student at the Nova Scotia School of Art and Design in Halifax, where he studied painting and “intermedia.”
Kenderes had an assignment to create a video — but left to his own devices, he floundered.
“I couldn’t get people to be in my little movies, so I would make puppet stand-ins,” he says. “I wasn’t very organized. I couldn’t get my shit together, so I just would make puppets. They would always show up on time.
“And,” he adds, “I would make them do unsavoury things.”
In fact, those puppet art videos went so well, that when Kenderes moved west to do an MFA in sculpture at the University of Calgary, he incorporated an aspect of puppetry into his sculpting projects — and enlisted Palmer to help.
“My sculpture degree was all about puppets,” he says. “I used to make these machine-powered puppet contraptions, made out of farm machinery.
“They were kind of like little one-act plays that were in loops, short 30 second loops. Judd and I would sometimes team up on those.
“Some of our earliest collaborations were actually on my sculpture projects, and we used to get the parts, actually, from the Palmer ranch, which is where (in 1999), we started the Trouts, too.
“So we all connected things.”
If this was a superhero movie, that might be one version of the origin story of The Old Trout Puppet Workshop. But superhero movies, to this point in our superhero history, have been about heroic guys with six-pack abs and perfect hair and good manners. They are created using budgets in the hundreds of millions dollars by Hollywood corporations, using state-of-the-art computer generated images (CGI) created against a green screen, filled with explosions and feats of astonishing bravery performed by Greek gods disguised as men.
The Old Trouts, on the other hand, over the past 18 years, have created their very own, uniquely Western Canadian mythology — one that chronicles all the ways ordinary men fall short, when it comes to heroic behaviour.
That was part of the appeal of adapting Lewis Carroll’s 1872 poem Jabberwocky into a play.
“We were attracted to it because it is a nonsense poem that is set in the heroic epic mode,” says Palmer. “It takes all the heroic epic (attributes of literature), and then mashes it together with nonsense — and that seemed to make sense in a sort of Trout-ish vision of the world.”
That vision, explored in the show, which, in addition to Kenderes also features Nicolas Di Gaetano, Teddy Ivanov and Sebastian Kroon, is what, exactly?
“That we’re all trying really hard to forge meaningful lives,” Palmer says, “and be heroes and lead lives of extraordinary potency, but we’re confronted all the time by the sheer confusion we have to deal with as human beings. We’re trying to be heroic, but we don’t have the slightest clue (how to be heroes)!”
For Balkwill, a poem written in a nonsensical language makes perfect puppet sense.
“It’s written in gibberish, obviously, but the gibberish is very expressive,” he says. “It carries an essence that’s in the word that helps create vivid and wild creatures on so many different levels — and to puppet artists, that’s kind of like, well, like crack cocaine in a way.
“Not that I would know what crack cocaine is like!
“But,” Balkwill adds, “it’s definitely a catalyst of your imagination and where it goes in terms of, what kind of a puppet is a Jubjub bird or the Bandersnatch — my goodness! One can only imagine how many hinge joints a Bandersnatch has, right?”
If superhero movies fetishize technology, Old Trout Puppet shows deconstruct it.
They do everything the hard way, whether it’s hand-carving their puppets, or building a scrolling panorama for Jabberwocky that feels lifted straight out 1872.
All of this slow-tech wizardry unfolds in each new Trout production in a way that feels intimate, and homemade.
For Jabberwocky, which opened Feb. 6 at the York Theatre in Vancouver, ahead of its run tat he DJD Dance Centre Studio Theatre in Calgary (before heading out on an international 2018 tour that takes them to Lyon France, Granada and Malaga Spain and Edinburgh, Scotland), the Trouts built a scrolling panorama inspired by a 19th century version they discovered at the whaling museum in New Bedford, Massachusetts.
“It’s the largest painting in the United States — it’s like 1300 feet long or something — and Melville would have seen the thing,” Palmer says, referring to the rumour that the panorama was actually the origin story of Moby Dick.
“It just seemed like such a neat, stupid (19th century) version of an animated film,” he adds.
Twelfth Night — which wraps up this weekend at Theatre Calgary — features sets, puppets and the sensibility of the Old Trouts, also has the flat scenography of an imagined Shakespearean Italian court from long ago. It gives the whole enterprise a wonderful irreverence that — if Shakespeare was still alive, 450 years later — one suspects he would have loved.
“This toy theatre thing has always been on the back of our minds as an aesthetic,” Palmer says. “Prosceniums you do in your living room, or whatever, for guests.
“It’s a Trout fetish right?” Palmer says. “The anachronistic and the peculiar and the pointless … but I guess it works in the theatre, which is also hopeless and outdated and like, ‘Why would anybody do that?’ Which is part of the reason why we do go to it.”
Or, as Kenderes puts it, an Old Trouts performance is a portal into a reality every kid intuitively understands. “(Our shows possess) that kind of toy logic that you have when you were a kid,” he says. “(For example), how you could use a GI Joe at the same time as a monster or a dinosaur and that would make total sense?”
You don’t have to explain that to Calgary (or Vancouver, or Edmonton) audiences, all of whom have embraced the Trouts for upwards of two decades now, through hit shows such as Famous Puppet Death Scenes, Ignorance and The Unlikely Birth of Istvan.
“It’s just a bunch of people, trying to make it work,” Palmer says of the company. “There’s just another person onstage, and we’re all just there together — and the fact that person has to turn a crank and he’s setting to try to make the next scene happen and he’s running around with a puppet, that’s part of that vibe that we’re always trying to create.
“You’re here (in the audience),” he adds, “we’re here — we’re trying to make something beautiful happen, something beautiful and fragile, but it’s only gonna happen if we all give ’er.”
(Photo courtesy Jason Stang Photography.)
The Old Trout Puppet Workshop’s Jabberwocky runs until March 4 at the DJD Dance Centre. For tickets please click here.
Stephen Hunt was the 2017 Fluid Festival writer in residence. He wrote about theatre for the Calgary Herald for 10 years, and teaches playwriting at UBC. He is also the author of The White Guy: A Field Guide. He is currently the communications person for The Old Trout Puppet Workshop. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org, follow him on Twitter here, and read his blog The Halfstep here.