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Festival of Animated Objects brings Calgary to life with puppetry, performance, film and arts installations

Whimsy, humour, spectacle and wonder are sweeping over the city this month as the Festival of Animated Objects takes the stage.

Xstine Cook, founder and film curator for the festival — a biennial event showcasing both local and international talent in the areas of puppetry, mask work and both classic and modern forms of animation in Calgary — was first drawn to the artform of physical theatre and puppetry through mask-making. 

Her first exposure to masks was by way of a mime theatre company that visited her junior high school. The masks they had performed in were from Switzerland and really stuck in Cook’s mind, but it was a drama teacher in high school who led her through making her first mask.

“From there, I just tried to figure out places where I could learn more. I went to the Dell’Arte International School of Physical Theatre in California where I quickly learned that if I was only a mask-maker, my masks would travel all over the world, but I wouldn’t,” Cook says. 

She adds, “I thought, ‘Well, I really like traveling, so I’d better learn to be a performer, too.’ ” 

Next, Cook’s art led her to Bali where she learned to carve, and then back to Calgary where she started Green Fools Theatre. It was here that Cook made many masks, puppets and larger stilt figures, some of which are still touring around Alberta.

Xstine Cook

It was from this company that the Festival of Animated Objects was born. 

“While touring with Green Fools, we would see the most amazing work — truly mind-blowing mask, puppetry and spectacle work. We would think, ‘This work totally changes everything!’ It changed how I viewed my work, changed how I viewed what I was doing. I thought it would be amazing to bring these things back and show them to the people of Calgary.”

The festival is celebrating its ninth season of offering world-class programming for all-ages, although there are some recommended restrictions listed for each piece in the program guide. It’s important to note that these ages are simply suggestions — no one will be turned away — but many of the ‘adult’ performances deal with mature subject matter.

So, what can audiences expect from this year’s programming? “It has always got some really wild stuff, it isn’t really always easily defined within the parameters of mask and puppetry. That’s why we call it the Animated Objects festival,” Cook shares.

Besides the Dolly Wiggler Cabaret, a mix-mash of works presented by both local and international performers at the Royal Canadian Legion No. 1 both Friday and Saturday, all work is fresh and new to the festival. Even with this, though, the content is ever-changing. 

La Pendue from France is one group who are bringing their work, Tria Fata, to the 2019 lineup. This show revolves around fate and destiny, promising to command attention.

Performed by Pam Tzeng and Chad Bryant, clown, puppetry and contemporary dance meet in By Jo-Lee for a “foray into existential longing,” and a confrontation of racial stereotypes. Tzeng, who created the work, is one of the featured local artists for 2019.

Perhaps the most anticipated work on the bill is Giant, by Ghost River Theatre. Cook says, “It’s a play about Andre the Giant. It’s crazy! They have an actual wrestling ring and the story is being told by five women who’ve actually learned how to wrestle.”

She goes on to explain there are tiny puppets all the way up to enormous ones, which in combination with the performers are playing out the perspective of Andre’s estranged daughter. Throughout the work, they embody different characters from Andre’s life including Andre himself. 

“Ghost River always does such amazing work, and this is their first foray into puppetry. We are really very excited to present Giant as our headliner,” Cook says. 

Giantcan also be seen outside of the festival as it runs until March 24. 

Milo the Magnificent is a must-see if you are looking for magical whimsy for the kids. The accessibility of this showing is great for those who aren’t downtown-dwellers as it will be in theatres of both the Shane Homes YMCA at Rocky Ridge and the Brookfield Residential YMCA in Seton on March 14 and 15. 

“We work with so many partners (like the YMCA) to put together this festival. It’s really a whole community effort. Everybody contributes their piece to make it happen,” Cook says.

The festival also includes workshops like Creating A Socially Conscious Puppet Play with Michelle Warkentin to help others like Cook who are thirsty to learn. 

She says that workshops really take her back to why she started the festival — not just to bring great work to Calgary, but to evolve it and share it with people who are beginning to make it for themselves.

The Dark Crystal

“We always screen film,” Cook says, “because of course a lot of puppets and animated objects end up on film. It is just another way to look at that art form.”

The classic film, The Dark Crystal, is sure to draw crowds to The Globe Cinema on Sunday, March 17. Netflix is presenting a sequel soon, so Cook sought out the rights to present it ahead of that premiere. 

One visual art component this year is a mural piece to be exhibited permanently on the east wall of the Downtown Calgary Mosque (1009 7 Ave S.W.) called Our Window. The mural itself was created by AJA Louden with participants of the City of Calgary’s Street Art Program for Youth in 2018, and brings massive innovation to the festival in an augmented reality app that brings the mural to life. 

Bring your smartphone, because you’ll need it to download Our Window, the app by Matthew Waddell and Laura Anzola. Just point it at the mural, and experience animations by Jarett Sitter and The Bum Family.

“We like pushing the parameter on what constitutes an animated object,” Cook states, reflecting on the inventive works that span the festival.

“I would hope people would leave the festival thinking, ‘Oh, I want to try that!’

“It’s an ancient art form that has existed in different cultures across the world at different periods of time. It’s a really primal form of storytelling which is why I think it is so compelling.”

The Festival of Animated Objects runs March 13 to 17 at various venues around the city. For tickets and more information please go to

Sarah Allen is a recent graduate of Mount Royal University’s Journalism program. She is an arts advocate and has taken a recent interest into Calgary’s blooming circus community. A self-proclaimed storyteller, her work focuses around photography, videography and written content.