Jabberwocky opens Feb. 6 at Vancouver East Cultural Centre & Feb. 21 at DJD Dance Centre Studio Theatre in Calgary
Back in the 1980’s, Pityu Kenderes, better known as one (along with Peter Balkwill and Judd Palmer) of the founders of the Old Trout Puppet Workshop, 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 neglected to take care of some of the fundamentals, such as casting other people in it.
No matter. He figured it out.
“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.”
(Jabberwocky “Classroom” by Jason Stang Photography)
‘Machine-powered puppet contraptions’
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. He would write words and Elaine would record them.
“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.”
‘A Trout-ish vision of the world’
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 the average guy falls short of heroic behavior.
They’re theatrical dad bods.
People die all the time in Old Trout shows. (Famous Puppet Death Scenes). It’s a miracle humanity even makes it out of the caves, because we’re so dumb. (Ignorance). Love eludes our oversexed, and under self aware male selves (The Erotic Anguish of Don Juan).
The overwhelming humanity of failure was part of the appeal of creating their latest show, an adaptation of Jabberwocky, a nonsense poem by Lewis Carroll, into a play, says Palmer.
“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.”
‘The sheer confusion we have to deal with as human beings’
What vision might that be?
“That we’re all trying really hard to forge meaningul lives,” he 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)!”
Perfect puppet sense
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 juggjumper 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 technology, revealing it for the fake news that it usually delivers.
All of it unfolds, in each new Trout production, in magnificently low tech fashion that’s intimate, and home-made.
Trouts take over Calgary in February
For Jabberwocky, which opens Feb. 6 at the Cultch in Vancouver, and then Feb 21 at the DJD Dance Centre Studio Theatre in Calgary (ahead of an international 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 Bedford, Massachusetts – an anachronistic piece of set design that required 23 people to paint the images on it.
Palmer was part of the Trout contingent who visited the Whaling Museum that day.
“It’s the largest painting in the United States – it’s like 1300 feet long or something – and Melville would have seen the thing,” he 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 opened Feb 2 at Theatre Calgary featuring sets, puppets and the sensibility of the Old Trouts, features flat scenography of an imagined Shakespearean Italian court from long ago, which embraces, in a delightfully silly way, the whole fakeness of going to a theatre to watch a sex comedy by William Shakespeare in the 21st century – and in doing so, they give the whole enterprise a wonderfully Western Canadian irreverence that – if Shakespeare was still alive, 450 years later – 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.”
‘Seeing things happen in front of you’
Or, as Kenderes puts it, an Old Trouts performance is the perfect antidote to a Marvel Comics-saturated pop culture universe.
“Part of the appeal of Old Trout stuff is that we go to such pains and efforts to do the things that CGI could do so easily – but there’s a bit of a saturation point with CGI and screens,” Kenderes says.
“There’s kind of a magic to seeing things happen live in front of you.
“It’s part theatre, part magic trick, part optical illusion – and a big part suspension of disbelief.
“That kind of toy logic that you have when you were a kid, 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) audiences who have embraced the Trouts for upwards of two decades now – none of which is taken for granted by Palmer or any of the Trouts, who have, over the span of 18 years, become international cultural ambassadors for Western Canadian theatre artists.
“It’s just a bunch of people, trying to make it work,” Palmer says. “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,” 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 her.”
(Feature image: Pityu Kenderes in Jabberwocky. Photo credit: Jason Stang Photography)