The Old Trout Puppet Workshop presents
at DJD Dance Studio Theatre Feb 21- March 4
Tickets at theoldtrouts.org
Where does a new Old Trout puppet show come from?
Simple question. Not-so-simple answer.
With Jabberwocky, their new show, which opens Thursday in Calgary, it all started with …
1. A business meeting in the Roman ruins
The request came from Dominique Delorme, the director of Nuits de Fourviere, a Lyon, France multidisciplinary festival that, in 2015, commissioned the Old Trout Puppet Workshop to create a new show that eventually became Jabberwocky, which opens February 22 in Calgary, at the DJD Dance Studio Theatre.
“They (originally) had us out (in 2014) to do (Famous Puppet) Death Scenes, Ignorance and a children’s show, The Umbrella, in rep,” says Judd Palmer. “That went well, and they decided to commission a show.
“They said give us a show! We just want a title that everybody knows.
“That’ll get people in the door.”
2. The road to Jabberwocky
The road that the Trouts took getting Jabberwocky from concept to another Calgary opening night was long, winding and filled with death, comedy and terrorism – it practically became an Old Trouts show about the making of an Old Trouts show.
To start with, Nuits de Fourviere was a somewhat unconventional theatre festival, owing to the fact that Lyon was situated in an area that was a big Roman Empire part of the world, back in the days when the Roman Empire was a going concern – and they worked that into the festival.
“It’s a crazy festival centered around these two Roman amphitheaters on the hill overlooking medieval Lyon,” says Judd Palmer. “They bring in shows and things into these coliseums.
“You watch the sun go down over the medieval rooftops, the show starts, it’s a mindblowing thing.”
3. Goes through Copenhagen
The first thing the French theatre festival producers did was team up the Old Trouts with a Danish company called Theatre Republique, run by a man named Hans Christian Gimbel.
The idea was to create a puppet show that could play to an international theatre crowd who didn’t speak much English.
It turns out the theatre world is divided into two, in a way. There’s the English-speaking, text-driven commercial and regional non-profit world of London, New York, Toronto, Dublin, Melbourne, and the rest of the English-speaking world.
And then there’s the international theatre circuit, where theatre companies from the rest of the planet present theatre that’s big, swooping, visual, metaphoric, and – hopefully – universal, which is another way to say, communicated with as few words as possible.
One’s local. The other is global.
“It works well for puppetry,” says Judd Palmer. “Our thing will always be (that) the puppet is effective as a kind of as a creature in a silent movie. It’s almost like a weird, stupid combination of music, image and sculpture that is almost like some combination of dance.
“That’s almost become our trademark style,” he says.“Because of that, and because we always wanted to play for different cultures, it’s become what we do. That’s the sandbox we’ve been (playing) in for the past 18 years.”
And – being the Old Trouts – they almost instinctively do everything the hardest way imaginable, if only to amuse themselves.
(In Jabberwocky, that meant building a scrolling panorama, to duplicate the props of a late 19th century children’s show, even if it required 23 artists to paint all the panels and various castmembers to scroll it during the show).
“We sit there and if we can’t think of a challenge, we bang our thumbs with a hammer,” Trout Peter Balkwill says. “There is so much that is unorthodox about our process and how we operate.
“It really does bamboozle people,” he adds, “and I think it largely bamboozles us too.”
Still – Copenhagen? Isn’t that the happiest place on earth or something like that?
What could possibly go wrong?
“That place (Theatre Republique) was run by (a man named) Hans Christian (Gimbel), and another guy, Martin,” Palmer says. “We went to Copenhagen for a couple weeks to brainstorm and bash ideas around with those guys.
“(And then), as that advanced, Martin passed away suddenly. He had a brain tumor.”
“And then,” he adds, “with his passing, the company kind of fell apart.”
4. Where it turns into a hip-hop Alice in the ruins
The show wasn’t created yet, in part because no matter what the Trouts suggested, the French festival said no.
“He (Dominique Delorme, the French producer) had these Roman ruins that you can perform on,” says Balkwill, “and (so) we said, how about an opera version of Oedipus Rex?
“And he was like, no no no – and we were like, but that’s so awesome!”
“And then,” Palmer says, “we said I don’t know – (how about) Jabberwocky?”
Why Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky?
“It’s not Alice (in Wonderland),” Balkwill says. “But it’s still connected to the world – it has lineage to the world.
“It’s delightful.” Whereas Alice, if you dig down into it, has all sorts of narrative lapses. It’s just a dream. It’s a bunch of disconnected hallucinatory images.
It’s not much of a story.
“But the Jabberwocky is nice,” Balkwill says. “It’s cut and dried. It’s all there for you to unpeel.
“It’s very much the hero’s journey, right?”
5. ‘Come to France for a meeting’
“The producer there said, yes, yes, I love it!” Palmer said. “Do Jabberwocky – but you have to come to France for a meeting.”
“I got on a plane,” Palmer says, “went to Lyon, and he picks me up – and this (meeting) is all in French, which I don’t speak very well, so it was a bit difficult to grapple with what was going on.”
The producer took Palmer and a French guy named Mourad, who had a hip-hop group that featured disaffected young men from the Paris suburbs, to an area that turned out to be an old ruined military fortress.
He wanted the Trouts to do the show there.
And – oh by the way – Jabberwocky was out.
“We (originally) intended to do Jabberwocky,” Palmer says, “but ended up having to try to synch up a four hour long immersive experience in an abandoned castle with a (suburban Parisian) hip-hop ensemble based on Alice in Wonderland.”
Then, before they could even get started building the puppets, the 21st century happened.
6. Bastille Day, 2016: everything changed
In July 2016, before the Trouts could begin the build of their site-specific, immersive, four hour hip hop Alice in Wonderland, a terrorist drove a truck into a crowd in Nice on Bastille Day, killing 86 and injuring hundreds.
The French government declared martial law. There were soldiers everywhere. The government cut arts funding, including the grant to the festival in Lyon.
“The relationship with the people who ran the fort fell apart,” Palmer says, “so they (the festival producers) were like, OK, (now) the fort is out. We don’t have the money to commission (the hip-hop dancers) and we don’t need you to do Alice.”
They wanted Jabberwocky, in a regular theatre, which was exactly what Palmer had been hoping for from the start. “We had a bunch of false starts on this thing,” he adds, “but we finally ended up making a show, an Old Trouts show, it’s Jabberwocky – and it’s a story of a monster and a monster slayer and all the existential crises of middle age or whatever.”
(Pityu Kenderes in Jabberwocky. Photo credit: Jason Stang Photography)
7. ‘No sailboat goes from A to B’
For Old Trout General Manager Bob Davis, who books shows and tries to forecast the future as if no Danish theatre companies were going to fold, or terror attacks would happen in France, or Roman ruins come and go, it helps to think of managing the Trouts as a sailing trip, where the destination is known – but the route is a little bit up for grabs.
“No sailboat goes from A to B in a straight line,” he says. “It tacks back and forth. Sometimes you go fast. Sometimes you go slow. Sometimes you have to turn quicker than you thought – and sometimes you go off course.
“I’d say that (whole Roman) fort thing took us in some ways, in a direction where we kind of got into a storm where we got lost,” he says.
“Finally, the storm ended, and we just said, let’s go back to where we were (in the first place).”
That would be home.
(Feature image: Jason Stang photography)