The Old Trout Puppet Workshop answers very adult questions using characters even a toddler (or a caveman) could love.
The lessons to be learned from puppets are not limited to being taught to count by fuzzy purple vampires. Just ask The Old Trout Puppet Workshop, a collective based in Calgary that uses its original handmade creations to tackle much more complex ideas.
“If we’re going to the trouble of making a puppet show, we might as well try to answer one of the big questions,” says Judd Palmer, one of the original Trouts still at the helm of the workshop, along with co-founders Pete Balkwill and Pityu Kenderes. “We’ve got a social responsibility to solve the world’s problems. Otherwise, we should give the grant money to nurses or something.”
Created by a motley crew of free spirits with backgrounds in physical theatre, sculpture, music, illustration, and philosophy at a southern Alberta ranch in 1999, The Old Trout Puppet Workshop has since become an internationally celebrated company. Its signature blend of music, movement, aesthetics, storytelling, and ambitious existential subject matter inspired the Calgary Sun to proclaim TOTPW “one of the most vital and vibrant puppet companies in the world.”
In The Tooth Fairy, the Trouts explored the precarious shift from childhood to adulthood. Famous Puppet Death Scenes dealt with mortality and the fear of death, while The Erotic Anguish of Don Juan challenged notions of regret, repentance, and lust. Its latest show, Ignorance, which opens at Canadian Stage’s Berkeley Street Theatre in Toronto next week, is touted as “a puppet documentary about the blissful prehistoric origins of humanity,” chronicling the evolution of happiness from our cave-drawing ancestors to our tech-obsessed modern selves.
“All emotions are evolutionarily designed, due to the success of the species. So, it’s like, what is happiness for? Where did it come from? When did it evolve? Are animals happy in the same ways we’re happy?” Palmer says, adding that there’s a personal narrative, too. “Are you happy the same way when you’re 10 as when you’re 20 or 30 or 40? How do we measure the worth of our lives?”
These certainly aren’t questions that lend themselves to catchy rhymes or mnemonic devices. But as the members of Old Trout demonstrate in Ignorance, primordial puppet versions of everything from tiny ancient bats to woolly mammoths, fashioned from stones, sticks, bones, and fur, can be particularly effective tools to explore complex issues.
“Puppets are disarming. It’s just a block of wood until we give it life as audience members or as performers,” Palmer says. “Puppet theatre reminds us that this is a play of our imagination. And that puts us in a slightly childlike state, which is a good place to begin when you’re tackling these enormous questions.”
For anyone who knows the way to Sesame Street by heart, or spent the best days of their childhood in Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, the Old Trouts and their handmade companions offer the possibility of working through profound existential conundrums in a way that even our inner children will understand.
Ignorance runs from Nov. 27–Dec. 15 at the Berkeley Street Theatre, 26 Berkeley St. 416-367-8243, canadianstage.com.