Collected Trout
Our project was as medieval and as mystical as you could hope for: create a puppet show. Of all the absurdities in the world, making a puppet show seemed the most beautiful to us. Puppetry is a humble vocation [,] but one that is nonetheless ancient and profound. Its profundity rests in its humility: submission to the wood, to the form of things, the shape of a face, the smell of turpentine, the sawdust, the strange little souls that somehow glimmer in a nose or an eyebrow under your chisel…. There’s religion in a puppet. There [are] first principles, in a way. There [are] sorrows and joys… wind that blows between us and the world. It’s all there to see if you want.
        —Alberta Views, July/August 2003



 

CITY TROUT

The original members of the Old Trout Puppet Workshop share a studio they call Fort Trout. Fort Trout is located in an industrial area in the Southeast quadrant of Calgary, Alberta. Businesses surrounding Fort Trout include Flesher Marble and Granite, Mars Blinds and Shutters, a Sherwin-Williams Commercial Paint Store, 1st place Auto, Carstar Chinook, and their closest neighbours, with whom they share a gravel parking lot, Lucky Granite Ltd.

A white building with the hand-painted “Old Trout Puppet Workshop” sign is surrounded by a half-dozen large, orange shipping containers and a couple of old RVs. The containers store most of the sets and puppets from touring shows. A garage door opens to the front of the studio, where heavy construction involved with the creation of puppet shows is done.

The rest of the interior works as a hybrid collaborative and storage space. There are a couple of large worktables. There is space to construct or operate larger puppets or set pieces. There are metal shelving units containing a disorganized mix of various puppets— severed heads; ocean backdrops; prosthetic arms, legs and genitalia. There is a beautiful dark wooden storage cabinet that the Trouts hope will one day lead a double life as a stage-piece.

Judd Palmer, Peter Balkwill, and Steve “Pityu” Kenderes are, for their part in the setting, the kind of bearded, rough-around-the edges guys who have never looked out of place in an industrial stretch by the railroad tracks. Winners of the Lieutenant Governor of Alberta Distinguished Artists Award, they are craftsmen of an arcane niche. Their studio is a place where the province of Alberta is both built and maintained, insomuch as you believe the arts to be as essential as paved roads or curtain rods. 

The current Fort Trout is certainly a more functional space than Pityu’s first home in Calgary, an early, unofficial Trout studio. Fort Trout is also more habitable than a previous incarnation of the studio, set in the Hudson’s Bay warehouse, where dust would fall from the rafters as they hammered away at their craft.

The dream space outlined on the website (“apprentices will be slumbering in hammocks…cooks will be chopping beautiful things…people will be drawing and carving and pondering”)  is a larger, idealized version of the first place where they gathered together. At a farm on in the Alberta foothills, they named themselves after a “legendary fish that lived at the bottom of a beloved swimming hole (Judd),” and decided to pursue puppetry as a full-time vocation.

It has been almost twenty years since these ambitious, hard-partying magpies gathered together as friends disheartened with the directions their individual lives appeared to be taking; and with some of the colder realities of what is sometimes vaguely referred to as ‘adulthood’. Having experimented with puppet theatre for years, it was at least clear to them that it was puppetry that gave them a sense of joy and purpose. And in the foothills of Alberta they decided they wanted that joy and purpose to be central to their lives.

DISEMMINATING TROUT

Since 1999, Calgary’s Old Trout Puppet Workshop have toured across the world with a series of unique shows that push the limits of what a puppet is, and what a puppet is capable of communicating.

In seventeen years they have produced eight full shows: The Unlikely Birth of Istvan, The Tooth Fairy, Beowulf, The Last Supper of Antonin Carême, Pinnochio, Famous Puppet Death Scenes (probably their most well-known work), The Erotic Anguish of Don Juan, and, most recently, Ignorance. Beginning in the summer of 2017, they will tour their new play, Underland, a “surrealist image circus” and “behind-the-veil” look at a troupe performing a version of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland.

They have industrial packing crates worth of side-projects as well. They have produced a short Christmas film, “From Naughty to Nice,” in collaboration with the National Film Board. Their work was featured in a 2008 music video for Feist’s “Honey Honey.” They recently designed the set for The National Arts Centre’s recent production of Twelfth Night, and the Vancouver Opera’s current production of Hansel and Gretel. They collaborate on theatre productions with Western Canadian companies such as Victoria’s Puente Theatre Company, as well as Trout-inspired outfits like Toronto’s Clunk Puppet Lab. The Agnostic Mountain Gospel Choir is a Tom Waits inspired howling band that counts both Judd and Pete as members. Judd’s written as series of children’s books, three of which have been nominated for The Governor General’s Award. Pete and Bob Davis (the Trouts’ general manager) now curate The International Festival of Animated Objects, an organization with which the company has had a long relationship as participants.

Under the umbrella of the Canadian Academy of Mask and Puppetry (CAMP), Pete has an extensive teaching career at places such as the University of Calgary and The Banff Centre, as well offering individual workshops in Calgary and around the world. Pityu is a practicing painter and sculptor. Add to all of this the men’s dreams – both as a collective and individuals – for future Old Trout presences in film, television, a large artistic commune in the woods.



TECHNICAL TROUT

The Trouts’ trademark puppet is one that requires the puppeteer to insert their head into its torso. The puppeteer peers out the puppet’s stomach, chest or neck. The puppeteer’s hands connect near the wrists of the puppet, allowing the puppeteer a full range of motion with the puppet’s arms.

“They sit upon the head and come instantly alive,” says Pete, “and are capable of many things. Both arms are free to work.”  The puppet’s legs, if it has legs, will sometimes rest decoratively on the puppeteer’s shoulders. But it’s the puppeteer’s own bounding and leaping, sometimes from behind a barrier, more often out in full view of the audience, that becomes the way the puppet will move around the stage.

Back inside of the puppet’s ribcage, the mechanics are such that when the puppeteer turns his head, the puppet’s head will turn. This kind of technology, Pityu explains, is quite typical of head puppets. One signature structural contribution the Trouts have made to this style of puppet is a chinstrap enabling the puppeteer’s own mouth movements to dictate the mouth movements of the puppet. The same rods affixed to the chinstrap will  attach to the eyebrows of the puppet, giving it an added layer of expression.

Sometimes the puppeteer’s own voice, speaking from within the puppet’s chest, will act as the voice of the puppet. Often, as in Pinocchio, the puppet will communicate in an unintelligible gibberish, in howls, cries, and whimpers; in exaggerated tones rather than articulated speech. This kind of communication works well in dialogue with an actor on stage, such as in Don Juan, or in tandem with an omniscient narrator, such as the one employed in Ignorance. In such configurations, the otherness of the puppet is highlighted through nonsense, and the function of these actors and narrators will in part become that of the puppet’s translator.

Pityu has been giving me an informal tour of the puppets. He talks about the difference in materials, from lightweight polystyrene to the more traditional wood. “Wood has become more prohibitive as the shows get larger,” he says, “there’s more weight. It’s harder to travel.” The Trout’s Pinocchio puppet is laid out in front of us like a patient on a metal table. Pityu picks the puppet up and places it over his head, in order to illustrate the head puppet’s full range of motions.

For a collective so concerned with being “at the service of the puppet (Pete),” these head puppets, in their design, provide ample opportunity for the puppeteers to humble themselves before their masters.  The puppeteer, in such a configuration, is essentially masked.

“Mask work really [comes] into it,” Pete will tell me, “and the physical application [is] great.” The puppeteer, often clad in a background fading pair of grey full-body underwear (the Trouts’ signature costume), is meant to be no more than the mound of gravel or body of water beneath the living form. Judd will later talk about the general philosophy of their puppetry as being about such “direct physical contact—the performer connected directly to the object, without separation by strings or clever mechanisms.”

As I watch Pityu other images come to mind: the puppeteer as something of the packhorse, carrying its exuberant rider wherever the story goes. The puppeteer as the father or mother with its child on it shoulders (The child Abigail, the central character of the Tooth Fairy, is cleverly played by an unmasked adult woman. Her costume incorporates smaller arms, synthetic legs, and a child’s dress to make her appear as part head puppet, part human).

Whatever the image conjures for an attendee of an Old Trout show, it is altogether different, Judd suggests, from the image of the traditional, God-like puppeteer who works the strings of the marionette from above.





ORBITING TROUT

Thr Trouts draw from an enormous range of influences across an historical tradition of puppetry. Sometimes these influences are conscious. Sometimes the similarities are a happy accident.

One of the Trouts’ major influences is the long and rich Japanese tradition of puppetry called bunraku, where at least three people are required to operate a single puppet. Eva, one of Don Juan’s mistresses in The Erotic Anguish of Don Juan, is one such bunraku-inspired puppet. Performed by the requisite three puppeteers, the parts of her body that have been highlighted by the puppet makers – arms, face, chest, legs— acquire a lithe, spectacular, and comic range of motion as she performs a seductive dance onstage. The puppet’s powers of seduction are enhanced by the proximity of the puppeteers who shadow her. One puppeteer is charged with her head and the left arm, another with her right arm (the arm with which she eventually pins Don Juan to the ground). The first two puppeteers appear to display an all-consuming concern for the functioning of these parts, a concern which, in the context of the play, borders on desire. The third puppeteer acts as Eva’s legs and chest. Eva’s breasts are affixed to this puppeteer’s forehead. Eva’s legs, more or less an elaborately healed pair of crutches, are controlled by the puppeteer’s arms.

The demeanor of intense concern, used for most all performances, is cultivated. As Pityu explains, their own focus is meant to draw the attention away from the puppeteer and towards the puppets themselves. But it’s easy to see that this demeanor is also in the service of a kind of comedy through contrasts, played for laughs against the often times out-sized or exaggerated emotional life of the puppet.

The Old Trout aesthetic also has roots in the puppet theatre of Prague and the rest of the Czech Republic. Early on, Judd travelled to the Czech Republic with then-collaborator Xstine Cook – one of the founders of Alberta’s Green Fools Company – for the specific purpose of immersing themselves in the country’s puppet theatre (a history that goes back to the Middle Ages).

There have been group research trips to Mexico, a country that also has a vibrant history of puppet theatre. There have been tours through a number of parts of Western and Eastern Europe, and many of these tours have included a research element.

The Trouts have a healthy respect for the contemporary puppet theatre community. Prominent puppet theatre companies in the Western Hemisphere include Portugal’s Marionetas do Porto, as well as the politically active Bread & Puppet theatre, which emerged in New York as part of an anti-war movement, and is now is based out of Vermont. The most famous puppet theatre company in the world right now is probably South Africa’s Handspring, who have been touring internationally for thirty years, and employ a staff of twenty in Cape Town.

War Horse, an adaptation of a novel by Michael Morpungo put on by Britain’s National Theatre, features Handspring’s extraordinarily life-like, three-person-operated horse puppets. These puppets even use nostril breath and ear movements to make the horses come even more alive. Joey, the protagonist’s horse , might be the most famous individual puppet in theatre (though Elmo and other television puppets will, like famous movie actors, always outshine their live theatre counterparts in terms of fame, fortune, and notoriety).

Pete, admiring of the technical invention of the Handspring horse, made sure I did too. Yet he also stressed that the Old Trouts are still devotees of small-scale, on-the-farm aesthetic. In plays such as The Tooth Fairy, and The Erotic Anguish of Don Juan, there has been an attempt to explore large-scale puppets.

And yet Pete expressed a concern that puppetry that tries for too grand a scale, such that some of the puppets popularized in plays such War Horse, risk betraying the potential intimacy of the puppet/audience experience. The puppets in these kinds of experiments often “run the risk of turning into stage props.”

PONDERING TROUT

What makes a successful puppet, a puppet that is more than mere “stage prop”? Because the Old Trouts are three separate individuals with three strong personalities, a consensus on what their ideal puppet is will, like their performances, always be open to change and evolution. Pete stresses the “fallibility” and “intimacy” of the puppets. A successful puppet, for him, fully inhabits a certain expression and sense of character: “There are certain puppets that you care about instantly … they seem alive the minute someone touches them.”

As a professionally trained actor whose research interests and expertise include the Tadashi Suzuki acting technique and other applications concerned with the actor’s bodily presence, Pete is perhaps the most concerned with the puppet’s breath, its manipulation, its focus, its fixed point - “the four key points you want to hit when animating a puppet” according to a video promoting his Puppetry Intensive at the Banff Centre for the Arts. This concern for the bodily presence of the puppet plays a role right from the point of construction, where Pete is, according to his cohorts, the most likely to obsess over the making of a particular puppet, to toil over getting the intended expression of the puppet just right.

Judd speaks to the potential the puppet has to shift emotions, to do drastic and surprising things.  He describes the successful puppet for him as having, “a certain kind of wistfulness, an unspoken sorrow of some kind, expressed in the tilt of an eyebrow or the edge of the mouth, [something that] makes us feel a softness towards it.”

Expanding on Pete’s idea of fallibility, Judd goes on to describe a successful puppet as also communicating an unease or unpredictability, one rooted in its specific character but also in the idea, he says, “[that] on some ancient, fundamental level, a puppet is a monster. Not, like, a dragon or griffin or something grand; a hobgoblin, maybe – but monstrous nonetheless.”

“My favourite puppets,” Judd says, “have that quality of having a secret.” 

Pityu applies the paint to all of the puppets when they are finished, and is often, according to him, the one who “somehow ends up making the first puppet for every new show.” Pityu sees the successful puppet as being able to “shrink scale” and “change time.” Like Pete, he is enamored by the puppet’s possibility as a tool for eliciting empathy. He also sees some of the unforeseen attributes that the puppets acquire during their making, the kinds of secrets that Judd talks about, as playing an essential role to the overall feel and action of the play. These unforeseen attributes, he says, will “often change the direction of the entire performance.” This ability to change the direction of the performance is another kind of agency the puppets acquire during the creation of an Old Trout play.

Pete’s emotional connection with the puppets is evident on stage. Watch him act as the shaking hand of a despairing puppet in Ignorance a puppet who crawls out to his window ledge and makes the frightening leap. To watch Judd manipulate and narrate through Tweak, the connective tissue of Famous Puppet Death Scenes, is to experience the glee of allowing a piece of carved wood to wax passionately on life’s brief and beautiful fires.

Pityu, who feels that as an actor on stage he has a puppet’s “tendency to mug,” is probably the most mountain-man looking of the Old Trout bunch. As such, he is often employed (quite happily) as a kind of extension or important aspect of a particular puppet, the one whose own burly, bug-eyed physical characteristics make him best suited to enter the material orbit of the objects on stage.

Playing the devil in The Erotic Anguish of Don Juan, Pityu was clad in in a fur hat and accessories, riding a tricycle with a giant, snorting bull’s head affixed to the handlebars. In their earliest feature as an official collective, The Unlikely Birth of Istvan, Judd describes how the company had Pityu, between a pair of wooden legs, “literally birthed onto the stage.”




M
ORTAL TROUT

All three men agree that the Trouts’ ideas about puppetry were in harmony is 2006’s Famous Puppet Death Scenes (FPDS). It is comprised of a sequence of short scenes from made-up “famous puppet plays.” In each scene a different puppet meets its untimely demise.

The jump-off point for this play was a scene in their version of Pinocchio, which drew from the pre-Disneyfied, original 1883 script by the Italian writer Carlo Collodi. A scene from this version had Pinocchio bash a cricket to death with a hammer, and the Trout’s played this scene up with a gory glee. While all three of the puppeteers had mentioned this particular scene and its influence on the creation of FPDS to me separately, there’s an article by Clea Wren, for the publication American Theatre, which has the most illustrative quote about how the audience reaction to this particular scene in Pinocchio had given the Trouts the idea for a full-length play focusing specifically on puppet deaths.

“At first they were shocked,” Judd recalls. “There was an intake of breath; and they laughed; and then it actually started to seem terribly sad; and then tragic; and then this great existential hole opened in the theatre, and everybody fell through it and came out the other end, feeling happy!”

The quick-cut format of Famous Puppet Death Scenes, on the heels of the more drawn-out narratives of Pinocchio and Beowulf, brought back, according to Pete, a lot of the sense of spontaneity and collaboration of the company’s original endeavors. There were more than three puppeteers working on FPDS, and Pete, Judd and Pityu all agree that the ease with which individuals were able to invest in particular scenes and in individual ideas created a bedrock where everyone felt integral to the play’s creation, and that it was a collective joy to stitch these various macabre, faux-famous performances together.

The opening sequence of Famous Puppet Death Scenes, taken from the renowned play The Feverish Heart by Nordo Frot, opens with dramatic opera music. A bald hand puppet in a pale grey suit enters the stage, observes the audience just as a large fist appears over his head. The fist crushes his balloon-like skull a mere seconds later. It’s a ridiculous and hilarious moment. With that initial audience laugh out of the way, the narrator, a half-naked, old puppet named Tweak, gives us “a moment to recover,” before “yanking the mortal strings.”



For the next hour then troupe mix punchline comedy with true horror and sadness, each puppet fulfilling its duty to die with unique tonal and technical attributes; the combination giving the audience not just a broad sampling of mortal ends, but also a broad sampling of the possible ways a puppet might be alive to us.

In The Cruel Sea, by Thorvik Skarsbarg (Hour 14), the curtain opens to a mustachioed puppet, looking part postal worker, part soldier. He is stone still inside of a wallpapered room. There is a broken window, a dusting of snow on the sill. Then a hand appears through the broken glass. It is alive for a second, only to rest on the sill for the remainder of the scene, a hint that some kind of massacre has occurred outside. For a while the only thing moving is an old woman in a shawl, who appears a few times in the window over the course of the two-minute scene. It’s as if she’s just going about her day outside, trying to ignore whatever horrors have recently occurred. Meanwhile, the man indoors remains fixed where he is. We can see there are thin sticks protruding from various points on his head, face, arms and torso. As time stretches on, and the room grows darker, and the woman continues to circle the perimeter, the sticks begin to pull sections of the man away from his face and body – first the skin off his ear, then the skin off his cheek, then a section of his hat… He is already dead, and what we are seeing is the process of decomposing, from painted figure to, by the end of the scene, a far less detailed, but still visibly human, block of wood.  The old woman continues to circle. Curtain. No laughter, but much applause.

As if it couldn’t get any darker, the next puppet death scene features an over-sized book wheeled out on a cart. The puppeteer is Judd, silent and serious in his funeral suit. The title of the book Judd displays before the audience is Never Say it Again, by L.M. Snuck. Tipped onto its side, the book is unlocked and shown to contain, as its pages, a number of large canvases. Each canvas depicts a farmhouse from a distance. Each turning page brings us a closer view of the house. Judd occasionally leans in to hear what we soon learn (though already sense) to be screams. But Judd shuts the book and wheels it away before we get right up to the door.


COLLABORATIVE TROUT

The Trouts all collaborate on the initial ideas for their plays – what to perform, how to stage it, how they’d like to evolve and expand their repertoires as puppeteers. Each play will evolve according to the look of the puppets and the conversations that ensue between the three during the construction of the characters and the set. As Pityu describes it, they’re often “building the show at the same time [they] are learning [their] roles.”

Judd is the primary writer. When I asked him about some of the personal stories behind the plays, he ennumerates broad themes based on dynamics within the group. The Unlikely Birth of Istvan is, according to him,  “an ode to our birth as a company… to disparate elements coming together.” The Last Supper of Antonin Carême is a play where “an imbalance between us, or an uncertainty about how to collaborate arose.” “We were no longer so sure,” he says of the play, but also perhaps of the collective, “about how to join the different elements together.” Pinocchio grapples with their ideas of childishness. Ignorance, he offers, is “a play about middle age.” Judd explains that both The Last Supper and Beowulf grapple with the idea of pride. This pride, whether manifest as individuals toward the collective, or as a collective against the business-as-usual world, has, I sensed, been tempered by time, and by the degree of success that has allowed them to survive for so many years as puppeteers.

Pete describes the “odd vibrancy” of the collective as being rooted more in their roles as friends than as puppeteers. Over the course of my conversations with all three Trouts, there were plenty of hints about times where the three had argued, held grudges, or been burdened by an enormous amount of doubt. But at no time did I sense anything resembling bitterness between them. And at no time during individual talks did any of them lay claim to having been any more central to the success of the company than the others. Yes, Pityu might be the one who makes the each play’s first puppet, and unifies them all in some way with his paintbrush in the end. Yes, Pete might be the most skilled as a puppeteer and as an actor, the one who first asked more technical, practical theatre questions like  “Do we have a director?” “Do we have a stage manager?” during their initial experiments, and the one with the teaching skills best suited to spreading the gospel of Old Trout puppetry. Yes, Judd might be the one whose skills and storytelling abilities establish the narrative arc of each play, spearhead their ventures into film, and in a large way write the myth of the company as a whole. But all three of them have a profound understanding, not just of what the other men bring to the table, but of how both their skills and their personalities complement one another; how the mix is, in fact, essential to their survival. All three of them spoke nostalgically about some variation of what Pete called “moments of pure collaboration,” and appear driven to continue their artistic pursuits in part with the idea that, with each new project, the possibility exists that the three of them might reunite in that alchemical place once again.

They also encourage one another’s artistic interests outside of the company. Some of this comes from an understanding of the various elements that go into puppetry— “sculpture, acting, choreography, physical theatre, blah blah blah” (from “Meet the Old Trouts, an online interview with Kirsten Brown, Woolly Mammoth’s Literary Director.”) But it’s also, more generally, a question of happiness, and of how to stay engaged with the world. During a skype conversation from his home in Victoria, Judd says, quite succinctly, that they all know that no one art form “will bring ecstasy, salvation, and a salary.”



FLEDGLING TROUT
Located in Kananaskis country, just a short drive outside of Calgary, Camp Chief Hector emphasizes community and value based education, outdoor challenge, fun, individual growth, environmental stewardship, leadership development and service excellence
—from the official website for YMCA’s Camp Chief Hector
“We’d take the kids into the tepee,” Pete recalls on a local television interview on Avenue Calgary in 2010, “get them settled down. Judd would play his harmonica for them. Then we’d tell them some sort of fatal mountain climbing story about dudes trapped in glaciers.” By all accounts this was also a time where the group partied, experimented with drugs, played music, shared stories – established the kind of camaraderie that anyone who’s worked in the wilderness for the long stretches with the same crew – planting trees, running rafting tours, guiding kids – will know.

“We saw ourselves as oddballs,” Judd says over breakfast at 24hr Blackfoot Truckstop Diner, a sixty-year-old Calgary time capsule near Fort Trout. “We did puppet shows for the kids [at Camp Chief Hector], too. A lot of elaborate, and – we see now – deeply offensive initiation ritual-type things involving red paint and loincloths. But also some broad, abstract things: we had Pityu in diapers at one point, playing a character we just called ‘Humanity.’”

Judd would get a job with Parks Canada a year or so later, at an Interpretive Programming Centre. Part of the program involved designing educational puppets and scale models. He saw an opportunity to gather Pete, Pityu and the others to work with more elaborate materials.

“We had a lot of freedom to create at The Interpretive Centre,” Pete explained to me, “so it was an obvious move.”

Pete is convinced that the Old Trouts were fated to join each other. He makes some strong points, including his part-time job he once had as a driver for Judd’s grandfather’s wife. This was ten years before the Trouts had formed and a couple of years before they all met at Chief Hector. It was a job that had actually brought him to the Palmer family ranch on more than one occasion.

The group maintained their friendship through the early nineties, while at various stages of completing university degrees. The group also travelled around the world a great deal as individuals. As Judd says, “there was a certain search for enlightenment going on among the future members of the collective.”

One of the experiences Judd cited as integral to the Old Trout’s history was a play he put on at the University of Toronto around 1994. He’d been granted $200 by the Trinity College Dramatic Society to put on a play he’d written about the former Czech dictator Klement Gottwald and his widow, Petra. It was revealed during this conversation that a mutual friend of ours, poet and mathematician Hugh Thomas, was cast as Petra after the woman Judd had originally asked refused. I followed up with Hugh, to get a non-Trout perspective about the experience:

“I think he had encountered a news item about Gottwald’s head having been embalmed and saved by his widow,” says Hugh over an email. “Eventually she was unable to buy food for the dog, who had was driven by hunger to consume some of the embalmed head of his former master, which killed him.” “This became the germ of the plot,” Hugh says, “whose dramatis personae consisted of Gottwald’s head, Gottwald’s body, the dog, and Gottwald’s wife.”

Judd recalls having to pass the play off as the work of an imaginary Czech absurdist playwright called “Blednu Cestovani” in order to convince the Trinity College Dramatic Society that it was worth performing.

According to Judd, Blednu Cestovani means something like “to grow pale by travelling.”

The show was a success, and was later picked up by a one-act-play festival in Calgary. Back on home turf, Judd collaborated on the set design for the play with Pityu. As the legend goes, they had to pass off Judd to the festival as the visiting Blednu Cestovani, replete with fake accent.

“I felt guilty about this,” says Judd, “and later travelled to the Czech Republic with (Green Fools’) Xstine Cook to learn about Czech theatre and immerse myself in its culture; mostly out of interest, but partly as a kind of penance.”

The story seems almost too good to be true. As Pete says, “Judd will often exaggerate things in the service of myth-making.” Even the story of the Old Trout that the group named themselves after, a fish who would supposedly “answer any question you ask, if you [could] find it (Judd),” was an embellishment added as the company was gaining traction and being interviewed by various newspapers. As Judd revealed to me, “[It] makes a better explanation for our name than the actual explanation, which is: we can’t quite remember why we chose that name.” He goes on, “We thought it meant ‘old friend’ in Newfoundland, but it doesn’t. Apparently [Newfoundlanders] will call a child a trout if it does something endearing. In England [Old Trout] means ‘old lady.’      

Whatever the exact details of the Cestovani play, it was an important bit of early creative success. It certainly made Judd question whether university dramatic societies were the best places to spread his wings as a puppeteer. More importantly, it brought Judd back to Calgary, where he and Pityu and other future Trout members began a four-year collaboration (1995-1999) with the Green Fools and other members of Calgary’s alternative culture scene.

The Green Fools, as somewhat established theatre performers, were becoming increasingly interested in puppetry. They produced a number of shows in which future members of the Old Trouts were principle authors and collaborators: The Death of Benevuto Cellini (the fruit of Xstine and Judd’s travels to Prague, backed by a Dada music ensemble called “Street of Crocodiles”), Punch and Judy, Bosch (based on the triptych painting “The Temptation of St Anthony”), The Ice King (A tale about the men aboard the doomed Franklin Expedition. According to Judd it was “Possibly a very good play, hard to tell. The play was basically about men freezing to death, and it was debuted in the middle of a Calgary heat-wave.”)

The Old Trouts might have remained Green Fools, but that company’s founding members were becoming more and more interested in street circus and other brands of outdoor performances, in integrating their work into the fabric of city life. Judd, Pityu and the others were quite clear that they wanted the controlled environments of indoor theatre stages, the ability to tour, and some of them had lofty dreams of performing in large-scale theatre settings – dreams that, as it happens, have come true.



GATHERING TROUT
… [W]ith the cold autumn wind upon them, they had decided that the future held only two directions: They were either going to open up a flea circus or commit themselves to an insane asylum … They talked about how to make little clothes for fleas by pasting pieces of colored paper on their backs … They talked about making little flea wheel barrows and pool tables and bicycles. They would charge fifty-cents admission for their flea circus. The business was certain to have a future in it. Perhaps they would even get on the Ed Sullivan Show.
        —from “Trout Fishing in America” by Richard Brautigan. 

Many of the original Trouts had already been gathering intermittently at the Palmer Ranch throughout their youths and into their adult lives. It was, according to a Trout-authored Alberta Views article, “an anchor when we felt storm-tossed or when our notions were growing thin, a mythic and mystical place that embodied our connection.” More practically, it had also been the place where Pityu and Judd had acquired or borrowed farm equipment for Pityu’s sculptures. These sculptures were large-scale, motor-driven pieces and dioramas that incorporated puppets. So the strings between the Palmer Ranch and puppetry were, by the mid-nineties, already starting to move.

 “Notes on the Art of Puppetry in an Atmosphere of Dread,” the aforementioned article, suggests that it was the dread and panic precipitating the turn of the millennium that had driven them to the Ranch to make puppet shows in 1999. Pete, who entered the fray a few months after the initial group had gotten together, describes it thus: “Judd had the magic horn and blew it.”

To earn their keep, the Trouts had to do odd jobs around the farm. It’s difficult to tell it any better than Judd and fellow original member Stephen Pearce already have:

We felt a strength returning to us as we toiled. In the dark mornings, the mountains cold and enormous over us, we delivered hay to horses with frost on our whiskers and clouds of steam puffing into the air from their huge warm lungs. We collected eggs, fed the pigs, damaged tractors. And then back to the [puppet] workshop, where we would work into the night, growing shaggy as the days passed.

The Ranch may have also provided the opportunity for a consideration of scale. Separate from the mythic tales of artistic camaraderie, separate from the heroic template of turning away from the trappings of the modern world in order to pursue a humble vocation; separate from all of this, I think, is the image of a bunch of human beings living and working somewhere at the foot of the mountains. While further into the prairies the farmer may see nothing but sky for miles and miles, may understand himself or herself as being in direct contact with the void or with a god, I think that the landscape particular to this part of Alberta, gives a different impression: the image of something bigger than oneself always being somewhere just over there; a major factor, whether material or spiritual, that animates a life. The conversation between Mountain and human is akin to the conversation between puppeteer and puppet. One may see the enormity and potential of oneself, but also the poverty of ones own materials, one’s absolute smallness.




AMBASSADOR TROUT

Peter Balkwill’s Puppet Intensive at the Banff Centre is an example of branching out that all of the members of the Old Trout Puppet Workshop do as individuals in order to promote their art form, earn a living, and ensure both the viability and visibility of the company going forward. Pete is married and has children. Judd is and his wife Mercedes Bátiz-Benét, herself a respected playwright and theatre director, as well as a frequent Trout-collaborator, live with their young son in Victoria. While both Pete and Judd are still deeply in love with the craft, writing and production of puppet theatre, neither of them is very much interested in remaining, or able to remain, as touring members for a large portion of the year. Those jobs are now often given to some of the numerous actors and puppeteers eager to work with the company. Projects like the Twelfth Night stage design are ideal. Even more ideal for someone like Judd would be continuing the film and television work, work that would allow him to move back and forth between his Victoria home and Fort Trout without any sidetracks.

Pityu is the one Trout who still tours with every production. His responsibilities at home in Halifax are less traditionally defined, so it’s often easier for him to be away for long stretches. He says there are slow days at the easel in his tree-fort painting studio, days where he feels eager for Judd or Pete to call from the opposite side of the country and say a new project is on. Seventeen years later, he still loves the experience of being on the road.

There are also numerous practical aspects to an original Trout being on tour. It ensures that the sets onstage look the same as they did when first built by Judd, Pete and himself at Fort Trout. When a puppet or stage prop inevitably breaks, it is important that someone familiar with the initial construction is there to fix things. More broadly, Pityu says, it’s important “to be a kind of ambassador for the original troupe, to ensure there is that presence.”

That presence is significant to maintaining the overall spirit of the company. All the Trouts continue to feel that spirit as a trio, either while building at Fort Trout, or on the occasions when their schedules allow them to perform together. But if Judd and Pete both tend to think more broadly and abstractly about the continuing existence and future projects and offshoots of the Workshop, Pityu tries to remain flexible enough to help with the practical applications of these broader visions, such as set and graphic design.

Pityu sleeps in one of those old RVs out in the gravel parking lot while he’s in Calgary. Judd and Pete both make a point to mention this, and seem to enjoy that a bit of that early mountain man camp-out remains a part of their day-to-day workspace. When Pityu says that he wants to be “someone who tells fantastical tales in a fantastical fashion,” it’s a feeling that one can apply to the whole collective, to where they’ve been, and to what they hope to be able to continue to do.

When I went to talk with Pityu the studio, he pointed me towards the kitchen, where, with no running water in the RV, he had been forced to fashion a homemade shower system that connected with a water pipe inside Fort Trout.  He had acquired an inflatable kiddie pool, which he had to place up on a table so that the hose could connect to the water source above him. A circular rod and shower curtain had also been affixed to the rafters.  

The shower was an outlandish, but totally functional, contraption. There amid the skulls and shrunken masks, the leather boobs and heads of bulls, it brought to mind the image of a pond, something not unlike the swimming hole at the Palmer Ranch – a kind of timeless, trout-full thing that members of the Stoney Tribe, farmers, cowboys or hikers would gather around: maybe to bathe, maybe to fish, maybe to write a poem or to carve a walking stick; or maybe, as the audience to some elemental theatre, to just sit and watch the bright lights play over the water.
       
is a Contributing Editor of Forget. 

Published On: July 1, 2017
Permanent Location: http://www.forgetmagazine.com/170701b.htm






Volume 9, Issue 3
  July 1, 2017


Canada Day



the old trout Puppet workshop


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