Calgary’s Old Trout Puppet Workshop explores the subject of happiness

Calgary’s Old Trout Puppet Workshop explores the subject of happiness

Puppets tackle the evolution of happiness

New puppet “documentary” Ignorance by Old Trout Puppet Workshop makes its way to Vernon Jan. 24.

It’s an emotion we humans have attempted to figure out since the dawn of our time.

If those cave paintings deep below the earth’s surface have told us anything, the pursuit of happiness has been a quandary for 35,000 years since our Neanderthal cousins hunted, dwelled and placed their hands on a cave wall to say “I am here.”

We still really haven’t been able to figure out exactly how to attain happiness.

That, in a brief nutshell, is the theme of a new puppet “documentary” by Calgary’s renowned Old Trout Puppet Workshop.

Entitled Ignorance, the subject matter may be deep, but there’s dark comedy, and some irony in there as well, especially since the props being used to tell the story are made from high-tech Styrofoam.

“Our approach as humans is that we need to think deeply on what life is all about, but you should never take life too seriously especially since we are playing with puppets,” said Judd Palmer, the deep-voiced narrator and one of the founders of Old Trout who collaborated in creating Ignorance.

The puppet play comes to the Vernon Performing Arts Centre Friday, Jan. 24.

This revolutionary puppet movement that is Old Trout was born out of a ranch in Southern Alberta in 1999. Started by Palmer, Pityu Kendres and Peter Balkwill, who in the beginning were not that familiar in the art of puppetry, the men involved all of their respective art disciplines to create something completely different.

“It was an incarnation and a strange magnetic attraction with all the different arts coming into play,” said Palmer on why they turned to puppetry. “It was a sensible way to use the talents of us all: sculpture, illustration, writing, dance… There’s something weird and wonderful about puppets and the fact that they are so versatile.”

To tell the evolution of happiness, Old Trout had to go back to the beginning, and so the play travels to pre-historic times where man encounters the marvels and terrors of the Paleolithic age. It then jumps forward to present day to see how modern humans are coping.

“None of them are doing all that well,” said Palmer. “We tell the show like a wilderness/nature documentary with a narrator and intercut that with the story. The doc format allows us to leap forward and back in time to see the first human beings.”

Palmer, who has a philosophy degree, has been grappling with the question of what makes us happy for some time now. It was while reading Daniel Gilbert’s book Stumbling on Happiness that he started pondering a play about the subject.

“(In university,) we were not really talking about how can we be happy, it was more about whether this table is real or not,” he laughed, “(Happiness) is a branch of philosophy that the Greeks first discussed and has come back to inform our evolutionary process… Our thesis is that all emotions are evolved, so we ask what does happiness do for us?”

Happy isn’t exactly the best emotion to describe what happens to some of the puppets in Ignorance, and other Old Trout shows for that matter.

With previous productions such as Famous Puppet Death Scenes and The Erotic Anguish of Don Juan, which have both played in Vernon, Old Trout’s puppetry is primarily geared towards adults.

This current show has scenes containing puppet suicide and nudity.

“Cruelty to puppets is our specialty,” said Palmer, adding that crew members always have Crazy glue in their arsenal backstage to repair any damage done to the puppets.

“A puppet show returns us to a childlike state, but we grapple with deep things: death, love, eternal life…  For Ignorance, we take the idea of puppetry to its most fundamental basics to show what can be done with rock, sticks, bones and firelight.”

The puppets are loosely-based on The Venus of Willendorf earth fertility doll, uncovered by an archeologist in Austria in 1908 and said to date back to 24,000-22,000 BC., while the show’s scenery is inspired by a pre-historic cave, which is fashioned by two giant interlocking antlers. The performance is lit by a fire that casts flickering shadows over some strange primitive ritual performed by slope-browed Cro-Magnons. They are telling a story using rocks and branches and bones.

The idea for the show’s design came while Old Trout was touring France with Famous Puppet Death Scenes. Palmer and company had a chance to visit a cave with pre-historic drawings (these were not the Chauvet caves of Southern France made famous in Werner Herzog’s documentary, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, which are closed to the public.)

“Europe is crazy with all these caves, and it was a profound experience seeing these paintings deep down in one of them. They had layered these creatures on top of each other, which brought up the question of why draw a picture on top of another. Were they not happy with their original drawing?” said Palmer. “Also while they were down there with fire, smoke and flickering flame, it made the drawings move. This could have been the beginnings of animation.”

Old Trout wanted to bring that animation to life in Ignorance, so enlisted artist Paul Dutton (who has worked on Oscar nominated films Les Triplettes de Belleville and The Illusionist) to create similar cave drawings to be projected onto a backdrop during the show.

All this has already resonated with audiences. Ignorance just returned from being shown in the U.K. and France, where it was a headlining act in the World Puppet Festival. It is just wrapping up a two week-run in Victoria before coming to Vernon, Nelson, Saskatoon, Montreal and Kitchener.

“It’s been received well by audiences, which is great thing as it’s this esoteric world of puppets,” said Palmer, adding audiences should expect the unexpected. “We do not follow the rules and never do the same thing twice. It’s a constant process.”

Ignorance plays at the Vernon Performing Arts Centre Friday. Jan 24 at 8 p.m. Tickets are $40/adult, $37/senior and $35/student at the Ticket Seller box office, 250-549-7469,