Theatre Preview: Pulling a John Malkovich

By Kyle Francis

The word “puppeteer” conjures to mind many different images for different people. Some think of a megalomaniac using his evil automatons to further plans of world domination, but normal people tend to find themselves drawn more toward the image of a greasy guy dancing a marionette up and down the sidewalk with a hat upturned beside him.

Philip Huber is neither an evil genius nor an unemployed street performer–he’s a well dressed and clean cut puppeteer who has devoted his career to smashing puppeteer stereotypes.

“[Puppetry] speaks to the innocence in all of us,” exclaims Huber, heart audibly swelling up. “It’s the very basic feelings and emotions evoked by theatre or performance. It can be universal because it can be pure movement.”

Huber’s parents bought him his first hand-puppet when he was three to help with his shyness. It gave him a way to project his personality onto an external entity without being the center of attention himself. This “projection of self” has always been the inherent appeal of being a puppeteer, according to Huber and inspired his obsession with the craft.

After amassing a sizable collection of hand puppets, Huber switched his specialization to marionettes, and has been working with them ever since. His mad puppet skills speak for themselves, but the reason why Huber is so renowned in the puppetry community is largely due to his work on the film Being John Malkovich.

“It was a unique film, and amongst puppeteers, it was a watershed movie because it reintroduced marionettes into the mainstream,” recalls Huber of his work as the films puppet advisor. “The group I’m coming to Calgary with–The Festival of Animated Objects–searched for me because of Being John Malkovich.”

It stands to reason the festival would seek him out, as the groundbreaking work Huber did on Being John Malkovich practically re-defined the word “marionette.” By making all sorts of innovations and improvements to the puppet formula Huber enabled his puppets to do the ridiculously intense acrobatic moves the filmmakers needed for certain scenes.

Huber’s innovation and creativity doesn’t stop at his motion picture debut, however. Most people look at puppeteers as illegitimate acts for children’s birthday parties and refuse to show the artists the respect they deserve.

“There’s a private club for Magicians called ‘The Magic Castle,’ that I was absolutely begging to play at forever,” groans Huber. “Eventually they grudgingly gave me an audition, but at the end of it I got a standing ovation from the panel of judges and they told me I could perform there any time. So just like that, there’s another venue that’s open to puppeteers.”

Huber claims he meets similar adversity wherever he does a series of performances. When playing on cruise ships, Huber recalls the opening nights would often be sparsely populated, but attendance would steadily improve as word spread about what an amazing act it was. With performances such as this, Huber hopes to become the image conjured up in the minds of those daring to evoke the word “puppeteer.”

Something about dolls gives them a certain universal appeal. Be it children who escape reality momentarily by vicariously becoming Superman or a super model, be it adults finding themselves drawn to the eerie perfection of a porcelain face, inanimate people speak to almost everyone on one level or another. Phillip Huber makes a living playing with dolls and has for over three decades. He’s worked on everything from cruise ships to Being John Malkovich, and now he’s the star act in the Festival of Animated Objects.

Puppeteering has been around since before the written word and continues to hold a certain attraction for children and adults alike. After thirty-five years of entertainment, Huber has become a veritable puppet master­–a man who can take a mundane wooden doll and infuse it with glorious movement and life.


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