Theatre Preview: The puppets have arrived

By Jesse Keith

Towering stilt walkers and thirteen foot beasts lumber through Bankers Hall behind a procession of dancing lanterns. Imps from the Czech Republic soar through the Epcor Centre, while John Cusak’s puppet from Being John Malkovich twists free of his bounds in his display case at the Stride Gallery. This gathering of unique and surreal forms are part of Calgary’s second annual International Festival of Animated Objects–a showcase of local and international artists working in the realm of puppetry, masks and other unique forms of animation.

“I think these forms just speak to people on a really visceral level,” says Xtina Cook, the festival’s curator. “You play with dolls when you’re a kid or you watch Sesame Street or whatever it is. There something about puppets that kids really get, and by extension, we as adults also really get it.”

Starting this week, the festival brings to Calgary a wide selection of visual and performing arts as well as a multitude of workshops. From a discussion with acclaimed Calgarian puppeteer Ronnie Burkett to performances from Cirque du Soleil clown Mooky Cornish and Philip Huber, the puppeteer from Being John Malkovich; the bill contains both family and adults-only shows. By bringing in elite and unique puppeteers from around the world the festival hopes to not only entertain Calgary audiences, but also gives interested Calgarian’s access to the artistry and talent of these acclaimed acts.

In addition to performances, the festival offers a variety of exhibitions, discussion and workshops designed to give people a look at how these artists develop their creations. Cross hopes both experienced local artists and those uninitiated to the arts of mask and puppetry will find inspiration from these sessions. From how to walk on stilts to manipulating a marionette, artists share the techniques behind their performances.

“The workshops are for anyone really, if they have any kind of interest in it,” explains Cook. “They are all open to the general public.”

Cook hopes the influx of international talent the festival brings will result in collaborations with the local troupes and artists, and the knowledge and techniques gained will have a continued influence on the work of local groups.

“Mask and puppetry artists are theatre artist, but they are also basically 3D artists, in that they are creating beautiful objects,” says Cook.

“So it’s important to us that the local scene has an entry into the experience of the national and international acts so that there can be some discussion among them, there can be sharing of technical knowledge and some cross pollination of their art forms.”

This spirit of collaboration comes to a height at the festival’s cabaret, where various local and international acts perform the work they have developed together during the festival. The cabaret looks to be a mix of the stunning and fantastic, as performers from multiple arts throw their talents together.

“The cabaret is an opportunity for the artists to collaborate together and present their work at the end of the week,” exclaims Cook. “Mookie Cornish, from Cirque du Soleil, is the MC, so you know you’re going to see something really funny. But everything else is kind of a surprise on what these people are going to come up with together over the course of the ten days they are here.”