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Old Trout takes puppetry back to the Stone Age

Old Trout Puppet Workshop co-founder Judd Palmer, middle, and puppeteer and performers Victor Lukawski, Trevor Leigh and Nick Di Gaetano, behind, on the stage of the show Ignorance, at the Canadian Stage in Toronto Nov. 28, 2012.

Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail

If historians and anthropologists can look at small figures with movable parts created thousands of years ago and consider them prehistoric puppets, you have to wonder what a prehistoric puppet show would look like. Would it feature people in furs dancing around fire-lit caves grunting as they animate bits of stone and bone? A loud entrance from the woolly mammoth character?

Clearly, it's a spectacle that should be left to the imagination of puppeteers rather than anthropologists, and who better to animate such outlandish speculation than the Old Trout Puppet Workshop. With its headquarters in Calgary and its creators increasingly scattered across the country, Old Trout is always ready to reinvent itself and puppetry in the name of its next show.

"How expressive can a couple of rocks tied to a stick be?" asks Judd Palmer, one of the company's co-founders and narrator of Ignorance, a show about the prehistoric origins of happiness now in the midst of a national tour. "It's a documentary," he adds, "but it's a puppet documentary, which gives us licence to say whatever we want. We have no need for integrity, which is nice."

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So, Ignorance is inspired partly by an anthropology book he once read that made dubious claims for prehistoric puppetry, partly by a visit to see prehistoric cave art in France while the group was on tour and partly by every myth about cavemen the puppeteers have been told at cocktail parties or online, where they posted drafts of the show and invited public comment.

The final results are a sort of a mockumentary about how both puppetry and the cerebral cortex evolved, leaving the show's contemporary puppet characters suicidally unhappy.

The prehistoric puppets, built by a group of creators led by Palmer and his two co-founders, Peter Balkwill and Pityu Kenderes, are fashioned from foam made to look like stone, along with bits of real antler and bone, fake sinew and fur, while the more conventional-looking contemporary characters are made from foam. Palmer provides the recorded narration, but the show itself is now performed by a trio of touring puppeteers who have signed on as the original Trouts increasingly try to spare themselves the rigours of the road. Dressed in long johns and sporting turn-of-the-century mustaches and a single horn in the middle of their heads, Nicolas Di Gaetano, Viktor Lukawski and Trevor Leigh both animate the puppets and prance about the stage in the role of demented anthropologists.

This is the Trouts' unusual adaptation of an originally Japanese style of puppetry in which the puppeteer is fully visible. In the Bunraku tradition, the puppeteers are dressed in discreet black robes, and the audience simply imagines them away. The Trouts, on the other hand, draw the audience's attention to their odd presences and sometimes interact with each other.

"Having the puppeteer visible has a sense of play. It enhances the dynamic between the audience, and the performer and the puppet," Judd says, as the troupe debated this approach in a recent interview.

"It's nice not to hide what is apparent: This person is transferring their energy into an inanimate object," Lukawski says.

"I like to see performers sweat," Di Gaetano adds.

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The Trouts are always sweating in new ways for their audiences: One of their unusual approaches to puppetry is that they introduce new styles of puppets for each show rather than specializing in a single form such as hand puppets or marionettes. Since the founders first got together on a ranch in Southern Alberta in 1999, they have worn puppets on their heads, used a traditional puppet theatre with curtains and carved wooden puppets, and combined an actor with deconstructed puppet limbs.

"We eschew mastery," says Palmer, laughing, adding that for Ignorance they pioneered a technique of slipping the puppeteers' feet into shoes worn by the puppet to animate the pint-sized contemporary characters. The company subsequently discovered there are Japanese precedents for that technique, too, but they consider their style too chaotic to track influences.

"I don't think we are doing anything other than Alberta style: We make it up as we go along," Palmer says.

Ignorance plays at Canadian Stage's Berkeley Street Theatre in Toronto until Dec. 15 and will be performed in French at L'Espace Libre in Montreal, Jan. 15-19.

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