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The Old Trout Puppet Workshop

Of masks and men.

“There is a murky world of magic and spirits that lurks just beyond the rational realm,” explains Judd Palmer, co-founder of the Calgary-based Old Trout Puppet Workshop. “And it’s a world that humans need to connect with now and then.” It is out of that beautifully dense, slightly arcane realm that Palmer has made his life’s work through theatre productions and the design of intricate handmade puppets.

Rewind to 1999, when Palmer—an accomplished musician, author, and puppeteer—formed the Old Trout Puppet Workshop along with some camp counsellor buddies on a ranch in southern Alberta. Charmingly, their very first show was for an audience of local cowboys. This was followed by a formal debut at Calgary’s High Performance Rodeo, and Palmer hasn’t looked back since.

The troupe’s repertoire transcends preconceived notions of what a traditional puppet show should be. “In many ways [watching a production using puppets] is about adults rediscovering that—wow—they can be disarmed,” Palmer says. “In a weird kind of a way, it is possible to connect even more with a puppet than with an actor on stage, because with an actor they are always pretending to be someone else, but a puppet is exactly who it is. You really feel all those emotions along with it.”

In addition to live theatre, the Old Trout team has produced an array of short films and a special with the National Film Board of Canada, as well as creating the puppets for Feist’s Juno Award–winning music video “Honey Honey” (which they also co-wrote with director Anthony Seck). In the video, Feist’s haunting vocals soundtrack the drama of a fisherman adrift at sea as the puppeteers breathe life into his detailed wooden features.

As Palmer reminds us, at the core of puppetry is a desire to infuse inanimate objects with spirits, which is an incredibly ancient ritual.

These days Palmer calls Victoria, B.C., home. From the island, he has collaborated with Vancouver Opera on its upcoming production of Hansel & Gretel. Old Trout took on the role of designer while a team from Pacific Opera Victoria’s Scene Shop built the puppets, which number about 30 and vary in stature from pint-sized to three metres tall. Some of the creations “encase”, or are worn by, the performers, and all are crafted primarily from papier mâché. (For smaller productions Palmer loves designing more “stubborn” wood-carved pieces.)

With a goal of creating “the Pan’s Labyrinth of operas,” Palmer and his colleagues dug deep into the archetypal terrain of fairy tales to capture the essence of Hansel & Gretel’s pagan world. “The thing that attracted me to puppets [in the first place] is the same kind of thing that attracted me to opera: a story that throws realism out the window. It’s the impossible, the miraculous,” he says. “That’s the world these puppets play in, and that’s the world opera singers play in as well.” (The opera runs at the Vancouver Playhouse from November 24 to December 11.)

As Palmer reminds us, at the core of puppetry is a desire to infuse inanimate objects with spirits, which is an incredibly ancient ritual. “Like when you’re a kid, playing with figurines. It’s mysterious, but in a way our brains are hard-wired to accept this hazy line of reality.”

Hansel & Gretel will play at the Vancouver Playhouse on November 24, 26, 27, 29, and 30 and December 1, 3, 7, 8, 10, and 11, 2016. 

Photos by Emily Cooper Photography.