While growing up in Calgary, Judd Palmer (BA 1996 Trinity) missed out on one thing: “I don’t remember ever seeing a puppet show as a kid,” he says.
He’s making up for lost time now. Palmer heads the Old Trout Puppet Workshop, a seven-member troupe devoted to blurring the boundaries between adults’ and children’s theatre. Their brilliantly received shows have included The Unlikely Birth of Istvan, described by the Globe and Mail as a “surrealist fairy tale about good and evil.”
Featuring both a graphic puppet birth and a puppet strangulation, Istvan is definitely not children’s fare. But “part of the virtue or the wonder of a puppet show is that it makes adults childlike,” says Palmer, who has performed extensively for kids and is also the author of the “Preposterous Fables for Unusual Children” fairy tale series. “We’re not interested in shocking people, but in making something beautiful.”
The Old Trouts came together just before 2000, when an apocalypse-conscious Palmer decided to round up a band of childhood friends to hole up on his grandfather’s ranch and create the ultimate puppet show. The Trouts spent a year in a coal-heated shack, escaping just “before we lost our minds,” says Palmer. “We were living as far away as we could from the cowboys, because we were irritating to them, I think.” A bunkhouse full of ranch hands (as well as local Hutterites) proved to be their first receptive audience, making the Trouts confident that they could enchant art lovers from all walks of life.
“The thing about puppets is they’re a combination of different media that people generally accept as being art: sculpture, drama, music, painting,” says the 31-year-old philosophy graduate. “You put all those things in puppetry, and there’s no particular reason it shouldn’t be art as well – or at least not relegated to church basements and children’s birthday parties.”