SIX STAGES FESTIVAL featuring seven international companies. Begins Tuesday (January 28) and runs to February 9 at Artword (75 Portland) and Theatre Passe Muraille (16 Ryerson). $11-$21, some rush seats $6. 416-504-7529; fest hotline 416-593-8680.
how's this for a bizarre development process? A group of artists work on a southern Alberta ranch and become a collective puppetry troupe.That's the history of the Old Trout Puppet Workshop, whose members moved to that ranch near Pincher Creek in 1999 because they wanted to create their own shows. Their first, an off-the-wall piece called The Unlikely Birth Of Istvan, was followed by shows for children and adults that include The Tooth Fairy and a Viking opera based on Beowulf.
Pete Balkwill, one of the core performers, remembers those early days, living in a shack heated by a coal-burning stove, making communal meals and taking care of free-range chickens and cattle and chasing goats with a stick.
"That last was pretty scary, since the goats stared at you with their bulging eyes," he says from Calgary, where the group now has a studio. "That interaction with the livestock, that cruel reality of farm life, played into the truths of Istvan.
"The story has all sorts of non-sequitur curves, helped by the ensemble nature of our creative process, where everyone is comfortable having a say. But there's no question that the way a goat looked at me suggested how one of the puppets should develop."
Istvan has two central figures, dubbed This and That, whose interaction brings up questions of birth, death and all that lies in between. The show is wordless, though an eclectic score -- Polish tunes, Cuban rhythms and thumping, hard cellos -- accompanies the action.
"This focuses on the mouth and is primarily physical, while That focuses on the eyes and deals with abstract thought processes," explains Balkwill. "The conflict of their relationship shapes the show.
"On the one hand, it's the story of the immortal mind that realizes it's linked to a mortal, physical vessel. On the other, the physical vessel wishes the mind would stop thinking and just have a sandwich."
The company dug around woodpiles for their source material, carving old railway ties and developing puppets that sit on the actors' heads or are hand-held. The use of head puppets, notes Balkwill, allows the characters an enormous amount of physical freedom.
"Because we're an arts collective and not everyone has a background in theatre -- we have a sculptor, a writer, an illustrator and a master carpenter in the group -- our collective process is different from many. All our strengths come together in the shows, which are like watching a live visual art piece, a sculpture that moves in front of you."I think the puppets allow viewers' hearts to beat a little faster and see things with a childlike clarity that adults have often forgotten." firstname.lastname@example.org
THE UNLIKELY BIRTH OF ISTVAN created and performed by the Old Trout Puppet Workshop. Theatre Passe Muraille Backspace. February 4-7 at 7 pm, matinee February 8 at 4 pm.