Two years ago Xstine (pronounced “Christine”) Cook, founder of the International Festival of Animated Objects, passed the torch—an actual flaming torch—to Peter Balkwill, co-artistic director of the Old Trout Puppet Workshop, in a ceremonial transition of power. Cook’s Calgary Animated Objects Society (CAOS) had produced the festival every two years for more than a decade. In 2013 she was ready to call it quits when Balkwill made an offhanded offer to step in. Prior to the 2015 event, Cook called and told him “You’re up.”
“The reality of what a monstrous undertaking it is kind of hit me,” says Balkwill. The Old Trouts were in no position to take over—members were working on different projects in different cities. Instead, he suggested creating a separate entity to run the festival and serve as a hub for local artists involved in “all things animated”—puppetry, masks, animation—including CAOS, the Old Trouts, WP Puppet Theatre, the Green Fools and Quickdraw Animation Society, among others.
“I was interested in seeing the Calgary festival become its own thing, not unlike its sister festival in Montreal,” he says, referring to the Festival de Casteliers, a larger annual event. Cook, who had previously moved the Calgary event to better align with Montreal’s so that international artists could perform at both, stayed on board to help out.
Cook and Balkwill have been part of Calgary’s puppet scene for years. Cook helped establish the Green Fools in the 1990s before starting CAOS, and Balkwill worked on summer amphitheatre shows with friends who later became the Old Trouts. They were attracted to the art form because puppets have no limitations. “You can dismember them, murder them, make them fly, make them go underwater,” says Cook. “You can shrink them, you can explode them,” adds Balkwill. “The puppet has been around as a vehicle to tell stories since before there were words.”
With a renewed vision for the festival, they joined forces with some like-minded friends to create the International Festival of Animated Objects Society (IFAOS). The new standalone, not-for-profit organization will produce the March 16–19 festival under the management of Gwen Murray, who has experience in arts development.
This year IFAOS scaled back the festival in an effort to consolidate its base before expanding. The all-ages event will include the usual puppet shows, screenings, workshops, lectures and the popular Dolly Wiggler Cabaret, but with a particular focus on local talent.
Calgary has a healthy number of artists to choose from, which Balkwill says is due to trailblazer Ronnie Burkett and his marionettes. “His inspiration and his dedication to the puppet arts, particularly for adults, really opened up the door for other crazies to follow.”
The 2017 lineup includes some familiar Calgary names such as clown and puppeteer Mooky Cornish and the Old Trouts themselves with a remount of their debut show from 1999, The Unlikely Birth of Istvan. That production started the Trouts on a path that has taken them around the world with well-known works such as Famous Puppet Death Scenes.
The festival will also highlight emerging local artists such as Long Grass Studio and Pape and Taper—both have appeared previously in the cabaret, but this is their first time presenting full-length work. “It’s important that the festival give local artists a chance to push their art to the next level,” says Cook. Talent from outside the city includes the Wonderheads from Portland (Loon, Grim and Fisher), a Montreal puppet troupe and a selection of animated films.
Cook and Balkwill will both remain involved in the festival, at least until the society is on its feet. As Balkwill puts it, “Xstine ceremoniously handed me the reins—and I handed half of them back to her.” Cook doesn’t bear any grudge: “With all these amazing people involved we’re going to push it further than it’s ever gone before.”