THE INTERNATIONAL FESTIVAL OF ANIMATED OBJECTS
Presented by the Calgary Animated Objects Society and Green Fools Theatre
Runs January 21 to 30
Engineered Air Theatre (Epcor Centre) and various other venues
Once upon a time in Calgary, when you said "puppets," people would think of The Muppets, or Casey and Finnegan on Mr. Dressup mere kids stuff, family entertainment. That began to change in the late 1980s, as local boy Ronnie Burkett and his Theatre of Marionettes started to burst all the bonds, creating hilarious, audacious, adults-only shows that redefined puppetry for Calgary and Canadian audiences.
Today, Burkett is an international star and Calgary is a hotbed of original and unorthodox puppet work, thanks partly to a sophisticated audience bred on his ambitious productions. The Old Trouts, the Green Fools and WP Puppet Theatre are among the artists carrying on the Burkett legacy, and now its only appropriate that the city should also be host to an International Festival of Animated Objects a 10-day celebration of puppetry, mask and other forms of object animation.
Topping the festival bill is who else? Burkett himself, with a special one-night-only appearance on Monday, January 24. As he did for the festivals pilot edition in 2002, Burkett will be performing sans strings, giving his local fans sneak-preview readings of his latest works-in-progress, Billy Twinkle, Requiem for a Golden Boy and Ten Days on Earth.
But Burkett isnt the only prominent puppeteer in the lineup. The mainstage acts also include: Phillip Huber, the marionette master behind Being John Malkovich; the Czech Republics Cakes and Puppets; and TV and film veteran Frank Meschkuleit, bringing his fringe festival hit The Left Hand of Frank.
Fast Forward recently caught up with both Huber and Meschkuleit, two puppet artists who, on the surface at least, appear very different. Huber painstakingly crafts detailed, lifelike marionettes and manipulates them with stunning precision. Meschkuleit makes puppets out of tennis balls, tampons and his own right hand. Huber is famous for a quirky cult film that became an Oscar-nominated hit. Meschkuleits (literal) handiwork can be seen in another kind of cult hit: Bride of Chucky.
Nonetheless, they share a few things in common including a favourite puppeteer.
Although his company, The Huber Marionettes, has been in business since 1980, Phillip Hubers career has enjoyed a big boost since he played the real string-puller behind John Cusacks misunderstood marionettist in Spike Jonzes wonderfully loopy 1999 film Being John Malkovich.
"Whenever I use that credit, I can sell out a theatre now," says Huber by phone from his studio outside Nashville, Tennessee.
But, as is often the case with these twists of fate, he just about didnt get involved with the movie at all.
When the filmmakers first came calling, Huber, who was then working out of a garage studio in L.A. that would become the model for Cusacks in the picture, had to turn down the offer. "Theyd planned this film at the last minute," he says. "I already had commitments in Europe and other places and so we couldnt accept the job."
So the filmmakers hired various other puppeteers to design and work the marionettes. However, six months later, after the film had completed principal photography, Huber got another call. "They werent happy with what they originally had and were hoping I could do something better for them," he says. "So basically, I rebuilt the marionettes so they could do the actions required in the film."
It was a daunting task. Scenes such as Malkovichs hilarious Dance of Despair had already been choreographed and shot with the actor and his stunt double, and now had to be duplicated with a puppet.
"It was extremely challenging to come up with a marionette that could do things like a back handspring, a wall walk and all these other intricate moves," says Huber. But Jonze was so delighted with the results that he and screenwriter Charlie Kaufman even ended up adding a new scene, in which Cusack performs an erotic puppet version of the Héloïse and Abelard tale on a street corner and gets a punch in the head from the outraged father of a fascinated little girl.
"That turned out to be my favourite, even though when they first presented it to me I wasnt crazy about it," admits Huber. "The way they had it written, it sounded like it was going to be quite a bit more graphic and I didnt think it was appropriate to do with puppets." Thanks to Hubers finesse, the suggestive scene does a brilliant job of blurring the line between art and smut and making a wry comment on the prevailing North American perception that puppetry is just childrens entertainment.
Huber thinks the film has helped change that view a little bit, and sparked a new interest in marionettes. "Its been rediscovered by a new generation," he says. "Marionettes had gone out of vogue because theyre the most difficult form of puppet (to work). They require so much time upfront to learn the process and become proficient enough to be successful. Most people nowadays want instant careers and an instant payoff."
That wasnt the case with Huber, who began making and manipulating marionettes while still a boy in small-town Illinois, and later spent an eight-year apprenticeship with L.A. puppet maestro Tony Urbano before forming his own company. Hell be performing his Huber Marionettes variety show, Suspended Animation, as part of the festivals Dolly Wiggler Cabaret on Saturday, January 29 and Sunday, January 30.
Unfortunately, marionettes may be getting a bad rap again thanks to South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone and their recent satire Team America: World Police, which spoofs Thunderbirds and the other "Supermarionation" TV action serials created by Gerry Anderson in the 1960s. Huber says he wasnt thrilled to see it.
"With Malkovich, I was hoping I was setting the bar pretty high for marionette performances, so Team America was a great disappointment for me. But I know quite a few of the puppeteers who worked on it and thats what the producers wanted they didnt want good puppetry, they wanted to parody the art. But theyve just perpetuated that stereotype of marionettes being silly, awkward and ridiculous."
Who are Hubers favourite puppet artists?
"Certainly one of my favourite puppeteers now is a German, Albert Roser," he says. "His variety show is the epitome of what the marionette should be graceful and clever, beautiful and thought-provoking. Another one of my favourites is Ronnie Burkett. I went up to Toronto to see his production of Street of Blood. Hes broken all the rules of marionettes, but what he does is just spectacular."
Unlike Huber, Frank Meschkuleit fell into puppeteering by accident. A naturally funny guy, the Kitchener, Ontario native was encouraged by one of his teachers to audition at a big casting call for The Muppet Show in Toronto.
"They needed 75 puppeteers, cause Jim Henson wanted to do a shot with the biggest number of puppeteers in the history of television," says Meschkuleit. Convinced hed never be hired, he showed up incredibly unprepared. "I did something hugely stupid. I drew a little sort of Senor Wences face on my hand and did my Tattoo voice from Fantasy Island. I just kept talking, figuring theyd throw me out any second." Instead, they asked for his resumé and photo. He pulled out a little photo-booth snapshot and scribbled his name and number on the back.
The next thing he knew, he was called back to work on one of the Muppet movies, launching what has now been a two-decade career as a television and film puppeteer. Meschkuleits credits have ranged from TVs wholesome Fraggle Rock (he was Junior Gorg) to the grade-B slasher flick Bride of Chucky, where he was one in a team of 11 puppeteers bringing the ghoulish little killer doll to life. Appropriately enough, Chucky was dismembered for the film.
"Wed be doing segments of Chucky," says Meschkuleit. "They had just the head, or just the arm, so you could do a shot of the arm reaching to grab a knife. When all 11 of us were operating the doll, it took quite a bit of choreography and synergy to get everyone in the same body all at once."
About 10 years ago, Meschkuleit decided to work up a live show to perform when his hand wasnt in front of the cameras. The Left Hand of Frank toured Canadas fringe-festival circuit to great success, played Montreals Just For Laughs fest, and is finally making its Calgary debut at the International Festival of Animated Objects. It has two performances, on Friday, January 28 and Sunday, January 30.
For this show, Meschkuleit takes a cue from that first Muppet audition, creating puppets with the sketchiest of props. A tennis ball with eyes becomes a housefly with a death wish, a tampon on a stick turns into a little guy called Tampy and Franks bare right hand transforms into the shows host, Pinky Digits, with the aid of a bow-tie around the wrist.
It sounds cute, but this is an adult puppet show, warns Meschkuleit, so dont come thinking you can park your toddler at it which, he says, has happened in the past. (If you have kids, there are some family-oriented shows in the festival, by the way.)
In fact, says Meschkuleit, puppets are the perfect vehicles for irreverent and risqué humour. "Its alarming how much funny stuff a puppet can do and get away with," he says. "Its easier for a puppet to play the role of court jester and poke fun at something thats on peoples minds than it is for a human actor."
And Meschkuleits favourite puppeteer?
Surprise, surprise Ronnie Burkett. "Im a huge fan of his live shows. Hes so breathtakingly daring. His stage work is unparalleled."
For the full festival lineup, check this weeks Scan listings. For more information, call 266-1503 or go to www.animatedobjects.ca