Xstine Cook spends much of her life around puppets. As the founder, artistic director and curator of the biannual International Festival of Animated Objects, her daily life revolves around those damnable things. Her day starts with a curt hello to the giant spider marionette behind her office’s reception desk and, before she sleeps, a pack of ventriloquist dummies beg for her hand just one more time. So, it’s nice to hear that sometimes, she gets creeped out, too. “Might as well let them sit on the shelf and stare at you with their creepy eyes,” laughs Cook.
Puppets have moved beyond cheesy B-horror horror movies and children’s programs, and a lot of that has to do with the work of people like Cook. In 2003, she founded the Calgary Animated Object Society (CAOS), and has run the festival since. Work usually relegated to the fringes has found a place to flourish and audiences have grown hungry for more.
“It’s like 20 years in the trenches, and now we’re getting some recognition that we’ve got a great scene in Calgary,” says Cook. “People know us now. In the off-year, there’s always a whole horde of people asking, ‘When is it? When is it?’ Between the support for our festival and the type of work created here, Calgary is a real hotbed of puppetry, mask and animated object work.”
If you were to get a whiff of the sheets in that hotbed, you’d smell the festival’s feature show, Crawdaddy’s Odditorium. A co-production between CAOS, Arcata’s Four on the Floor and the Dell’Arte Company, it’s a good old-fashioned freak show. All the favourites show up, featuring a lobster man and his family of freaks, including a fat lady and Siamese twin daughters. They sing (like all freaks should), though instead of an old-time rendition of “Hello My Baby” performed for gelatinous pig milk and the like, the show features original music by Tim Gray. Crawdaddy promises to induce the kind of childhood trauma your grandma remembers whenever she closes her eyes.
“I’m the head designer,” says Cook. “So I made all the puppets and worked on the designs with some amazing visual artists. The puppetry in it is totally ridiculous, absurd and funny. We’ve got this puppet, LV Willikers, the Indestructible Man, and the family tries to kill him several different ways during the show. They never succeed, because he’s a puppet and you can’t kill a puppet.”
Not that the festival only features attempted puppet murder. On the other end of the spectrum is Big Sky’s Matriarchs of the Earth & Spirit Whales. A contemporary interpretation of an ancient legend from the Tsimshian people, the show incorporates dance, film and mask into a celebration of culture.
“We’ve been trying to bring the show here for five years,” says Cook. “I love the work [Big Sky] is doing. The beauty of the masks and such emotional depth, it’s a work so spiritually nourishing that everyone needs to see it.”
The festival will also feature Swedish mask artist Torbjörn Alström, children’s shows, various art exhibits, workshops and films. Noticeably absent this year, though, is international puppet superstar Ronnie Burkett, who has appeared in every festival since its inception. There are also no Muppets, no Team America, no Being John Malkovich or any other pop-culture hooks familiar to the public. Instead, the festival is predominantly producing the work of local talent. Cook feels the festival has already made its stamp on the cultural landscape, and feels the festival can stand on its own this year.
“People outside the puppet world aren’t necessarily going to know Ray Harryhausen [legendary stop motion animation/special effects artist] or whoever,” points out Cook.
The festival lineup this year features a larger focus on local acts as CAOS gets into producing and supporting a number of new works. Crawdaddy is just the beginning. The festival helped produce and procure funding for local clown Alice Nelson’s show, Elephant in Zulu, and helped theatre company Big Sky with their production and even got them a sponsorship. Some of the artist who will be holding workshops or performing in the festival’s Dolly Wiggler Cabaret were once volunteers.
“It’s part of CAOS’s mandate to create, produce and present work. When we see an artist we believe in, like Alice Nelson, and there’s a way to help bring work to the public, we want to do that. We really are producing the festival this year.”
In the midst of finalizing plans for this year’s festival, Cook is already looking towards the future. More shows, new artist, anything to keep the puppets on her shelf appeased. Though, she’s not aiming for appeasement. At the heart of puppetry, masks and animated objects lay the need for spectacle, and Cook and CAOS will keep delivering.
“We look for work that’s really excellent on a storytelling level and on a technical level, so that it’s something that’s interesting to think about while being something that’s totally fabulous to look at.”
YOUTH ANIMATION PROJECT
Quickdraw Animation Society and the Arusha Centre will present 23 short animations with an activist bent at the Plaza Theatre as part of the International Festival of Animated Object on January 28. The event will showcase the talent of young animators including aboriginals, immigrants and street youth who face societal barriers to employment.
Included in the evening is the chance to participate in the creation of a new animated short. Four brave Youth Animation Project participants will get up onstage and create the piece during the screening, with audience participation.
The event will attempt to show people that being active in political or social issues doesn’t always mean carrying a placard, according to Sharon Stevens of the Arusha Centre. “Activism can be so dreary sometimes. We are just trying to lighten things up a little bit and just show that the message can be a little more animated,” she says.