Zap! Pow! Puppets aren’t just for kids (wait, who said they were?)

Stage/Film | by Paul Dechene

International Puppet Underground Festival
Various Venues

June 1–4

When someone mentions puppets do you automatically think of The Muppets? Fraggle Rock? Casey and Finnegan? Those are all great and iconic examples of the art of puppeteering but, if that’s all you’ve encountered, there’s an entire world of cutting-edge puppetry that you might have been missing.

Good thing the International Puppet Underground Festival is here to expand Regina’s puppet horizon.

“One of the things that we like to promote with the festival is how many different kinds of puppets there are,” says Chrystene Ells, artistic director of the IPUF. “When you scratch the surface of what puppetry is and its history, there are so many different ways of interpreting it. And it’s so interesting.”

“The very oldest puppet found is 2,600 years old and it’s a little mannequin made out of ivory with pegs for the arms and legs so it can be manipulated,” says Ells. “So we’ve been making little versions of ourselves — and our nightmares, and our dreams and fantasies — forever. It’s primordial. Antediluvian. It calls back in our lizard brain or something.

“When people see puppets, they have a reaction,” she says.

The International Puppet Underground Festival features four days of films, workshops and live puppet events that run from June 1 to 4 at various locations around Cathedral and downtown. Puppet central, though, will be the Artesian on 13th Avenue.

“One of the things that people are always excited about is the puppet cabaret, which is called a puppet slam,” says Ells of their Saturday event. “It’s anything goes. There’s a lot of raunchy humour and puppets that you couldn’t show the kids. Maybe there are body parts that might make an appearance.”

“[The cabaret] is also an avenue for people to express any kind of political opinions they might have,” says Berny Hi, the festival’s films director. “There’s something special about puppets in the fact that they can relay messages and talk about perhaps hot topics or political opinions that are very popular and the puppeteer doesn’t get blamed for them. The puppet does.”

“Everyone obviously intellectually knows that the puppeteer is making the puppet say that stuff. But there’s a deflection that happens,” says Ells. “It’s like the ancient tradition of the fool in our culture where the fool could tell the king the truth that nobody else could tell the king. So puppets play that role.

“Before the last 100 years, puppets were not necessarily considered children’s entertainment,” adds Ells. “They were brought out to address taboo topics. There was often a lot of gallows humour in puppets.

Punch and Judy, for example. A lot of people don’t know this, but Punch is a serial killer. The traditional Punch and Judy show, he first kills his baby then he kills his wife. Then he just slaughters half the neighbourhood. And a dog and a police man and the hangman. And then he gets away with it.” says Ells. “Punch represents that darker side of puppetry and modern day puppeteers are still doing Punch and Judy and parents will say ‘Oh go watch that,’ while Punch bludgeons his wife to death and throws his baby out a window.

“As voices from that darker place, from the underworld, they do have a place in our society,” says Ells. “And Regina is surprisingly open to this kind of thing.”

Speaking of voices from the darker place, Ells says one of the performances this year, Ubu On The Table (June 2–3, Artesian), is an adaptation of an 1896 puppet piece by Alfred Jarry called Ubu Roi which was an examination of fascism and war — timely topics considering the current political climate.

Ubu On The Table is the creation of Montreal puppeteers La Pire Espèce [The Worst Kind], who have reimagined Jarry’s farce as a piece of table-top puppetry.

“It was originally created to be presented in a bar setting,” says Ells. “So the puppets they’re using are not puppets, they’re things you might find in a bar in Montreal — like a vinegar dispenser, some forks, knives, little baguettes. They have an army of baguettes that do this big fight scene.”

Also on the IPUF schedule is a live-action puppetry film contrasting settler and indigenous perspectives.

“It’s more like Dark Crystal than something like Nightmare Before Christmas, which is stop-motion,” says Berny Hi. “And one of the local filmmakers made a puppet film about the understanding of other cultures and it’s two rabbits who are looking up at a starry night and they see different constellations but the constellations mean different things to them, but in the end they come to an appreciation of each other’s cultural perspectives.”

Of course, this just scratches the surface of all that’s on offer at the IPUF festival. There will be more performances, screenings of Heather Henson’s Handmade Puppet Dreams collection of short puppet films, a puppet exhibition walking tour, puppetry workshops for all ages and, of course, the adults-only PuppetSLAM Cabaret on Saturday evening hosted by local performer (and former Cirque Du Soleil clown) Mooky Cornish.

The International Puppet Festival will be a wildly varied four days. Who knew Regina would become a hotbed of puppetry?

Well, I guess, Ells and the IPUF founders did.

“Somehow Saskatchewan, with its wide-open nature and quirky sense of humour and surreal prairie environment, it’s a surprisingly good fit,” Ells says. ❧