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Promoting this year’s Festival of Animated Objects is a bit tricky.
How do you promote a performance that isn’t really a performance? This is not an existential question posed by a philosophical puppet, but a reflection of life and art under COVID-19 restrictions.
Organizers of the festival thought they dodged a bullet last year. Animated Objects, which celebrates “all things puppets,” is a biennial event and 2020 was an off-year. So there was optimism that this would have all passed for the festival in 2021. Instead, as with every arts group, a rethink has been needed for the Festival of Animated Objects, which runs from March 20 to April 11.
“We’ve had to be creative about this because we don’t want everything to just be online,” says Pete Balkwill, co-artistic director of the festival. “We want to invite people to engage in community in those responsible ways that are available to us to maintain safety. That is to heighten your awareness of the community. When you go out, you are part of a group of people that are working together to move safely through this pandemic but also are still in need of making that contact and that association to others.”
So the festival will feature virtual performances, film series and workshops and a handful of free pop-up events that are not being formally advertised. Some have taken on a cool air of mystery because of this. The Parade of the OKO’s is a pop-up event featuring nine local performers and will happen between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. on March 26 along Stephen Avenue. On March 20, Calgarians are being encouraged to celebrate the Spring Equinox in a socially distanced fashion with their own illuminated lanterns. That’s apparently what artists from the Canadian Academy of Mask and Puppetry’s production of Iniskim will be doing with their giant buffalo lanterns for what is being described as a “socially distanced celebration of the first day of spring and the light, renewal and regrowth that it brings.”
“If you are fortunate enough to see it, then you will see it and say ‘Oh my God, what is that strangeness there?’ ” says Balkwill. “In the way that art should, it gives you an impetus to respond and to reflect however that is on your own personal journey. In some ways, if you don’t know or if you don’t feel like you’ve been instructed on how to engage with it then you are in the truest relationship with art.”
“We’ve got a cohort that is going to move slowly down Stephen Avenue Mall at some point, we have an artist in a mask that will be on the C-Train and dancing on the platforms,” he adds. “We can send out notes after the fact and say ‘Hey, if you saw this, this is what it was.’ In a way, that becomes immersive. The audience participates with it and they get to reflect after the fact.”
There will be more standard performance-type events, although they will mostly be held online. That includes a return of the Dolly Wiggler Cabaret, a festival flagship. Hosted by co-artistic director Xstine Cook and internationally renowned clown and Cirque Du Soleil veteran Mooky Cornish, this adult puppet show will be held on ZOOM on March 25, 26 and 27 and features “unsettling weirdness, puppet nudity and ribald entertainment” that is meant to leave you “uncomfortably aroused.” This year’s cryptic theme is “Everybody Loves Frank!”
Keeping with the adult theme will be Spooky and Beautiful, which will feature late-night horror-themed shorts from around the globe.
Handmade Quarantine Films’ 2020 Micro-Commission Puppet Shorts comes from Handmade Puppet Dreams, an organization run by the late Jim Henson’s youngest daughter Heather. The curated short-film program is designed for a new generation of puppeteers to “embrace film as a medium for artistic direction.”
Family-friendly shorts from around the world will also stream as part of Animovies, a series of stop-motion, puppetry and animated objects. All three of the film programs can be viewed anytime from March 29 to April 11.
On March 20, a World Puppet Day Livestream, put on by Calgary’s WP Puppet Theatre, is a free event that takes place at 12 p.m. It will feature instructions on how to make your own puppet.
Meanwhile, on March 25 at 6 p.m, The Canadian Academy of Mask and Puppetry will launch its new virtual series as part of the festival, featuring Balkwill conducting interviews and studio tours. The series will last throughout the year. But the first will feature Wonderheads, a Victoria-based theatre company that performs in full-face mask.
But while a good portion of the festival will be online, Barkwill encourages those interested in the city’s robust mask and puppetry talent to visit the website, puppetfestival.com for further details. But also just to be aware that the city will be home to some intriguing weirdness in the coming days.
“Our hands are tied,” he says. “We cannot draw people to live public events. But keep your eyes peeled. If you see something curious happening, it may well be a random pop-up performance.”
Festival Of Animated Objects runs from March 20 to April 11. Visit puppetfestical.ca