Puppets meet untimely ends in “Famous Puppet Death Scenes,” a 2005 show by Canada’s Old Trout Puppet Company that begins Dec. 9 at Woolly Mammoth. The titles of the scenes – a “greatest hits” compendium of swan songs that the wry Calgary, Alberta, troupe has entirely made up – suggest a macabre whimsy: “The Cruel Sea,” “Why I Am So Sad,” “Never Say It Again.”
The Trouts were formed in 1999; the “About Us” tab on the company Web site reports that founders Peter Balkwill, Steve Kenderes and Judd Palmer suffered a millennial panic and impulsively took to puppetry. The Trouts have created a number of works for stage and screens ever since, and “Famous Puppet Death Scenes” will showcase a variety of the troupe’s handmade creations, from marionettes to mysterious-sounding “metaphysical puppets.”
The performance is “hosted” by a puppet named Nathanial Tweak, who agreed, with the Trouts, to an e-mail interview from Canada before this D.C. engagement.
Tell us a little about yourself.
Tweak: I am the host of the wildly popular (and deeply moving) theatrical production known around the world as “Famous Puppet Death Scenes.” As everyone knows, the best part of any story is the part where someone dies; it’s the culmination of all the dramatic tension, the moment that touches us most deeply, that excites in us the most overwhelming emotions – and so I have assembled an evening of all the best bits of all the greatest puppet shows in history.
Your favorite scenes are there – “Edward’s Last Prance,” from The Ballad of Edward Grue by Samuel Groanswallow; Act 1 Scene 3 of The Feverish Heart by Nordo Frot; Why I am so Sad by Sally – and of course the unforgettable “Bipsy’s Mistake” from Bipsy and Mumu Go to the Zoo by Fun Freddy. Dozens of puppets meet their tragic ends; it’s an unrelenting tornado of theatrical profundity.
The show is my life’s work. I have labored long and traveled far to gather the original puppets of the original shows – scattered across the world, forgotten, in mouldering crates, ship’s bilges, ice-clogged caverns, hidden under ping-pong tables and disused treadmills in mouldering rec rooms. I have summoned the ghosts of their long-lost masters, to perform for you once again the greatest moments of their theatrical careers. And – I can give away this much – at the culmination of the evening, I myself will take the stage to perform the greatest puppet death scene of all.
How did you develop an interest in puppet death scenes?
Tweak: I have been a puppet myself for as long as I can remember; my interest in the puppet death scene was sparked in that dread moment we all face in our lives at some point – the moment we realize we are not immortal. Of course, we all know this on an abstract level, but to truly know it, to feel it deep in our quavering hearts, is to change from cheery child to hollow and haunted, no matter at what age it dawns. There is not a moment that passes that I do not remember the tearing of that veil, the moment I faced death directly and steeled my heart to it, the moment I “developed an interest in puppet death scenes,” as you put it – the throbbing drums, the sharpened teeth, the flickering flames, the grunting, the echoing roar of the cave bears in the deeps.
What is your criteria for a great death scene?
Tweak: Most of us prance blindly through our daily duties, seldom giving a glancing thought to our impending mortalities. No wonder: if we could truly grasp the bewildering certainty of death, we would be overwhelmed by it, and ordinary life would become unnavigable – even a short line at the grocery store, or the waiting room at the dentist, or the brief interlude before they let you click “skip this ad,” would reduce us to madly shrieking: I do not wish to die! I love to be alive!
Take that mad shrieking, forge it, hone it, clench it thrashing into words and gestures, the purest beam of fear and love combined: That is a great death scene.
How did you become involved with Old Trout?
Tweak: I found them under a pile of old furniture out back of the theatre, and lured them through the stage door with a half-full bottle of Irish whisky. They can be stubborn, but they have surprisingly nimble fingers, and they’re easily frightened, two qualities that make them excellent (well, passable, at least) puppeteers. Commonplace technology like flashlights and Slinkies seem to them like powerful black magic, and so it’s been a small matter to convince them that I am a kind but demanding deity.
For the Old Trout company: Why puppets?
Trouts: Well, way to go. First question and you’ve struck deep where we’re most vulnerable. That’s the exact question that keeps us up at night, staring at the ceiling with bloodshot eyes.
After many years of pondering, we’ve come to the conclusion that there may not actually be an answer to that question – but that there is an even bigger question that we should probably be asking ourselves: what is it about us all, as a species, that we are so deeply addicted to attributing consciousness to inanimate objects? Puppets, dolls, action figures, sure – but if you think about it, flickering pixels as well. Could it be that empathy is so crazily important for our survival that our brains have especially evolved to care about anything that even vaguely resembles another human being? Maybe the part of us that believes a block of wood has feelings is actually the best part of us . . . the part that will save us all.
How long does it take an Old Trout artisan to build a puppet?
Trouts: Depends on the puppet. It also depends on what you call “a puppet.” Really, anything that you wave around in front of an audience while making a funny voice qualifies; a fork would work, in a pinch. Or a houseplant or a rug or something. So long as you and I agree to pretend that it’s a character, with its own little hopes and dreams and fears, it’s a puppet.
So on the one hand you have puppets that are built, essentially, out of thought – and as quickly. On the other hand, you have puppets that are intricately and laboriously carved out of wood, costumed, painted, rigged . . . that can take weeks. “Famous Puppet Death Scenes” took many grueling months to build. Next show we’re going to make it easy on ourselves and just empty out the cutlery drawer onto the stage.
The company did lovely, haunting work for the Feist music video “Honey Honey.” Does this fit into the oeuvre of death scenes?
Trouts: Yes. In fact, we’d had the idea that it would be fun to make a film version of Famous Puppet Death Scenes. We thought maybe we could approach puppet groups around the world and ask them to film a puppet death scene of their own, and then cobble them all together into a marvelous collection… a worldwide collaboration of artists working in our strange little field. When we were conceiving the “Honey Honey” video (with director Anthony Seck), we imagined it could be our contribution to the film.
We actually have no idea why we never took that idea any further. Thanks for reminding us. Maybe we should get back on it.
Well, why not right now? If any puppeteers (professional or simply enthusiastic) are reading this, we are now officially collecting puppet death scenes. Send us your best one, and when we have enough, well, we’ll release a film, and we’ll all be wildly famous. And rich… probably extremely rich.
A little bit rich?
Like, a nice dinner or something?
. . . fish taco?
Are you familiar with the work of the vintage “Saturday Night Live” artist Mr. Bill?
Trouts: We are now. Looked him up on YouTube. Hilarious. Clearly an immortal artist of the puppet death scene.
Is there something particularly Canadian about puppets and death scenes?
Trouts: Well, here’s an odd fact that might help answer this question: American civic architecture is predominantly classical – you know, domes, pediments, relentless rows of pillars, etc. That kind of architecture is supposed to emphasize the power of the republic, of the human sphere. Canadian civic architecture, however, is predominantly gothic, with spires and pointy arches and gargoyles, which are meant to point upward to the heavens, to emphasize the power of the supernatural. Deep in the Canadian psyche is a fear of powers that are greater than the merely human.
That seemed like it was somehow related a couple of seconds ago, anyway. Not so much anymore.
What are you especially looking forward to during your visit to Washington?
Trouts: How are your fish tacos?
That’s a stupid answer. Honestly, we’re tremendously excited by all kinds of things, most especially researching our next production at the Smithsonian, visiting the Lincoln Memorial, and accosting every politician we see and shaking them by the lapels while shrieking “for God’s sake – why won’t you save us all from the environmental catastrophe that threatens everything we know and love? It’s up to you! Please, it’s up to you!”
“Famous Puppet Death Scenes,” created and performed by the Old Trout Puppet Workshop. Dec. 9 to Jan. 4 at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, 641 D St. NW. Tickets $35-$68, subject to change. Call 202-393-3939 or visit www.woollymammoth.net.