Close encounters of the puppet kind: Puppet Pub Crawl at Found Festival 2021

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

For its 10th anniversary edition (and return to live) this weekend, the Found Festival has found … puppets. Seven of them, actually, each with an original tale to tell.

Designer/ theatre creator/ scenographer Even Gilchrist, Puppet Pub Crawl. Photo by Janice Saxon.

We’ll meet them in a Found tour of seven outdoor Strathcona locales in Puppet Pub Crawl. Scenographer/designer Even Gilchrist, who’s doing a master’s degree in design at the U of A, is the dreamer-upper, creator, and curator of the project. And he gathered intrigued theatre artists, seven of them, around him. “We asked people we thought would be interested or curious … and they built their own puppets and created their own pieces!” And they’ll be performing them too.  Some are actors, some designers; for many, it’s their inaugural venture into puppetry.

“My puppet obsession runs back to school,” laughs Gilchrist who arrived here from Ottawa to study design at the U of A (he’s doing a master’s degree). “I became completely obsessed with revisiting that joy,” he says citing inspirations of puppet-mad artist friends. He’s still struck by Skeleton Key Theatre’s Swan River, in which the audience was led to the Ottawa River, to watch, in awe, as giant bird puppets, made of branches and materials found in nature, emerged from the water. “So incredible! says Gilchrist, who assisted on that project (set and costumes) and who’s assisted on some of Edmonton theatre’s most adventurous indie productions (Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play; All That Binds Us, Tracks among them).

Long regarded as the exclusive property of theatre for young audiences, puppets have been reclaimed for grown-up audiences by the likes of Ronnie Burkett and the Old Trout Puppet Workshop. They were inspirations for Gilchrist, too. “I just wanted to find unexpected ways of sharing puppetry with people,” he says, “to challenge their understanding of what puppetry can be.”

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Originally destined for Found Fest 2020, Puppet Pub Crawl isn’t quite Gilchrist’s first Close Encounter Of The Puppet Kind, as he puts it.  He’s had “brief dalliances … but this is my true puppet debut!” There’s no Gilchrist puppet in the show, incidentally, but there’s one waiting in the wings at home, a work-in-progress hopeful named Marty.

Even though it was conceived (just) before “The Great Pause,” as he puts it, the project seems specially made for the peculiar times in which we’ve been living.

Andrés Moreno, Puppet Pub Crawl, Found Festival 2021. Photo by Even Gilchrist.

“It was a simple prompt,” Gilchrist says of the original call to artists, “with the full understanding it was a flexible, movable prompt.” Namely, “connection … the desire, or the pressure, to form connections with strangers in different locations, those brief or meaningful or absurd connections you make or observe.… For me it was about hello’s and goodbyes.”

Gilchrist’s original plan for The Puppet Pub Crawl was for “a stroll down Whyte Ave, but restrictions and safety concerns canned that busy locale. Now the audience is guided to seven outdoor locations — including Viva Clayworks and Strathcona Spirits Distillery — all in the area around the Grindstone Theatre on 81 Ave.

Despite the challenges of rethinking the project every time COVID restrictions changed, “it’s been very fulfilling,” Gilchrist says. The stories aren’t thematically linked, really, but they share “the same journey of discovering connections.” And the audience has the fun of putting the pieces together.

Check out 12thnight’s survey of the Found Festival here.

PREVIEW

Found Festival 2021

Puppet Pub Crawl

Theatre: Common Ground Arts Society

Directed by: Rory Turner

Starring: Rebecca Cypher, Frances Girard, Skye Grinde, Abby McDougall, Andrés Moreno, Dill Prusko, Aaron Refugio

Where: seven locations in Old Strathcona, starting at Strathcona Spirits Distillery, 10122 81 Ave.

Running: Thursday through Sunday

Tickets: Common Ground Arts Society

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