The world can be a simultaneously beautiful and terrifying place. We often struggle to confront the darker sides of ourselves and, in turn, what we are capable of doing in a moment of desperate circumstance. Our fear is understandable — no one wants to get lost in the inky shadows of the human condition — and sometimes it’s just easier to toss on a pair of rose coloured glasses and leave the lights on.
This Little Piggie, however, is not one of those times. The fine folks at Old Trout Puppet Workshop, along with an extensive line up of collaborators, are here to, if not hold our hand, at least shine a light into some of the more macabre corners of our minds as they guide us on a fabulous musical journey through dust storms, depressions and, finally, an almighty flood.
Like any story worth telling (or song worth singing) This Little Piggie, was a labour of love and process of evolution for all involved. Peter Balkwill of Old Trout Puppet Workshop and member of Agnostic Mountain Gospel Choir recalls when the production first started to plant its roots. “I had come up with this notion that it would be fun to work with David Rhymer. The Old Trout Puppet Workshop had done shows with him in the past so I was like, ‘Hey David, would you like to do another musical?’ But, I kinda wanted to pull away from something completely composed by him because he has such a strong sound. I wanted to try something different.”
Bearing a striking resemblance to the origin of the Old Trout Puppet Workshop itself, the gang (now growing in numbers) packed up their bags and headed into the wild. “The idea was that we would take these artists, these independent singer-songwriters, out to the mountains for two weeks and we would collaborate as a group and compose some songs. So, that was the pitch of the idea and David was really excited about that.”
The gathering of what would end up being the cast, crew, puppeteers and musicians of This Little Piggie seemed to happen fairly organically. The musical almost appeared to be taking on a mind, or maybe more accurately, legs of its own: it knew where it wanted to go and welcomed those interested to come along for the ride, albeit perhaps with Balkwill at the reigns.
“Wen we’d be a on band tour, wearing that hat, I’d be speaking to musicians that I would meet at the music festivals, in the beer gardens, or whatever, about the musical and some of them would be like, ‘That’s an awesome idea, how do we become a part of that?’ and I’d put them on the list.” His summation of the list ends up reading like a cache of folk festival darlings and seasoned musical theatre performers alike: “There was Eric Rose (Ghost River), Jolene Higgins (Little Miss Higgins), Kris Demeanor, Bob Keelaghan, who is also a part of Agnostic Mountain Gospel Choir, and then there’s this gal, Bessie Wapp, who is a piano, accordion and vocal artist who I met at a theatre festival. The accordion is such a beautiful instrument and something I really wanted in there. There were all these people who I’d had disparate conversations with over the course of four years or so, then I got some money and called them all up and it was like, ‘Here we go!’”
And so, to the mountains they went. ”We would go off and write for half the day and, in the evenings, after supper, we’d take all the work we generated during the day and we’d flesh it out as a band and we would start to layer it and jam it out as a band. It was ridiculously productive, we wrote 22 songs in two weeks.” Listening to Balkwill recall the creative encounters that took place inside that cabin make you wonder if there is any truth to the old cliché that it takes a village to raise a child — if so, then it should go without saying that This Little Piggie has been brought up well and is ready to move beyond its first steps at the showcase of the initial Cabin Sessions at Ironwood Stage last year, into a fully fledged run, something for which the whole crew is gearing up at Festival Hall this month.
While the group initially sought to convey emotions, rather than a strict narrative, through performance and song, Balkwill does admit that This Little Piggie was initially slated to become something else altogether. “The original intention was, ‘Let’s make a conventional form of musical theatre,’ but what we ended up with was this thing that was so much more interesting and exciting. We decided to invest in the direction the project was asking to go.”
Once it became clear that This Little Piggie wasn’t going to be your typical stage show, the folks at Old Trout set about creating an equally creative atmosphere for their musical experience to unfold. Since a time machine didn’t appear to be an option, Balkwill and company have managed to find the next best thing. “We thought, wouldn’t it be awesome if we could to it in a tent somewhere or make it a vehicle for music festivals as opposed to stationary theatre?” The show is set in The Great Depression and Balkwill admits to reading The Grapes of Wrath during its early stages of inception, which would ultimately influence the set design. “The evangelistic revivalist shows that traveled in tents weren’t that different than the carny shows that happened in tents. We’re meshing those two worlds. There’s a tone of the time. So, you’ve got the grotesque curiosity colliding with the sort of religious fervour, which all fit into the wide gamut of musical influences of all the varied artists. So, there again, the process started to dictate the direction that the show wanted to go, then show generated its own personality, in a weird way.
“Plus, there’s something really cool that happens when you go into a tent,” adds Balkwill. “There’s a notion that you’re a part of something that’s only going to happen in this tiny little moment, then it’s going to go away, it’s gone.”
This Little Piggie however is far from fleeting. Old Trout Puppet Workshop has plans to keep the ever-changing musical experience growing and progressing into a larger scale production fit for festival tours come this summer.
Balkwill does mention that, currently, the production is more of a concert than a theatrical performance. However, the choice to use puppets in coalition with the performer, versus relying on acting skill alone, was quite intentional. “You can dismember a puppet and people receive it a different way — they are able to invest in the suggestion and, then, their imagination can finish it and their imagination will take it just where that person wants to take it specifically.” He makes it clear that he is a firm believer in allowing the audience to form their own thought and emotional reactions to the subjects being brought up in This Little Piggie. “You struggle with this concept of, ‘I know what to say about all of this important stuff,’ or, ‘I’m not quite sure what to say, but I think it would be great is we tried to say something.’ So, you mash it all in a snowball and throw it an audience and you see what they think. That’s kinda what we’re doing.”
Old Trout Puppet Workshop has invited us to be a part of what will no doubt be an unforgettable story of loss, desperation and, just maybe, redemption. All you have to do is follow the sound of the wayward accordion to the tent on the left.
See This Little Piggie at Festival Hall on April 19th.
By Cobra Collins