Arts Interview Preview Theatre

Flipside 2023: An Interview with Pityu Kenderes, co-artistic director of The Old Trout Puppet Workshop and co-creator of ‘Famous Puppet Death Scenes’

Photo Credit: AD Zyne

Everyone knows the best part of tragedies are the epic, bloody, melodramatic death scenes. So why not craft an entire show that gives you the best of the best, with an entire series of death scenes one after another?

Enter Famous Puppet Death Scenes, where puppets will do just that for you, showcasing gruesome, shocking, silly, and ultimately, cathartic deaths of puppets. Created by Canada’s Old Trout Puppet Workshop, the almost two-decade show finally tours to Singapore for the first time, and promises humour and pathos while forcing us to confront our own thoughts and fears on mortality.

Speaking to Pityu Kenderes, co-artistic director of the Old Trout Puppet Workshop and co-creator of Famous Puppet Death Scenes, we found out more about the origin of the show, and the prevalence of puppets in today’s arts scene.

“All three founders of the Old Trout Puppet Workshop also co-created Famous Puppet Death Scenes, and the idea behind it is that there’s a curator and expert on a fictional puppet canon, and the show is meant to present the best of puppet death scenes across this history to audiences,” says Pityu. “The puppets take on different designs and aesthetics, and each scene is meant to look like it comes from an entirely different show from a different era. And the death scene is chosen because well, it’s the most moving and most dramatic, and with puppets, it also often happens to be the funniest!”

“And it’s odd, because while puppets are inanimate, there’s something incredibly moving about watching them suffering great tragedy and violence and feeling for them. People have told me that Famous Puppet Death Scenes ended up being one of the most moving experiences in theatre for them,” adds Pityu. “Maybe it’s because with an actor comes with his or her own baggage and ego, and when we look at a puppet, we believe in that little life for a moment onstage. It’s a lot like when we were kids, and we breathed life into our teddy bears and action figures, so there’s something universal and primal about believing in something given life like that.”

Photo Credit: AD Zyne

Guided by a fictional narrator, Famous Puppet Death Scenes is also a non-verbal performance, with characters speaking only in gibberish and nonsensical languages, with select surtitles. “We also used different genres of puppetry, and imagined them coming from different points in time, like how we have a scene that resembles a German children’s tv show from the ’70s with muted colours and a laugh track, or scenes that are closer to German Expressionism. Others, we have a backdrop that only shows a certain segment of the whole, such as a giant whale where you only see the eyeball,” says Pityu.

“In a way, it goes beyond puppetry, and it’s actually played more theatre festivals than puppet specific festivals. It’s about creating a moving theatrical experience using the tools of puppetry,” he adds. “When we were initially building this show, my own mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer, and died during production. It was an important aspect of my journey in realising we all had a relationship with death. We hope that audience members come out feeling better about your death, or to find a way to confront it in some way, this potentially paralysing experience we all eventually face.”

Photo Credit: Jason Stang

Famous Puppet Death Scenes made its debut in 2006 at the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival in Vancouver, and since then, has toured over 70 different cities. In that time, the show has undergone various changes, from now featuring three female puppeteers in the show, to removing certain scenes they felt were less appropriate in current times. While Pityu does not perform in the show anymore, he remains on tour, in part to ensure that nothing goes wrong. “The puppets break all the time, so there’s myself and other repairers and builders who go on the road to make sure we can fix them if anything goes wrong,” he says. “Sometimes something goes wrong onstage, and we end up rushing to fix things between scenes, while the rest are setting up for the next scene! There’s a very fast pace to the whole show that translates to the audience, and it’s a lot to experience.”

On his own journey with puppetry, Pityu recalls setting up the company with co-founders Pete Balkwill and Judd Palmer 23 years ago, a friendship that started as far back as the time they met at summer camp. “As a student I used to use my own puppets for videos and films instead of asking people to act because I was too shy, so that was my unofficial start in puppetry,” he says. “Eventually meeting Pete and Judd, who had different artistic practices and backgrounds in puppetry, we ended up furthering our own artistry with each other. I myself went on to do a Master’s Degree in sculpture and focused entirely on puppets and animatronics. It also helped that I used to be a paramedic, and that gave me additional insight into anatomy, which helped with puppet construction and performance as well.”

Photo Credit: AD Zyne

On why puppets have a continued enchantment and magic for people even in this digital age, Pityu considers how it’s an ancient art form that retains a power that remains unmatched. “Some of the oldest art objects ever found were little figurines with hinged joints, and even before written history, we had objects we imbued with power that were personifications of inanimate objects,” explains Pityu. “It seems coded into us that we try to create empathetic experiences for ourselves, whether it’s through play or films or moving pixels on a screen, and how they can capture our attention. Watching puppets with their little life going through challenges, and holding on to see if they survive. We make connections, because there is a natural need for stories and empathising with others.”

“That’s why solitary confinement is one of the worst forms of imprisonment and torture, and people who go through it end up making friends with anything they can, from the wall to a spider,” he adds. “It’s so easy to see life in a tree or find eyes or nose or a mouth in shapes and objects, and you immediately breathe life into it. So when we see puppets, we imagine that same breath imbued in them.”

Photo Credit: AD Zyne

And for Pityu, he is happy that puppetry has its place in the world, and might even be experiencing a renaissance and resurgence in interest. “In Canada at least, there is quite a healthy interest in puppets, with a handful of touring outfits that go to other parts of the world, including ourselves,” says Pityu. “And of course there are people who are working to change the face of puppetry and how it’s perceived as well. I remember when we were still based in Calgary, puppeteer Ronnie Burkett was leading the charge for puppet shows aimed at adults. A lot of people still think it’s just for children, but puppetry is capable of engaging with very mature themes. And there’s also a growing desire to have a more formal education in puppetry, and we’re answering that call with our education wing that hosts a fairly regular stream of young people coming to try it out.”  

Ultimately, Pityu remains excited about bringing Famous Puppet Death Scenes to yet another new set of audiences, and considers it emblematic of the Old Trout Puppet Workshop’s ethos. “Our mission is to take a really deep dive into the art of puppetry and ask the bigger questions, and to try to make everyone feel ok in the end,” he says. “We’re always experimenting with new forms, and so happy this show has enjoyed the popularity it has, as well as the long life it has. And I’m glad that this project that started out as a group of friends making art together, now affects the world.”

Famous Puppet Death Scenes runs from 2nd to 4th June 2023 at the Esplanade Theatre Studio. Tickets available here

Flipside 2023 runs from 26th May to 4th June 2023 at the Esplanade. Full programme and tickets available here

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