'Let's Have a Good Time': Annual Dolly Wiggler Cabaret offers short and often surreal performances

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A few years back, a few members of the Old Trout Puppet Workshop prepared a short piece for the Dolly Wiggler Cabaret.

The beloved, long-standing Calgary troupe has always possessed a certain irreverence with its focus on puppet shows for adults but, even by Old Trout standards, this three-minute performance was definitely odd.

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“The Old Trouts dressed up in Depends and black singlets and shouted in German,” says Xstine Cook, co-host of the March 15 and 16 Dolly Wiggler Cabaret at the Royal Canadian Legion #1 and founder of Festival of Animated Objects. “It was so funny. There are some very thoughtful pieces, but it does tend to lean towards ‘Let’s have a good time.’”

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It’s all part of the “anything-goes” vibe Cook and her cohorts have established since Dolly Wiggler first began in 2002. It is a feature of the Festival of Animated Objects, which runs from March 8 to 24 at various venues. Even when the festival only ran once every two years, there was always an annual Dolly Wiggler for fans of irreverent puppetry and mask theatre to look forward to. The Old Trouts will not be participating this year, but there will be more than 20 performers offering performances lasting three minutes or less. Cook co-hosts with former Cirque Du Soleil clown Mooky Cornish, a former Calgarian she worked with in Green Fools Theatre.

Xstine Cook.
Xstine Cook, co-host of the Dolly Wiggler Cabaret. Photo by Sean Dennie. cal

“It’s really the gateway drug for puppetry,” says Cook. “There are some people (who) are very seasoned performers who have a very polished piece and then you have people who are putting something on the stage for literally the first time and everything in between as well as some video work. So you will see all kinds of different puppetry, different subject matter, all different approaches to masks and puppetry. It’s usually pretty goofy and fun. Our audience really embraces the bravery it takes to get on stage and try and make something.”

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The cabaret got its name from what Medicine Hat native and pioneering marionette master Ronnie Burkett called puppeteers. This year, the talent will include some performers who are also in separate shows at the festival. That includes Fraggle Rock puppeteer Jen Bain, Decidedly Jazz Danceworks performer Kaja Irwin, Korean-American multidisciplinary artist Bonnie Kim, Vancouver duo Mind of a Snail, Calgary puppeteer Jaunita Dawn, Brazillian puppeteer Nina Vogel and local siblings Toby and Naomi Duska. Other performers include stand-up comedian and visual artist Victoria Banner, local filmmaker and special-effects designer Leo Wisner and Calgary puppeteer, actor, musician Ellis Lalonde, who recently starred on stage with Rebecca Northan and Bruce Horak in Goblins: Macbeth.

Performers are not given any solid direction from Cook or Cornish, other than perhaps a time limit. Anything is allowed, which means it is hard to predict what might unfold on stage.

“(Ellis Lalonde) was working on a number of pieces this summer that he hasn’t shown anywhere yet,” says Cook. “So he’s going to be showing one of his new ones and he is saying ‘I may use a giant penis prop.’”

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Cornish, who has co-hosted many Dolly Wiggler Cabarets, says Calgary’s rise as a hot spot for puppetry was carefully cultivated by Old Trout, Green Fools, the Festival of Animated Objects and the International Puppet Festival.

“Now there are many people that are main performers in the festival who were originally volunteers,” she says. “Everywhere has an alternative part of town. Definitely, Calgary has always had this interesting, cool and courageous alternative part of town that it’s managed to maintain. Now it feels like the more conventional city is on board as well. People are going out, going to live shows and supporting live musicians. It’s really cool.”

The Dolly Wiggler Cabaret will take place March 15 and 16 at 8 p.m. at the Royal Canadian Legion No. 1. The Festival of Animated Objects takes place from March 8 to 24 at various venues.

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