The pursuit of happiness: Ignorance premieres at The Cultch

A still from Ignorance.

A boy walks into the zoo and is handed a smiling, yellow balloon. He is delighted and holds it proudly, as the spinning helix atop his hat betrays his joy. The balloon wanders around him softly, kindly, before finally winding its string around his neck, strangling him. It seems too hard to get a hold on happiness for long. In Ignorance, it seems too hard to get a hold on happiness for long. Instead, it becomes something futile and unattainable, just as the boy’s grasp on the balloon.

A whimsical, sarcastic puppet documentary for adults, Ignorance revolves around humanity’s restless pursuit of happiness. Created by the Old Trouts Puppet Workshop, the play focuses on the perils and tribulations of this journey, while expounding upon the evolution of the emotion.

Since 1999, the Calgary-based puppet company – self-described as a bunch of friends, fond of “beards, wood and wool” – has been amusing audiences with their eclectic film and theatre productions, both inside and outside of Canada. Ignorance premiered last week in Vancouver and is currently playing at The Cultch.

The Old Trouts were first intrigued by the elusive quality of happiness, and the prefrontal role that our brains play in its attainment. From here, they went on to collect pieces of information on the subject, gathered from books and online exchanges with the company’s fans. The final result of their efforts was Ignorance, an anthropologically inspired meta-narrative, steeped in dark humour.

This was the first time the Old Trouts had posted an open call on their website, asking fans to assist in the script’s creation. However, this method was not much of a stretch from their usual modus operandi – a fervent believer in collective input, the Trouts understand imagination as something that evolves from many participants, rather than a sole creator.

“We just kind of get together and throw ideas around and see what it comes of it," explained Old Trout puppeteer and writer Judd Palmer. This open participation concept was just “an extension of our working method.”

To Palmer, the smiling balloon symbolized not only an obvious and “simple representation of happiness,” but also a, “plastic, emptied headed happiness.”

The idea expressed in Ignorance, is that modern happiness is no longer something that can be easily observed and attained. Instead, it has evolved into an ideal much more qualitative and individualistic.

“Happiness is actually closer to what you have, than it is to an emotional state,” Palmer opined.

Enter the prehistoric puppets: Adam and Eve, the first couple on Earth, and the bully, Gog, crafted as they would have been in the Cro-Magnon Era. Constructed of wood, they are an amalgamation of rudimentary shapes with big, uneven heads and twiggy limbs. Accompanied by the great mastodon, mega-rats, and other prehistoric beasts, the play revolves around the characters’ pursuit of happiness, spanning through to our evolved, modern state.

Accompanying this journey is the narrator, who muses on human unhappiness, an experience that arises out of its painfully ephemeral counter emotion. Happiness exists only in the human brain, in the prefrontal lobe region that makes people imagine all kinds of happy situations, which cannot be easily achieved. This is what the narrator faults as “our evolutionary disadvantage: constant dissatisfaction.”

In one scene, Eve has what seems to be her first bout of imagination, invoking in her mind a tree with apples, (projected on a screen), that she shares with Adam. Sharing her ideal of happiness with him inspires Adam towards a purpose. Her imagination drives him to defend what he loves, as it is tested through the Ice Age.

In modern times, the balloon of happiness appears in many instances. It helps a man to find joy before suicide. It is the object of a dispute between a man and a woman. It is a prelude to an elderly man’s heart attack. All of these figures crave happiness, but what if happiness is not the point?

“We all are supposed to be pursuing [happiness], at least directly or [it should be] the objective of our existence […] but what actually provides meaning in our lives,” explains Palmer, “are not the endless questions of ‘Am I happy?’ ‘Should I be happier?’ or ‘Are other people happier than me?’

‘[…] maybe it's not so much about happiness, as it is about generosity, loyalty, love, sacrifice – these kinds of things. Those might be more guiding principles, or actually [what] might make our lives feel worth living as opposed to lives [where] we are trying to be happy, but always failing.”

The puppeteers, (Peter Balkwill, Steve Kenderers and David Lane), use outstanding speed and versatility to transition characters between modern and prehistoric times. They effectively work with unspoken dialogue, using grunts, screams and gestures to bring puppets to life by lending them, what seems to be, their own souls.

The stage itself is a colossal ribcage-shaped cave made of steel and foam, with an embedded screen upon which old black and white images and animations are projected. Music that varies from Cuban beats, to classical rhythms, to Eve humming “What is a youth?” also support the scenes.

While the production is not adverse to tragedy, hope is the play’s remaining feeling. As the balloon floats away, one cannot help but see a new life, ready to be embarked upon, as the symbol endures...

Ignorance plays until March 10. For more information on tickets, visit: http://www.thecultch.com/

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