Curtain falls on Almonte puppetry festival after 12-year run

After 12 years and countless laughs, the Puppets Up! International Puppet Festival in Almonte, Ont., is coming to an end.

Organizers cite lack of funding as reason for popular summer festival's cancellation

Noreen Young said festival organizers wanted to go out strong and last year's festival 'was amazing.' (Robyn Miller/CBC)

A colourful puppetry festival that brought thousands of people to the small town of Almonte every summer for the past 12 years is coming to an end. 

The Puppets Up! International Puppet Festival has been cancelled for 2017 and likely won't return in the same form in the future, according to festival organizers who say they've seen a decline in paid attendance, sponsorships and grants.

"We just couldn't go forward with the financial situation that we have. And none of us on the board wanted to go out like a lame duck," said Noreen Young, the festival's artistic director.

We wanted to go out strong. And last year's festival was amazing.- Noreen Young

"We wanted to go out strong. And last year's festival was amazing."

An award-winning puppeteer and puppet builder, Young is best known by some for creating the popular CBC children's show Under the Umbrella Tree.

Young said she saw Puppets Up as a way to celebrate the art of puppetry in Canada, while also bringing performers from around the world together once a year.

That camaraderie was one of the many things she said she'd remember most.

Noreen Young says the Puppets Up festival in Almonte, Ont., will not be held in 2017 because of a lack of funding. (Robyn Miller/CBC)

"[I'll miss] seeing many of my friends who are puppeteers present their shows, and being able to invite them to our festival and give them a platform — and to be so proud to see them on the stage and enjoying themselves and playing a part in the puppetry art in Canada," Young said.

Not financially stable

The festival was scheduled to run August 11-13, but Allan Martin, chair of the board of directors, said it just wasn't financially feasible to hold it this year.

"Nobody wants to be the only one paying the bills," said Martin.

Martin noted that granting organizations cut back support if they see a loss in other revenue streams like attendance and sponsorships.
The festival had seen a steady decline in grants, sponsorship and paid attendance, said Allan Martin, chair of the board of directors. (Robyn Miller/CBC)

"So you're left with even less money overall. And I think that's the biggest challenge for a small town  — you just don't have the kind of business or corporate base to give you a large sponsor. Or even a lot of smaller sponsors," he said.

Along with shows that charged admission, the festival also offered plenty of free entertainment along Mill Street in Almonte — which was great for families looking for a frugal outing, organizers said, but hard on the festival's bottom line.

Loss for local economy

Losing the Puppets Up festival is also a blow to the local economy, said Christa Lowry, a councillor for the municipality of Mississippi Mills, Ont., which includes Almonte.

"It's going to leave a hole in our summer festival programming," said Lowry. "Puppets Up has been a big driver for tourism coming into town, and then of course [it's] a big piece of our economic development strategy as well."

The festival may not go away entirely, however: board members said they'll be taking another look at how to promote puppetry in the years to come, even if it's on a smaller scale.