After 6-year hiatus, Puppets Up! festival returns to the stage

The Almonte, Ont., puppetry festival arrived on the scene in 2005, but a lack of funding and volunteers saw it discontinued in 2016. Now, after a long six-year hiatus, the internationally renowned festival — with acts from as far away as Iceland and Indonesia — is back.

Almonte, Ont., festival discontinued after 2016 due to lack of funding, volunteers

New York-based puppeteer Joshua Holden, right, is one of dozens of artists performing this weekend at the Puppets Up! festival in Almonte, Ont. The festival is returning to eastern Ontario after a six-year hiatus. (Puppets Up!)

In 2016, Joshua Holden, an award-winning American puppeteer, created a special show to perform at the Puppets Up! festival in Almonte, Ont.

He'd hoped to perform again, but the international festival that had been running since 2005 was discontinued after the 2016 edition due to a lack of funding and volunteers. 

However, Puppets Up! has returned this weekend — and Holden will be there once again. 

After performing across North America, Holden said he was happy to return to Almonte, a town about 50 kilometres west of downtown Ottawa. 

"It is so amazing. I forgot how much I love this town," said Holden, who works with the Jim Henson Company in New York and is one of the puppet-wranglers on the hit TV show Sesame Street.

"It's incredible to see [this] act of a community coming together for the sake of art and joy. And it is something that I've never experienced. I travel all around the world and there's nothing like this place."

A production of Peter Pan as performed at the Puppets Up! festival. (Puppets Up!)

The Puppets Up! festival was able to return thanks to a dedicated group of volunteers and organizers, according to Jane Torrance, the festival's volunteer executive director.

Torrance said she and veteran puppeteer Noreen Young posted a message on a local digital newspaper to see if anyone would want to help out. 

Residents in the wider municipality of Mississippi Mills, Ont., stepped up to the plate, she said.

"We had 72 people respond right away. So we knew that we had enough people [to] form the leadership team," she said. 

The list of volunteers would eventually swell to 200, and once there were enough people willing to volunteer, sponsorships followed.

The Puppets Up! festival began in 2005, but a lack of funding and volunteers meant it had to be discontinued in 2016. After a six-year hiatus, the festival made a comeback this weekend in Almonte, Ont., just west of Ottawa. (Puppets Up!)

Young, who is the artistic director of the festival, said Puppets Up! has meant a lot to both locals and the artistic community.

"People didn't realize what they had until it was gone. And they came to really value it and miss it and did sort of speak longingly of it," Young said.

"And so when we said we'd like to revive it, people were happy. And we found that it was easier to get sponsorship money and volunteers. The puppet troops that I contacted, all were delighted to come back."

The festival is hosting 13 troupes from all over Canada and the world, with acts from Iceland, Indonesia, the United States, Ontario, Quebec, Alberta and B.C. all bringing their talents to Almonte this weekend.

There will be 62 shows in total, including a parade on both days. While visitors will need to buy tickets to enter the puppeteer tents, the street performances and the parades are free.

Children under the age of four will not need to purchase a ticket.

Holden said the core message of his show is about spreading joy in a time when the world around is falling apart. After a tough two years of COVID-19, he said art has become a tool to ease people's pain.

"Puppetry really allows an audience to open up in a very vulnerable way, and express themselves or feel or see their own feelings through this art form," he said.

"That is, for some reason, much easier to take in than watching a story played out by human beings."

The Icelandic master puppeteer is at Puppets Up! festival in Almonte this weekend.


Uday Rana

CBC Ottawa reporter

Uday Rana is an Ottawa-based journalist covering city news. Uday has worked as a print, digital and television reporter in India. He was previously with the Times of India and then with CNN-News18. He's covered conflict, sectarian violence and the rise of Hindu Nationalism in India.