Puppetry International – The North American Puppet Slam Scene in 2010 (press)

Puppetry International Fall/Winter 2010
Puppetry International Fall/Winter 2010

In the fall of 2010, I was interviewed by Teresa Smalec for Puppetry International on my work as a curator of short-form puppetry for adults and in my role as co-founder and coordinator of the Puppet Slam Network in her article, “The North American Puppet Slam Scene in  2010”. 

From  Puppetry International – Fall and Winter 2010 #28: “The North American Puppet Slam Scene” in 2010 by Theresa Smalec, pg 22-25

Based on an informal sampling of my academic and non-academic friends, most people do not know exactly what a “puppet slam” is. No, it doesn’t involve smashing puppets against a wall. And no, it doesn’t necessarily replicate the competitive structure of the poetry slams that emerged in the mid-1980’s. In August 2010, I interviewed nearly a dozen curators and artists who organize and/or perform in puppet slams across Canada and the United States. Whereas the poetry slam genre has often been criticized for its “lack of stylistic diversity,” puppet slams are remarkably heterogenous. Aesthetic, political, generational, and regional differeces abound, and this movement seems headed in new directions.

Because puppet slams tend to emerge as discrete, autonomous entities that take their shape around the needs and resources of a specific community, there is no fixed consensus on what a puppet slam must encompass in order to bear that title. Nevertheless, I spoke with several artists who offer provocative accounts of what the term means to them.

Marsian De Lellis is a co-founder, along with Heather Henson, of the Puppet Slam Network: an online resource that connects puppet artists, venues , and audiences. Partly due to a background in the GLBT community,  Marsian believes puppet slams should be as inclusive as possible. Yet precisely because the Puppet Slam Network “aims to catalogue, connect, support, and raise awareness for the Puppet Slam Nation,” Marsian recently published a loose description of the genre online:

“Underground puppet slams […] feature contemporary short-form puppet and object theatre for adult audiences, often late at night in small venues, nightclubs, and art spaces. Puppet slams exist at the nexus of vaudeville, burlesque, and performance art […] as a viable alternative to the culturally homogenous digital mass media.”

Marsian adds that “experimental theatre, art, music, and dance” of ten complement the short puppet works presented. In short, not every slam limits itself to puppetry.

Whereas Marsian outlines possible content, venues, and performances styles, Roxanna Myhrum focuses on what a slam should achieve at the level of audience. Myhrum is Artistic Director of the Puppet Showplace Theatre in Brookline, MA, where she curates The Puppet Showplace Slam. Myhrum proposes that “slam connotes high impact – more than you would usually see in a night of performance.” She relishes the format’s intensity and its inspiring effect on spectators: “Personally, I want to walk away feeling like any object in the world could now become a character if I were to put effort into it.”

Meanwhile, Gretchen Van Lente – who founded the Brooklyn-based company Drama of Works in 1999 – defines the slam genre as cabaret-style experimentation:

“Anything goes. You can try out really serious stuff, or comedic stuff. You can try out three-minute pieces, or excerpts from full-length shows. No judgements. No one’s allowed to say, “boo – that was horrible.” You’re just allowed to get up and do whatever you want.”

Van Lente associates slams with artistic freedom. By contrast, David Higgins views the term as a “misnomer” for Blood from a Turnip is billed as a salon to sidestep the slam’s competitive implications. Morgan Fitzpatrick Andrews, founder of Philadelpia’s Puppet Uprising, also rejects what he perceives as the term’s winner-take-all commercialism: “At a lot of puppet slams, you actually have to pay to perform, and sometimes there is a cash prize. I want to get away from that idea of competition. We’ve always used the term cabaret for Puppet Uprising since our founding in 2000.”

8 Puppet Communities, 8 Slam Models

Historically, it makes sense to start with Great Small Works (GSW), a collective formed in New York in 1995. John Bell, a founding member, notes that “after the puppet slam phenomenon became established, people thought of what we had been doing with our spaghetti dinners as a kindred form, which is true.” Now famous, the dinners originated in a storefront on East 9th Street in the late 1970’s. They were founded by veterans of Vermont’s Bread and Puppet Theater, and sought to “make a connection with the block, which at that time was a combination of hippie artists and Puerto Rican folks. There were also older Ukranian and Polish people” Bell likens the early dinners to a low-stakes block party where people shared food and concerns: “The performers were not trying to find backers in order to move to an Off-Broadway theatre, but were really trying to reflect what was going on in the community.”

GSW took over the spaghetti dinners in the 1990’s, staging them monthly at P.S. 122. They still maintain this practice, though the venues and frequency now vary. The next Great Small Works Spaghetti Dinner will be at One Arm Red during the DUMBO Arts Festival, in September 2010. Today, Bell directs the University of Connecticut’s Ballard Institute and Museum of Puppetry, where he recently began hosting slams with support from the Puppet Slam Network. Participants include the  university’s puppetry and visual arts students. Mark Sussman, another GSW member, teaches at Concordia University in Montreal, Canada. He directs Café Concret, an experimental puppetry cabaret based on the spaghetti dinner model. There is always live music. Dance, theatre, film, spoken word, and food served with the price of admission are also staples.

Some puppet slams spotlight live puppetry. At Puppet Showplace Theatre (PST), a theatre for all ages, Roxanna Myhrum curates slams that are “accessible, entertaining, and varied,” so that they speak to multiple audiences as much as possible:

Because we own our venue and because we are New England’s only full time puppet theatre, we make a special effort to make sure that our slams represent the puppet art well. Our slams showcase variety, but they also showcase quality, and craftsmanship, and dramaturgy, and effort by the performers – so that audiences come away from the theatre feeling like they want to see more puppetry, or learn more about puppetry, or maybe go home and build puppets.

To illustrate, Myhrum notes the work of Jim Napolitano, who performs excerpts from his family show, Father Goose’s Tales, at puppet slams “Just the fact of him doing a family show in this more casual, intimate environment with a primarily adult audience takes on a whole new meaning. […] it’s not like he starts using the F-word or anything. He just has a really enjoyable show and connects it with a different audience.”

In addition to developing and promoting local excellence, an other of Myhrum’s priorities is to stay connected with the national puppetry community. To foster this goal, she coordinates with Rhode Island’s Perishable Theatre, booking most of PST’s slams a day after Blood from a Turnip, “so that performers who are appropriate for both slams can continuously go from Providence to Boston, and do the slam circuit.”

Vanessa Gilbert and Jeremy Woodward founded Blood from a Turnip in 1997. David Higgins, who presently curates that salon series, identifies its commitment to object performance as a defining feature:

“Perishable Theatre, where it’s hosted, is a theatre that looks at theatre beyond plays. And Blood from a Turnip looks at puppetry beyond puppets. If it’s not object-oriented, if it’s the manipulation of objects, then this is the place to do it!”

Higgins also names Evan O’Sullivan (whose stage name is Evan O’Television) as pushing the limits of what puppetry can be: “He uses a prerecorded tape of himself as a puppet, and then performs along with that. He calls it video puppetry.”

PST and Perishable Theatre are professional theatres that consistently host their slams in their own venues. Most other slams discussed here use multiple, shifting venues. I’ve already introduced Gretchen Van Lente. Five years ago, she inherited a puppet slam called Punch from someone who could no longer curate it. Punch’s original home was Galapagos Art Space in Brooklyn. That theatre started Punch and named it. But this snug relationship abruptly changed when Galapagos came under new management and moved from Williamsburg to DUMBO – where Punch was no longer right for the space.

After adopting Punch as her own, Van Lente resolved to find a suitable structure. She wanted to host eclectic theme nights, but this required a new approach: “As opposed to putting ourselves in one space, we decided […] it might be nice to move around. Our fans would follow us to different venues, and people who patronized those venues would get to see puppets, even though they might not normally come to Punch.” In 2009-10, Punch utilized four different spaces: Dixon Place (for larger tech-heavy slams); a small theatre in Williamsburg called The Brick (for more intimate slams); 92YTribecca (for puppets on film), and Jimmy’s 43 Pub – a “little backroom bar situation” where viewers can get up close to miniature-sized pieces, and really appreciate their details.

For 2010-11, Van Lente has secured most of the same venues to offer audiences a sense of consistency, even if it is nomadic. Aesthetically, she embraces Puppet Uprising’s “do-it-yourself” approach after performing at four of their slams. Morgan Fitzpatrick Andrews founded Philadelphia’s Puppet Uprising in 2000, the tumultuous year of George W. Bush’s contested election. During our interview, he explained two intersecting features of his local scene: “People in my community come from a somewhat anarchist tradition of political art, but also from a do-it-yourself aesthetic of doing things out of cardboard and paper mâché. People make things quickly to get the message out”

Puppet Uprising challenges many preconceptions people have about slams. For example, Fitzpatrick Andrews rejects the drinking bar as a suitable venue:

“I’ve done puppet shows at bars and they’ve gone badly because there’s too much thinking involved in the materials I present. When I went to a national festival of puppet slams, someone asked who serves alcohol at your puppet slams, and I was the only person who didn’t raise my hand.”

Instead, his collective uses performance spaces, churches, basements, warehouses, and even parks. He cites Kate Brehm’s Slutty Puppets slam (staged at New York’s defunct CBGB’s Gallery from 2003-2005) as an example of “a great series” that nonetheless relied on a raunch factor.” Puppet Uprising cabarets focus heavily on local sociopolitical issues, and avoids content that may offend diverse audiences. Inspired by Great Small Works, Fitzpatrick Andrews also incorporates a lot of independent rock.

On the West coast, Bridget Rountree and Iainn Gunn founded San Diego’s Animal Cracker Conspiracy (ACC) three years ago. Uniquely enough, their slam began in their living room. Since then, ACC hosts the San Diego Slam in venues “ranging from an underground warehouse where you are not given the address until the night of the event, to the Museum of Photographic Arts in Balboa Park” (Rountree, email). ACC also stands out due to its hands-on approach. Rountree and Gunn set up tables and invite audiences to create their own puppets for use in the evening performances. Finally, ACC collaborates with a surrealist circus! Their slams always include puppetry, but are cross-pollinated with acrobatics, surrealist skits, juggling, and fire-breathing. With the power of spectacle and the lure of subversive spaces on their side, it’s no wonder ACC has cultivated a following of over 150 people per slam. Politically, Rountree and Gunn are concerned with advancing community, cooperation, and the slow food movement.

Eric Brooks’ Playhouse Puppetry Slam! is the final slam I discuss here, though dozens of others exist. brooks is based in Maryland – specifically the Washington DC Metropolitan area. He launched his slam to remedy that region’s “isolation from both the northern and southern puppetry industries” (Brooks, email). “People are not moving to DC for the vibrant puppetry scene,” Brooks joked in an email, but he is serious about developing the local community. The Playhouse Puppetry Slam! happens twice a year at the Puppet Co. Playhouse in Glen Echo, MD. It combines the “local pool of talented puppet artists in the DC area with pieces by non-local puppeteers from up and down the East Coast, folding them together into one presentation to help bridge the gap between the North and the South.”

Brooks’ vision of performers who can travel from region to region and showcase their work is one shared by the Puppet Slam Network. The fledgling tour circuits that Broks, Myhrum, and Higgins are striving to develop is part of what the future holds for North American puppet slams. Marsian hopes puppet artists can also “think outside the box” in terms of fundraising and garnering corporate sponsorship.

Marsian, Janie Geiser, and Susan Simpson will launch a slam called Cabaret Automata in Los Angeles this fall. Through this project and the Puppet SLam Network, Marsian envisions “more of a renaissance of adult puppetry.” It’s about “showing puppeteers that puppetry can be sexy – it’s not just for kids.” (interview).

As far as the future goes, we can’t forget the millennial generation. This summer in a West Philadelphia community garden, I witnessed the work of Puppetyranny, a company of 22-27 year olds. Aligned with Puppet Uprising, Puppetyranny did not host a slam, per se. Instead, they staged a full-length work called Peter Pan in Kensington Garden. Darkly funny, erotic, and magical, it combines do-it-yourself moxie, superb storytelling, and a range of puppet arts. What Puppetyranny lacks is a moralistic ideology. Twenty-five-year-old founder Leslie Rogers explains: “A lot of political work I’m familiar with […] has to function on the basis that, as the artist, you’re not doing any wrong. I think you can’t really say that about a lot of our work – and we like it that way [laughing].” “No messages.” adds puppeteer John Sinclair. “Our generation, we have no solutions. We know these puppet shows we do aren’t going to have much of an impact in the grand scheme,” concedes Zac Palladino, the company’s director. “We know we don’t know, and that’s partly where the rejection of political work comes from” (Rogers).

Whether you seek sexy puppets or wholesome fun, whether you want clear-cut political answers or moral ambiguity, whether you expect polished quality or highly improvised experiments, the North American puppet slam scene promises to take you on a multi-regional journey through diverse communities and systems of belief.

Theresa Smalec recently accepted a tenure-track position as Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication Arts and Sciences at Bronx Community College/CUNY. Her dissertation from the Department of Performance Studies, New York University – “Body of Work: Reconstructing Ron Vawter’s Performance Career” – won her the 2009 Monroe Lippman Award for Distinguished Doctoral Dissertation.