In the Spring of 2012, The Puppetry Journal ran a substantive cover story on the world of puppet slams, featuring my work as co-founder of The Puppet Slam Network and my interviews with puppet slam artists. The Puppet Slam Network fostered connections for independently produced puppet cabarets, so that puppet artists knew where they could perform, venues could find puppet artists, and audiences could enjoy an intimate, tactile, and compelling form of entertainment.
More from The Brave New World of Puppet Slams
by Paul Eide, from talks
with Marsian De Lellis
and Marsian’s Interviews with Slam Artists:
Though often called by other names, Puppet Slams have been around longer than it might seem.
It’s likely that credit for the first “slams” belongs to the artists who would later form Great Small Works in NYC. More than 30 years ago, John Bell, Trudi Cohen and friends began a legendary series of gatherings called, “Spaghetti Dinners” inspirethey suggest by their experience with Bread and Puppet Theatre: food followed by an evening of puppet shows.
John Bell recalls: “I think when we started doing the spaghetti dinners no one else was regularly scheduling cabaret-style puppet performances in NYC. I remember hearing about Puppet Slams (in the 90’s I guess) and thinking, ‘oh, we do something like that’ (but with spaghetti!)”
Occasional puppet slams have been held in certain parts of the country (mostly in the Northeast) for the last 20 years.
But while the puppet slam has been around a while, something else is new: Today, just like the month of June, puppet slams are bustin’ out all over.
Almost every other day, email or Facebook announces another one. And they are everywhere, across the United States, Canada, London, Australia… everywhere.
Defining Puppet Slams
You may already know all about slams. Or, you may appreciate some definition.
First of all, the puppet slam is kin to its much older cousin, the Potpourri. If you’ve ever attended a national or regional puppetry festival in the last 70 years you will have enjoyed a Potpourri. It’s usually a late night event comprised of many different acts or numbers, and anyone can sign up to take part. Quality may vary, and regardless, it’s usually good-natured and fun, and, at least in theory, tailored for an audience of all ages.
But a Potpourri is always attached to a festival, meaning it occurs once every two years at a national festival, and maybe three to five times during the alternate years when regional festivals are held. And the audiences are limited to people attending the festivals – in other words an audience of your peers rather than the public at large.
While a puppet slam may be similar to a Potpourri in structure, the slam has evolved into something with a character and pedigree all its own.
The Puppet Slam Network
Time to introduce Marsian De Lellis, hereafter, just Marsian. He coordinates an online operation called the Puppet Slam Network, which is sponsored by Ibex Puppetry. I figured if anyone had a handle on how to explain a slam, it would be Marsian, and asked him for his definition.
Marsian: “I’ve somewhat resisted defining a slam; but because we give out grants and I have to draw clear lines and decide what to include on our website and our calendar, what I’ve come up with is:
An evening of short form puppetry and our object theater for adult audiences from a variety of artists. They’re live shows instead of pre-recorded puppetry pieces, (although these are often used in interstitials to cover set changes between acts), and they’re all independently produced. They often, or usually, are late at night. And usually at small venues, small theaters, nightclubs and art spaces.”
- an evening of short-form puppetry pieces
- performed live by a variety of artists
- intended for an adult audience
- late at night
- in a small venue
- and each one independently produced.
The reason Marsian resists providing a single definition is that there is no one single definition of a slam – there are no real rules about what a slam has to be. When a slam is a totally independent standalone event, it can be whatever its organizers / producers / curators want it to be, in form, content and character. When they do all the things necessary to make it happen, figure out how to make it pay for itself, they can have it their way, (with a couple possible caveats, to be mentioned later.)
Whats in a name?
Slams have names like: Blood from a Turnip. Puppet Meltdown. Action Puppet Force. Puppetzilla Puppet Slam. Puppet Pandemic. Puppet Art Attacks. Wham Bam Puppet Slam.
(There are profiles of all the existing slams available on the Puppet Slam Network website, and it’s an exhaustive list.)
By the way, the word “slam” or the practice of calling an evening of performances a slam, doesn’t seem to have an obvious clear-cut explanation. Gretchen Van Lente had one suggestion: “It’s because people gather to slam their ideas together and something happens. Kind of a ‘big bang’ view of art and theater”.
Some curators prefer to call their puppetry events “cabarets” or “festivals” – Open Eye Theater in Minneapolis calls theirs “Toy Theater After Dark,” though very rarely does the show feature actual toy theater. Whatever they’re called, its all about short form puppet pieces for an adult audience.
The Quality Spectrum
In character and quality, slams can range from highly polished acts to programs of pieces very loosely and quickly put together, or a mix of both with everything in between.
Some are wide open to all comers, like an Open Mike night a t a comedy club; and this is what some curators find most exciting about slams: you don’t know what treasures or surprising talents may be revealed.
Other slams use a preview or juried process with the acts carefully auditioned and selected.
One of those is called Puppet Pandemic, created and curated by Honey Goodenough. It’s comprised of short form pieces developed by participants in the O’Neill Puppetry Conference every June
Honey explains: “Puppet Pandemic is based on the idea that puppetry is an infectious art form. It is also a fundraiser for the O’Neill National Puppetry Conference Alumni Scholarship. I was inspired to start Puppet Pandemic because I attended the 2009 O’Neill National Puppetry Conference, and that year the shows sold out early. I was shocked that so many puppeteers were driving 4 hours from NYC to see a show of peers and then couldn’t get seats. So I thought, let’s bring the show to NYC! Once I began contemplating finances, I thought it might be more beneficial for everyone to use the funds for a scholarship to attend the O’Neill to produce more work. So basically, the mission is to produce art in order to fund more art!… We are one of the few slams that tours – we have performed under the name Puppet Pandemic at DC, Brookline, Austin, Philadelphia, and of course, NYC”
In three years Puppet Pandemic has raised $12,500 for O’Neill Alumni Scholarships. And because of her skills and her proven judgement, Honey has been invited to be an official Puppet Slam Network consultant, supporting new slams.
Beau Brown is curator of a regular puppet slam in Atlanta called – read this carefully – the “Puckin’ Fuppet Show.” For the Puppeteers of America Festival in Atlanta last year, Beau curated the first National Puppet Slam, which also involved a careful selection of acts.
Beau says “I have recieved such great feedback from both puppeteers being inspired to start their own slams back in their cities because of it , and from the older generation of puppeteers who had never really understood what puppet slams were about, thinking it was just a bunch of cussing puppets with no real artistic merit. I think they got a better understanding of the short form puppetry format and the slams aren’t just “potpourris.” Just being able to bring together some of the most talented puppeteers out there and get them all on stage together was a real honor.”
A puppet slam can be a mixed assortment of themes, styles, or genres. Or a slam could be based on an idea. For example, Alissa Hunnicutt’s latest “New Brew” slam asked artists to build numbers based on music.
“I reached out to the NY puppetry community (through my newsletter, guild meetings , a puppetry listserve, and individual requests) to ask who would like to participate in a grab-bag puppet slam of sorts. To create a short puppetry piece for an adult audience based on a contemporary classical art song NOT of their choosing. The very brave puppeteers who answered that call have had less than a month to come up with some visual representation of songs from th repertoire of music performed at previous New Brew shows. My co-curator, Delea Shand, coordinated the line-up of songs and I assigned them to the puppeteers.”
It’s an interesting process because it’s more like a puppet challenge since the puppeteer isn’t waiting to be struck by some kind of inspiration to begin the process. They have to come up with a visual concept with no choice in the material. The show is also special because all of the music for the evening is performed live.”
Since it’s up to each slam curator and his/ her team to find a place for the evining of performances, and to gather an audience, slams may happen in all sort of places, from church basements to bars, as well as established theater spaces. Sometimes slam artists have to be troupers, and adapt to less than ideal settings. Carole D’Agostino provides some for-instances:
“I have performed in spaces where I had to climb down ladders to get to the dressing room, hide in dank basements, wiat literally OUTSIDE to be off stage. I’ve had to clean banana and wood chips off my velvet covered table from the previous act before I could perform. I have stood on my own tables as a platform because people need to see marionettes off the floor and there was no platform. Risky? Sure. But you know – the show must go on and I survived all of it. The audience doesn’t care what you have to do to make the show happen – they just want to see puppets.
Adelaide Windsome (a.k.a. Geppetta) has had similar experiences:
“I have booked tours with performers and musicians where we perform at bars and cafes and basements and spaces generally not accustomed to puppetry. While I like subverting those kinds of spaces in favor of performance art, it is also very nurturing to perform at puppet slams that are better equipped for puppetry and just get it a bit more.”
Slams in Permanent Theaters
Some of those places that “get it” would cetainly be the permanent puppet theaters that regularly include puppet slams in their programming – like the Puppet Showplace in Brookline, MA; the Puppet Playhouse in Glen Echo, Maryland; the Center for Puppetry Arts in Atlanta, the Great Arizona Puppet Theater in Phoenix, Arizona, just to name a few. Slams can do a number of things for the theaters that host them – attract an audience of adults and prove to them that puppetry is not only for children even though children’s programming may be the theater’s bread and butter; show them puppet styles that are different from the puppets on children’s television shows, (wonderful and important creatures though they be.)
The Puppet Showplace was one of the first regular permanent theaters to host puppet slams on a regular schedule. THeir series is called “Puppets at Night” and they work to make it clear that the night shows are for adults.
Roxie Myrhum, the artistic director at Puppet Showplace, explains:
“PST has a history of using Puppets at Night as a way to indicate that a certain event is not part of our regularly scheduled family or kids programming, which takes place in the mornings and early afternoon. Most of our kid audience is in bed when our slam starts. The audience for the slams is pretty age-diverse, though including many people who are older adults as well as students and even some teenagers. Occasionally, there are people who come expecting something super raunch who are disappointed, but I guess I’m OK with that… Generally, I’d say our slam content is pretty much PG-13 rather than X-rated (although not always). I saw some of the best puppetry of my life when I was a young teenager at a puppet slam in my hometown of Springfield, MA. I was glad that the slam felt like an adult event but was still accessible to me as a kid. That’s something I want to replicate for our audiences at PST.
Most slam true believers are opposed to any kind of censorship. We might surmise, however that when a slam is associated with a permanent theater, there may be some suggested guidelines about what might not be acceptable content.
Open Eye in Minneapolis (recall their slams are called “Toy Theatre After Dark,”) handles it this way: They offer two programs, both with short form pieces targeted to adults, but one with content that children and the easily offended could handle, and the other where anything may happen.
By now you should get the picture that puppet slams are adventures in theater, sometimes explorations into the unknown, and often unpredictable. And that should be part of the allure: not knowing for sure what you’re going to see or discover. A range of ideas from inspiring to shocking; a range of talents from superb to not so good. “Adult content” could mean serious presentations on themes of interest to adults or the phrase could mean performance pieces that are x-rated.
Slams ask something of their audiences; approach the show with an open mind for content, and a willingness to forgive if a performance isn’t very good, either in concept or delivery.
And bear in mind the TSTS principle articulated by Marsian: “Too short to suck.” If you are attending a full-length show by one artist or company, and you don’t like it, you’re tuck. But when most short-form pieces are on;y five to ten minutes long, if you think a piece is really bad or boring, relax – it will soon be over and there’s at least the hope that the next piece just might be amazing.
Slams Open Possibilities
Puppeteers across the continent are excited by the concept of puppet slams, because they open up a whole new set of possibilities for the art of puppetry.
- Slams may draw new and talented people from other arts or disciplines to venture into puppetry, or at least to give it a try.
Think about what it takes to put together a performance-length show, either variety or a full-length story show – the time and skills, as well as the confidence and commitment required. You have to feel sure that this is what you’re meant to do. But a five-minute number in a puppet slam is a different story: you’re not representing yourself as a seasoned puppet builder or performer; you’re appearing before a forgiving audience that will in most cases make allowances for your shortcomings. And there on the stage, you can try it out. Test yourself. Can puppetry be your medium?
Beau Brown says: “It’s a great way to get your feet wet in the art form [of puppetry]. Other than doing full-length kid shows or doing videos online, there isn’t really another way to get started. It’s a way to try things out in front of audiences and see what sticks.”
- If you are already a committed puppeteer, a slam audience can be useful in trying out either short works, or just parts of longer works. Carole D’Agostino, who has performed in more than 50 slams since 1999, has found them useful in developing what will be a full-length show of her own:
“My newest show, ‘The Hoarding Show’ has three acts, each one [an appropriate length] for puppet slams. I did this so I could travel and promote the show as well as develop it incrementally. it worked out well… ‘The Hoarding Show” is a three-part comedy with table top, shadows and object theater – all about hoarding! You’ll laugh, cry and then go home and clean!”
- Audience members, whose knowledge of puppetry may have come mainly from children’s television, may learn to see puppetry with new eyes, by being exposed to different types of puppets, seeing a wide range of performance styles, discovering the unusual things that can be expressed with puppets, and the revelation that puppetry is not only for children, but can be just as entertaining for adults.
- And maybe of most importance, recurring slams may develop whole new communities of puppeteers to support, teach and encourage each other, always with the next slam to shoot for.
Ibex and the Puppet Slam Network
The number of puppet slams throughout the country and elsewhere in the world, has increased exponentially every year. Much of the credit for making that happen, for providing the catalyst, must belong to the aforementioned Puppet Slam Network, supported by Heather Henson’s company, Ibex Puppetry.
Marsian gives us the background:
“In 2005, Heather asked me to design a website highlighting a handful of puppet slams that were concentrated mostly in the Northeast. The website was to help connect slam audiences, artists and curators. At the same time, Heather was also quietly giving out grants to many of these events. She started asking me for advice on that, and it became more of a position, like a liaison between puppet slams and her. And it wasn’t long until Puppetslam.com evolved into the Puppet Slam Network, which is now an organization dedicated to cataloging, supporting, and raising awareness for independently produced evenings of short-form puppetry for adult audiences.
Fast forward about six years and we’ve become more of a global presence, with more than 70 puppet slams and cabarets. The’ve spread beyond just the contiguous United States to places like Honolulu and San Juan; in Canada to Toronto, Winnipeg, Montreal, and Calgary; and even further to Melbourne, London, and Copenhagen.
On our website, we have a slam profile for each of the puppet slams we’re following. Basic information like: if they’re active, when they started, and how many slams a year they host. We also include emails for the curators, so they can connect and maybe share some acts. Or maybe there’s someone excited about touring a piece, and they can go on the website and contact the curators in their area. We send our monthly calendar by direct email that reaches about 2000 people, and has a much wider reach through social media (Facebook, Twitter, and Google+). Many slams have their own Facebook pages and we link to their updates directly.
Our blog is a newer development in the last year. We’ve already done a pretty good job of connecting audiences and puppet slams but for a while I’ve been wanting to do a better job of connecting individual slam artists with curators and their audiences. So in the last few months, I’ve been interviewing prominent slam artists on the blog, so that audiences and curators know who’s out there and what they have to offer.”
People who organize slams probably don’t put in all the blood, sweat, and tears required because it’s highly profitable. Puppet Pandemic raises money for scholarships, but one assumes that most slam curators just hope to break even, make an evening of memorable experiences for performers and audiences, and have fun.
Making a show happen takes more than love of puppetry. There are expenses, such as printing, advertising, space and equipment rental, food for the artists, just for a start. Maybe ticket prices will cover the expenses. but what if they don’t? There’s a bit of risk. Enter Ibex and the Puppet Slam Network, which offers grants to underwrite an increasing number of slams.
To support and nurture slams around the world, Ibex awards $2000 grants. For 2012, they gave out 40 of them. Applications for next year’s slam grants are due on September 3rd of this year. The applications will be posted on Facebook and the Puppet Slam Network Blog.
To follow everything that’s happening in the puppet slam world, go online to regularly visit the Puppet Slam Network (www.puppetslam.com) Click on and read the blog to enjoy, among other things, Marsian’s interviews with slam artists, and gain some insight into what makes the world of puppet slams go ’round.
In the “The North American Puppet Slam Scene in 2010”, I was interviewed by Teresa Smalec for Puppetry International (magazine) on my work as a curator of short-form puppetry for adults and in my role as co-founder of the Puppet Slam Network.
- 2013 – Portland Press Herald (newspaper)
- 2010 – CJOB, Winnipeg (radio)
- 2010 – Film Snobbery Interview (interview)
- 2006 – Feast of Fools #395 – Life On Marsian (podcast)
- 2006 – Spoiler Alert / BSR 88.1 FM, Providence (radio)
The Puppetry Journal is the official magazine of the Puppeteers of America. It is published four times a year to members of the organization. The Puppetry Journal has a 68-year history of providing an ongoing chronicle of American puppetry.
Ibex Puppetry is an entertainment company dedicated to promoting the fine art of puppetry in all of its mediums. Founded in 2000 and receiving multiple UNIMA (Union Internationale de la Marionette) awards, Ibex Puppetry supports puppet art in the mediums of film, stage, gallery exhibits, workshops and artist presentations.