In The New American Vaudeville: The Puppet Slam Network, I contextualized underground world of contemporary short-form puppet and object theater for adult audiences in intimate settings through my position as co-founder and coordinator of the Puppet Slam Network which ran from 2005 to 2016.
Underground puppet slams have been popping up everywhere. They feature contemporary short-form puppet and object theater 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 through the intersection of experimental theater, art, music, and dance as a viable alternative to the culturally homogenous digital mass media.
When was the very first puppet slam? Surely there must have been Paleolithic Slams or something like them with cave people projecting shadows onto their walls by torchlight to communicate the location of food.
But when did the modern day “puppet slam” *actually* evolve from the fragrant sounding potpourris of PofA festivals past, or the glitzy Vegas cabarets of short works by one artist? Were they an extension of poetry slams? There was one person to turn to, so we conferred with John Bell, puppet historian, and founding member of Great Small Works.
John believes that puppet slams can be traced back to The Ninth Street Theater’s Spaghetti Dinners which started in February, 1978 predating the founding of Great Small Works in 1995, (which shared many of the same members).
They never called their Spaghetti Dinners “puppet slams” – a term, which, seems to have been invented later.
Our spaghetti dinners pretty much always featured puppet shows in an evening of short performances that also included eating spaghetti (an influence, I believe, from the bread sharing in our common Bread and Puppet background).
The 9th Street Theatre’s Spaghetti Dinners started out as block celebrations located in a storefront on East 9th Street between 1st and 2nd Avenues, that then drew in audiences from farther afield.
The Nuyorican Cafe, a few blocks away, started doing poetry slams in 1989 (according to their website) – that’s when I first became aware of something called a slam…Ninth Street Theater shifted the spaghetti dinners to P.S. 122 around 1985, with the support of the Learning Alliance and P.S. 122 director Mark Russell.…We were invited by the Henson Foundation to curate the late-night puppet cabarets at P.S. 122 for the 1992 and 1994 Jim Henson International Puppetry Festivals… Great Small Works took over presenting Spaghetti Dinners after forming in 1995, and we continue to present these events at Judson Church, One Arm Red, and other spaces in New York City.
Kristen McLean, a former artistic director of the Puppet Showplace in Brookline, MA, recalls starting “PuppetSLAM” in late 1995 (which later evolved into the Puppet Showplace Slam that is still happening today).
Nancy Smith of the Great Arizona Puppet Theatre, which hosts the Adult Puppet Slam (a slam that changes its name based on theme) in Phoenix, remembers hosting her first puppet slam with Karen Larsen at the first St. Paul National PofA Festival.
According to Nancy:
The argument could be made that Puppet Slams, if you’re defining it as short form puppetry for adults, grew out of the late night tradition of Potpourris at Puppeteer of America Festivals.
We came up with the name about the same time but independently of the Slams at Brookline. At that time, Great Arizona Puppet Theater was renting space from Playwrights Workshop Theater in an old church complex in central Phoenix. I was inspired by the poets who were performing across the hall from us with Poetry Slams. Having puppets always on my mind, I said something like, ‘We should have Puppet Slams’, and people responded to the name. I’m horrible of keeping track of times but I think our first evening of short form puppetry occurred at our present theater in the evening of a National Day of Puppetry. (1999?) I think we called it something like, “Sex, Drugs and Puppets.” It was well attended but we were co-producing the whole National Day of Puppetry with the Phoenix Guild of Puppetry and some of them were horrified by the name and some even that puppetry would be adult entertainment
In 2002, when I moved to Providence, I saw that Perishable Theatre was presenting Blood from a Turnip, a late night puppetry salon. There I witnessed an array of short puppet acts from students at Rhode Island School of Design, Big Nazzo, and artists affiliated with Brown and Trinity Repretoir Theatre, along with some traveling acts from Boston and New York City. I had recently graduated from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, studying performance art and then puppetry with Blair Thomas, a founding member of Red Moon Theatre and now Blair Thomas and Company. Blood from a Turnip seemed like it would be a promising outlet to develop new work – At the time, I had only performed a handful of short puppet shows, so I contacted the host, Vanessa Gilbert to see if I could perform. After a couple times performing there, I offered to help, and ended up curating and hosting two seasons with Vanessa Gilbert until 2006 when I moved to Los Angeles to pursue a further study at Puppetry at CalArts.
Vanessa and I would invite artists to perform, have tech in the early evening, cook a meal for them during one of the main stage shows at Perishable and then go on to host Blood from a Turnip from ten until about midnight. We would pay artists a cut of the door (not much at the time) and would frequently host out of town performers in our living rooms and studios. It was around that time, in 2005 that I met Heather Henson, who had previously lived in Providence when she attended RISD. She had been an early supporter of Blood from a Turnip soon after it started in 1997.
I met Heather again at the National Puppetry Conference at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre Center (a breeding ground for puppet slam acts and then we worked together during a puppet residency with Janie Geiser at the Atlantic Center for the Arts in Florida. Heather had been quietly supporting a handful of puppet slams throughout the country, mostly concentrated in the Northeast.
They were giving people opportunities… and they were selling out! They were popular. They were hitting a new audience.Heather Henson
She asked me to design a website to help link up the puppet slams with puppet artists and the people who love them and so I started puppetslam.com. By 2009, I recognized that puppetslam.com was more than just a website – it was a community, a movement, and rebranded it as the Puppet Slam Network. The Puppet Slam Network now follows over 70 Puppet Slams in North America, Europe, and Australia.
Ibex Puppetry is an entertainment company dedicated to promoting the fine art of puppetry in all of its mediums. Founded in 2000, Ibex supports puppet art in the mediums of film, stage, gallery exhibits, workshops and artist presentations. The Heather Henson Foundation has continued to support individual puppet slams beyond the run of the Puppet Slam Network and Ibex Puppetry.