Thursday, May 31, 2012

Res Plots #Toronto Puppet Explosion

Andreas Krebs, also known as Res is a political junkie who co-hosts the Toronto Puppet Explosion, one of two puppet slams happening in Toronto this June! His background includes (as he puts it) "playing with things", crafts, and making voices.  Only recently his passions united in puppetry. He lives in Toronto, Ontario with his partner Suzanne Gallant and their cat, Panou.

(L to R) Emilie Dionne, Res, and Andy Hryhorowych, December 2010
M: What do you have in store for the June 6th edition of Toronto Puppet Explosion.
AK: My partner Suzanne Gallant and I are hosting.. It's going to be a fantastic show, with eight acts  including ventriloquism (Tim Holland), object theatre (the Bricoteers), original musical performance (Joel Brubacher), and a couple of weird rabbit acts (Jamie Shannon and Unraku). I'm pretty  fortunate to be well-connected to the puppetry community in Toronto,  both through my association with Unraku (a puppetry company here) and  my work as the editor of the Ontario Puppetry Association newsletter.  We put the word out and pretty soon we had a really well-rounded lineup.

M: Have you performed at other slams?
AK: I've performed with Unraku at a couple of their One Night Slams. They  were always a blast, Unraku comes up with some amazing and hilarious material.

M: How does what you do at the Toronto Puppet Explosion tie into the other kinds of performance you do?
I'll be MCing the puppet slam as Frank Feltman, a Henson-style puppet who anchors The Krellant Evening News, a political satire web series. I'm pretty comfortable with my face in my own armpit and my arm way up in the air, so it works out.

M: How long have you been performing at Puppet Slams? AK: I've been performing at slams for a whole year! Well, a year and a bit. My first slam was performing with Unraku doing this hilarious circus act with these little yellow birds set to Khachaturian's Sabre  Dance. They did all sorts of acrobatics, avian pyramids, etc. then for the finale this enormous bird came out and was vaulted off a see-saw, splattering its poor little compatriots all over the stage. I think it was conceived by Robin Polfuss. Amazing stuff.

M: Why do you think Puppet Slams are important?
In my experience, live puppetry is a real niche market. To borrow an  opinion from Jamie Ashby (who will be performing at the slam as part  of the Bricoteers), Canadian theatre is already marginal, meaning Canadian puppet theatre is on the margins of the margins. I think  puppet slams get people who might not want to pay to see an elaborate theatre piece out for some fun, introducing them to what is often experimental art, and perhaps pushing them to seek out more puppet performances.

M: Where can people contact you to perform?
They can send an email to Most of my work is video, so if you're interested in commissioning a hilarious short for whatever reason, drop me a line.

M: Anything else we should know? 

AK: If you're in Toronto next Wednesday June 6th, be sure to come to the  Comedy Bar on Bloor at Ossington!

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Dylan Shelton, Strung Out in #Cincinnati

Dylan Shelton curates Strung Out Puppet Cabaret in Cincinnati with Irina Niculescu. Dylan graduated from Wilmington College with a BA in Theatre and then earned an MFA in Acting from Ohio University.  Dylan began his career at Madcap Productions Puppet Theatre as an actor in 2002 and spent a year as the interim Artistic Director in 2005.  Since then, Dylan has been Madcap's Creative Director writing, directing, acting, and designing shows.  

Marsian: This is your second puppet slam to date, tell us more about Strung Out Puppet Cabaret and how it fits in with the Puppet Slam Network.

Dylan Shelton: The growing popularity of puppet slams has given puppeteers license to showcase some of the most brilliant and innovative and sometimes absurd and bizarre pieces of theatre you will ever see.  The Strung Out Puppet Cabaret will feature pieces which are no longer than seven minutes, and each one has been hand selected by myself and Irina Niculescu.  Musicians, improv comedians, and a boundless variety of puppets will come together for the event!

M: The name Strung Out Puppet Cabaret would seem to imply that there is some sort of puppet withdrawal or an addiction to puppets. 
That isn’t so far fetched with our theme.  I wanted to expose our Cincinnati audience to puppet slams with the hope that they would form a deep desire for more.  We haven’t had a lot of events like this, so creating something so appealing that people would actually experience withdrawal from it when it’s over is definitely a goal.

M: How are you finding acts for Strung Out?
We have found several local puppeteers by word of mouth.  One popular improv troup in Cincinnati asked about performing an improv piece with puppets which I thought would be perfect for our slam.  Irina Niculescu teaches at a university in Montreal and found two puppeteers there who will be joining us.  Other puppeteers came to our slam in December and applied to participate in this one.

M: Have you been to many puppet slams or cabarets outside of Cincinnati?
I saw a couple of puppet slams last year and I thought it was such a great way to get people excited about puppetry.  The supportive and enthusiastic community of puppeteers was infectious.  I wanted to bring this same inclusive atmosphere to Cincinnati where puppet slams are far from abundant.

M: What are you inspired by in puppetry and puppet slams?
I love to be surprised by puppetry.  Seeing puppets do the unexpected or relating to the puppeteer in a unique way really inspires me.  The emotional pieces are also intriguing to me.  When music is used to help create a specific mood, I find myself immediately drawn into the piece.

M: Do you have any pieces in circulation that you could bring to other puppet slams?DS: As a relative new comer to puppet slams, I have only developed a couple of pieces.  I have also worked with other puppeteers developing slam pieces, but I don’t have a large repetoire yet.  Unfortunately, I don’t have a large list of people I perform with regularly, but I hope to develop relationships with other puppeteers to keep the slam community growing in Cincinnati.

M: Tell us about some of your other pieces.
One of my favorite puppet pieces was a piece I directed with Aretta Baugartner as my puppeteer.  It was for the Cincinnati Fringe Festival last year called The Body Speaks.  It was about a young boy (a table top puppet) who slowly wraps himself up in a cocoon as a seemingly naked lady manipulates him.  At the end, she emerges as a moth behind a shadow screen.  To me, this would be an excellent slam piece to continue developing.  The relationship between the puppet and puppeteer was interesting, and the monologue under the puppetry was absurd and complex.

Strung Out Puppet Cabaret will next be presented as part of as part of the Cincinnati Fringe on Saturday July 2nd and Sunday July 3rd. You can see photos from their last slam on our Facebook Page.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Christine Papalexis Has Created A Monster! (Puppetzilla #LA that is)

Christine Papalexis is the president of the Los Angeles Guild of Puppetry and curator of Puppetzilla Puppet Slam in Los Angeles. Christine works in the film industry with special effects and puppetry.

Christine on her way to a Muppets flash mob, Photo: Marsian

Marsian: So you are hosting a mini-Puppetzilla this weekend..
Christine Papalexis: The Los Angeles Guild of Puppetry is co-sponsoring it with the LA 3-D Club. They are providing the space and 3-D puppet films, we are offering 3 puppet acts in a theater in downtown LA. 

M: Tell us about the other puppet slams you have hosted..
CP: I love Puppet Slams - we have held them before, at CIA in Burbank and we regularly have shows/parties at Bob Baker Marionette Theater for our holiday party. This is our first as Puppetzilla Puppet Slam, hopefully the first of many.

M: What other puppet slams have you performed at?  
CP: I first performed at Potpourri in San Francisco in 1993. Sort of like a slam.

M: Where do you say LA fits into a slam circuit?
CP: I've been to Adult Puppet Cabaret in San Diego produced by Bridget and Iain.  I would love to go to the one in Arizona but it's not that close...

M: I heard there is a new slam starting in Vallejo, called Slammed Puppet Night at the Forbidden Cabaret. It seems like it would be a bit of a drive, but I would include them too. Also, the Adult Puppet Slam in Phoenix often flies in an act.

M: Why do you think Puppet Slams are important? CP: They provide opportunities for raw creative expression.

M: Where would you like to see the Puppet Slam Network in the future?
CP: Puppet Slam Network rocks! A force of support, financially and as an internet presence, both of which are extremely important for the future develop of promoting the art of puppetry. At the last National Festival I was amazed at how much new work was being performed every evening, much of which was supported by PSN. As President of the LAGOP I am always looking for ways to bring in new members and to make sure we are fulfilling our Mission Statement of bringing the art of puppetry to Los Angeles. We would like to provide a stage for people to perform their puppetry.

M: What advice do you have for up and coming slam artists who are just starting out?  
CP: Keep working!

M: Puppetzilla Puppet Slam happens this Sunday at the Downtown Independent Theatre in Los Angeles for more details, check out their invite.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Blainor McGough on King Friday after dark #Portland #ME

Blainor McGough is a puppeteer from Portland Maine and curator of King Friday's Dungeon. KFD had its first run this past November with a killer local lineup, and a sold-out audience. Blainor is Director at Mayo Street Arts, an arts venue and community center housed in an old wooden church in Portland. King Friday's Dungeon slam #2 returns November 3rd.  Portlanders are excited for the show, and to check out other Northeast artists participating in the Northeast circuit in Fall 2012.

King Friday's Dungeon, 2011 at Mayo Street Arts. Photographer Annie Seikonia
Marsian: First of all, I love the name King Friday's Dungeon! Its like Mr. Rogers neighborhood slasher fiction.

Blainor McGough: Oh, totally - slasher, B-grade, underground weirdness was what we were going for. Libby Marcus came up with the title of King Friday's Dungeon during a brainstorming session with me, Julie Goell, and Avner the Eccentric.  
M: Is it true that there is a full scale model of the Neighborhood of Make Believe, as some of your photos suggest?
BM: Indeed. Its sad, really - King Friday is living in squalor - the castle is now a dilapidated vaudeville house and occasional flop-house for traveling puppets and exotic dancers. We recreated it in cardboard for the slam.

M: OMG! How are you finding acts for this?
BM: We pulled from mostly local talent, old-time puppeteer friends and new. Curiously, there's a lot of us up here so it was easy to get a good crew. We'd love to host more acts 'from away' though.

M: What inspired you to start KFD?
BM: Heather Henson came for a Portland visit, explained about the Slam Network and encouraged us to start one here. How could we resist? We've also been hosting Handmade Puppet Dreams.

M: What slams and cabarets have you been to or performed at?
Visited Roxie Mhyrum and the slam at Puppet Showplace last summer - very much fun. I used to do different puppet/performance art pieces at the Casco Bay Cabaret, a cabaret/variety show that took place in Portland for years...but mostly performed with Shoestring Theater and my own stuff in the Hurdy Gurdy Puppet Show. That was a long time ago! I love King Friday's Dungeon because you get to see so many other fabulous shows in one night.

M: How does what you do at the puppet slam tie into the other kinds of performance you do? Do you direct other shows there?
BM: Well, I book and produce performances here at Mayo Street Arts in Portland. Also I curate SLAP - Superhero Lady Armwrestlers of Portland. SLAP has many similarities to a slam because there are so many 'performers' involved - the lady armwrestlers all have an alt-persona with costumes and theme songs...many of the same booking/production/PR considerations and a similarly amped level of creativity and weirdness.

M: What other slams or cities would you include as part of your slam circuit?

BM: Last November was our first slam so we're new, but it rocked and we were sold out. We're looking to get a circuit going this fall with some of the Northeast slams...Boston, Providence, NYC, Philly.

M: Tell us about a fabulous failure (at a slam) and what you've learned from it.
BM: Well my sets used to be so complicated and heavy - i think i learned to pare things down and work the moment. But I love seeing other people's stuff that IS complicated.

M: Who are some other artists on the puppet slam circuit who you are inspired by?  
BM: The Dolly Wagglers are some of my favs - they're funny, great musicians, and swell puppeteers overall. Tim Harbeson is incredibly inspiring and magical. He uses objects, sound, and chance; his shows are very mysterious. He and his wife Buffy Miller hosted puppet performances at their Stillhouse Studio in Portland years ago. Cuckoo Carwash is a rare treat, though he rarely leaves the Tri-State area.

M: What pieces do you have in circulation to perform in puppet slams? 
BM: I used to do Pierre In Ze Aire, who did a tightrope act...Also The Bambolinis - they were Sicillian marionettists who had to work in a tortellini factory to support their dream of becoming puppeteers. These days I'm pretty home-based with a little one at home and another one on ze way. So I like organizing the 'Dungeon here in Portland for now. I teach the Children's Puppet Workshop here at Mayo Street afterschool program for at-risk youths.

M: Where can people contact you to perform?
BM: Email me or send a message on our Facebook Page.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Fabulous Failures & What Can We Learn?

What can we learn from our mistakes?  Leading puppet slam curators and artists open up to reflect on some fabulous failures and spectacular slam disasters and what can be learned. Have you had a fabulous failure at a slam? Join the conversation on our Facebook Page and share your story! 

Austin Puppet Incident #Austin
Amanda Maddock, Jessica Simon & Caroline Reck, 2011, Photo: Chris Owen
Alissa Hunnicut, guest curator of New Brew #Brooklyn
Mostly you learn that it's live theater and anything can happen.  So think on your feet when there are technical glitches and be honest in your performance.  You also learn pretty quickly what doesn't work in a slam context when you have no control over what comes before your performance..

I don't think any of them have been disastrous. Some of them have pieces that are "less successful" than others partly because it might be a less curated slam or a slam that really welcomes less experienced performers, but that's the good part about a slam.  

Everyone can try something out and if it doesn't really work, the audience is on to a new thing pretty quickly. Like we all say, "too short to suck."

Gepetta, Performer-At-Large #Philadelphia
I think I count on failure or at least making mistakes to some degree. A lot of my stories are very wordy, more poetic than funny, and I often forget my lines, though if I can quip with the audience its okay.  A lot of mistakes graduate into being essential parts of the show.  Recently, I lit my hair on fire during a performance at a crowded loft. That wasn’t at a Slam, though I think it would have gone over better if it had been.

Roxie Myhrum, Curator of Puppet Showplace Slam #Brookline 
I once put together a slam with a lot of artists who typically did shows in all different styles of puppetry, but somehow I overlooked the fact that the pieces they wanted to do for the slam were all shadow puppet acts. Oops. After that I implemented a more thorough tech form. We also once had a speaker fall on an audience member. Now we warn people who sit in the front row.   
One of Kristin McLean's occasional collaborators was the director of The Revolving Museum - an organization that curated site specific shows at various different locations all around Boston.  The director of the Revolving Museum had set up a show for First Night (New Year's Eve) Boston that he populated primarily with Puppet Slam performers.   He asked me to perform at it.  It was at the Cyclorama in Boston and there was a very cool set, and we were all in different rooms of a mocked-up house.  People were encouraged to wander around and it was definitely a very cool set up if you were a more interactive performer.  But the problem was that I was performing a 15 minute version of the "Ex Machina" show I described earlier.  And this piece also now included an audience-plant routine.  The biggest issue is that my pieces are narrative and definitely require the undivided attention of an audience.  Here, we were playing a venue where people would essentially wander through look at what we were doing for about 2 minutes and then move on. Because I perform with a recording it's difficult to stop or start over and nearly impossible to improvise.  So we just kept performing it over and over, often with no one in our space and just me and my friend and collaborator Mark Myatt (who was my audience "plant" originally intended to blend in with the never-constant audience).  Most of the time we were performing for no one, or else for people who took a brief interest akin to viewing animals in a zoo.. After performing in this show I have always taken pains to clarify that any show I am booked at is organized as a theatrical performance and not an "installation" style environment.
I can’t say I’ve ever been to a disastrous Puppet Slam, sorry! One slam I did attend was a bit awkward: it emphasized audience participation, insisting space be left for the public to contribute to the work. Unfortunately it underestimated the audience’s bravery, leading to long passages of awkward silence!

Kat Pleviak, curator of Puppet Meltdown #Chicago 
I was in a slam at a puppet festival and we were asked to bring two pieces, one of which was cut because the slam went to long. The piece we did show was too small for the space to be seen by anyone in the venue so no one got to enjoy it.   
A note to producers: Your slam performers are your guests and it should be your number one goal to help them succeed and have a great experience. A note to performers: be true to your work. If you walk into an event and can see your piece won't work, pull it. It does not help you to do a piece that disappoints based on a technicality. Know your work and show it to it's best.
Well, just this week I feel like I’ve experienced one of my biggest failures to date.  Between what felt like the great success of the first slam in February, I ran into some problems.  As I’ve said, I just directed Inspector General for TAG, a show with live actors and two different kinds of puppets that play minor characters.  Literally, the night Inspector opened several of TAG’s board members complained that sock puppets have no place on the TAG stage and are “not to the quality of what we do.”  The poster and all the promotional material used had the sock puppets to promote the show, but apparently that somehow got past the attention of some board members.  And they apparently hadn’t talked to the Artistic Director, who’d been talking excitedly about the puppets for around six months before the show ever went into rehearsal. At this point, I must take pains to again thank Brad Powell, TAG’s Artistic Director.  He went to the mat to defend both the puppets in Inspector and to defend the slam to his board.  But after some of the longest days I’ve ever experienced, it was clear that it was not in the best interest of the slam or of TAG to hold a puppet slam at a theatre where there were hostile board members. . .
A friend and fellow artist here in Honolulu gave me a “buck up” talk the other day saying that this was a lesson about focusing on the kind of work you want to do and making your own opportunities.  I guess that’s as good as a lesson as any.  This is all just in the last week, maybe after a few months of reflection I’ll have a real good perspective about what the moral of this tale is.  

Again, if there are other curators who have walked through similar experiences please, please, please email or call me.   I’d love to hear how others handled it so I can properly reflect and learn from the situation.

Lana Schwarcz, curator of Slam Noir #Melbourne
Hmmm... I think we've had a couple of pieces go longer than five minutes, and that was tough. I don't feel comfortable to name names or even describe these shows, but sometimes new pieces (which is what they are for the slams) can drag on a bit - the fat needs to be cut from them.  If there is one thing I have really learned from Pam Arciero (and by gosh there were many many things learned from that Hawaiian goddess) it's that things really have to be too short to suck.  So I think in the future, we really stick to that 5-minute rule. If it doesn't fit in 5 minutes, it doesn't go on. It makes the artist really think about what absolutely needs to be in there. Although sometimes that still gets ignored....

Beau Brown, curator of the  Puckin’ Fuppet Show
The Puppet Slam at DragonCon and the National Puppet Slam  #Atlanta 
Never try and simulate the sound of someone’s pelvis cracking by breaking celery into a microphone. It won’t work. 

Valerie Meiss, curator of the Wham Bam! Puppet Slam #Asheville
Oh wow... maybe my reluctance to say means that the wound is still fresh? . . Lets just say, technical requirements and Murphy's Law make wretched bedfellows. I have learned to cope with technical disasters in fun and friendly ways, to curb egos in a non-defamatory manner, and to (most importantly) take control of a situation (which is easier said than done), but I have certainly learned its importance
Oh, also, don't ever ever use a smoke machine!

Carole D'Agostino, Performer-At-Large #NYC
I succeed and fail at each event. I now always travel with my own tables, tape, extension cords, light bulb replacements, shadow screen replacements, scissors, sharpies, wipes, etc etc etc, because at each and every venue there has been something wrong or missing and I don't want my performance to suffer because the venue or I am ill prepared. Professionalism can only come by learning from failures.  
Jessica Simon, curator of Nasty, Brutish & Short Puppet Cabaret #Chicago 
[taken slighly out of context]  I got a bruise on my head from a flying piece of chocolate at the National Slam in Atlanta...

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Advice for Puppet Slam Artists & Curators

Looking for advice on starting a slam or being a better puppet slam artist? Find out what leading puppet slam curators and performers had to say when we posed the question: What advice do you have for up and coming slam artists or curators who are just starting out? Have something to add? Continue the conversation on our Facebook page

Adult Puppet Cabaret #SanDiego, Photo: Kiwi (Craig Brayton)

Evan O’Television - Blood From a Turnip #Providence
Maintain a spirit of adventurousness and experimentation but also never forget the importance of the audience.  What is the journey you are hoping to take them on?  How successful are you?  Whenever experimental work forgets to continuously engage or reward the audience then it misses the inherently conversational nature of live theater and risks being over-indulgent.

Alexander Winifield - Pirate Puppet Cabaret #London 
Don’t be afraid of failing miserably, or looking like an idiot. There is nothing so dangerous, nor full of potential, as a man unafraid of looking like an idiot.  Try not to make a habit of it, is all.

Kat Pleviak - Puppet Meltdown #Chicago 
Make each performance the very best it can be on the day you do it and take pride in your work! Have fun, share work, learn and grow and live!

Deborah Hunt - Sobre La Mesa Puppet Slam
Noches de Cabaret #SanJuan
Just do it!

Enda O. Breadon - Kolohe Puppet Slam #Honolulu
I’d tell them to give me advice.  I am making this shit up as I go and I really have no idea what I’m doing. 

Alissa Hunnicutt - New Brew #Brooklyn

I think a lot of your interview subjects have suggested going to a slam if you're interested in participating in slams. I totally agree.  See what other artists in your area are doing.  It's inspiring.  I am also a huge cheerleader for The National Puppetry Conference at The O'Neill Theater Center.  Your readers hear that name a ton too, I'm sure. The participant pieces that are developed in the evenings are where a lot of the slam content comes from in my circle of peers.  In a few days you are exposed to so many different methods and techniques for creating short form puppetry.  Plus it's a very tight network of puppeteers who have leads on performance opportunities, become fast friends, and it has a very special place in my heart.


Gepetta - Performer-At-Large #Philadelphia

The best advice I was given was from writer/performer Ryka Aoki, while I was on the Tranny Roadshow.  She said something along the lines of if you are nervous you need to channel that energy into the performance. The best performances I have done are when I want to pee my pants a little.


Honey Goodenough - Puppet Pandemic #NYC

Above all, be good to your performers. There can be a lot of stress related to producing an event, but if you want people to continue to work with you it must be worthwhile for the performers. We have to support this art form, from the ground up! So work hard, be kind, and have fun!



Roxie Myhrum - Puppet Showplace Slam #Brookline

Document your work! It's a pain in the ass, but it's well worth it--if a curator can see you looking awesome and rocking it out at one slam, they'll want you to do the same at their venue. Also, see lots of work! It's easy to get stuck in the studio or to be swamped by your own projects.  You'll grow as an artist by getting out more!


Jessica Simon - Nasty, Brutish and Short: A Puppet Cabaret #Chicago

Try and see a lot of stuff, talk to people after shows, ask veterans to do something with you. 


Valeska Populoh - Puppet Slamwich #Baltimore

Go watch a lot of performers. See what makes people laugh and respond. See what works and what doesn't. Don't be discouraged if your first performances flop or have flaws. Keep performing and making more work and seeing more work and talking to other performers in order to learn and grow!


Beau Brown - Puckin’ Fuppet Show #Atlanta

National Puppet Slam #Atlanta

DO IT! Start a slam! Crash an open mic night with your puppets! Make videos! Keep throwing stuff at the wall till it sticks! Something will and it will be awesome!


Valerie Meiss - Wham Bam Puppet Slam #Asheville

Do it! Do it now! And promote it, and promote it as an adult show, so you don't have to deal with upset people. (It shouldn't be a big deal, but sometimes it is.) And have fun with it! And send me an email if you have questions, I feel like I'm able to help out sometimes! And I've asked a bunch of questions myself, so I know whom to recommend.


Carole D'Agostino  - Performer-At-Large #NYC

Go see shows, take notes. Make your own shows and rehearse the heck out of them. When you travel, bring your own tape and extension cords. You have something to learn from everyone- and it's a good idea to be aware. Also, save all your receipts- these events are tax write-offs. This is your career!

Cathy Shaw – Puppet Art Attacks #NYC
The messiest parts are the changeovers. You need someone who will run and organize the changeovers. I like it when all of the participating artists are part of making the event work - it really establishes a community fast.  They should each have a part to do in the changeovers. Then you need someone to carefully go through the pieces with each artist, setting cues in a cue-to-cue fashion, building light and sound cues only - NO RUN THROUGHS! We are able to do 10 or 12 acts in 2 hours and all the cues are executed near perfect in the show. I do that, facilitating communications between the designers and the Stage Manager and the Board Ops and keeping things moving forward.

The artists may not be used to writing out a script (or they might say there isn't any dialogue, or that their piece is easy, just lights up lights down) - but still they have to write out a narrative in advance that the stage manager can use to record her cues (if he/she will be calling the show.) Otherwise the Board Ops need something that they can refer to during the show to jog their memory for the cues. All of the pieces might be easy separately, but put together it is an hour or more show with a lot going on. So, the artists must write a script that the crew can use to record what they need to record to run the cues as efficiently as possible. Even knowing if they will be onstage behind the host frozen to start, or if they will enter in darkness after the host has introduced them - all of this must be written in a script - its all part of how their piece resonates--so they should take care of every single detail and write it in a script they can give people who will execute cues for their piece.  They should get it to you in advance. Digital is best because the Stage Manager can format it just the way they like to write in cues.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Vanessa Gilbert on the Eve of Her Last Late Night Puppet Salon #Providence

VanessaGilbert is a collaborative theatre artist based in Providence, where she hosts Blood from A Turnip – Rhode Island’s only late night puppet salon.  Vanessa produces and directs theatrical works of varying scales, from miniature puppet theatre to multi-day performance festivals, and opera.  In her 17 years with Perishable Theatre, Vanessa has directed and produced scores of plays and events. At Perishable, she founded both Blood from a Turnip and the Resident Artist at Perishable Theatre program.   She instigated Magdalena USA, to date the only Magdalena Project event in the United States.  Vanessa is an associate artist with Sleeping Weazel, an expansive theatre company based in Boston and on the internet.

Photo: Marilyn Fontenrose, 2012

Marsian: How long have you been involved with Puppet Slams?

Vanessa Gilbert: My first slam experience was inventing Blood from a Turnip, our salon in Providence, RI.  I thought that Jeremy Woodward and I invented the concept, not knowing that a sister event, the Puppet Slam at the Puppet Showplace in Brookline, MA was going strong at the time.  Jeremy and I wanted a venue to showcase both our own short puppet shows (we were the purveyors of The LunchCart Circus, the only circus in the world with a snack for the audience at the end of the show) and those of artists who were starting to work with puppets in their own work.  Being in a city with an innovative art school (the inimitable Rhode Island School of Design) and a hip liberal arts school (Brown University) has provided a steady stream of performers.  Some of the most memorable shows that we have presented were made by sculptors or visual artists who found their way to puppets as an extension of their art practice.  Once I met Kristen McLean, then the director of the Puppet Showplace and the mind behind their Puppet Slam, I was introduced to the concept.

Marsian: What was the very first Blood from a Turnip like?
VG: I believe that our first Blood from a Turnip featured short shows by students at the University of Connecticut at Storrs’ Puppetry Program as well as Evan O’Television, whose video ventriloquism was just starting to make the rounds of the incipient puppet circuit.  Another early salon showcased a sculpture student at RISD who performed a mysterious show that involved a rotating board, small plastic animals, and a farm animal speak and say toy. 

M: What is the funniest, freakiest, edgiest, or weirdest show you have seen?
VG: Running the salon in the way we do has made for some very memorable experiences.  I am thinking in particular of a show called HamBot, the Robot Hamlet, in which the lead artist adapted the entirety of Hamlet into an toy theatre show as envisaged by the B-film director Ed Wood.  Because the artist was working with the whole play, he didn’t take into account our time constraint of 10 minutes and after about 15 minutes of somewhat stilted object manipulation, the audience caught on that we were in for the full ride of Hamlet as told through a robot figurine, which had a very mechanical character voice as you would expect a robot to do.  The entire audience went on a ride of discomfort and then eventual acceptance and euphoria by the end of the 30 minutes when it ended.  We joked afterward that we ought to have t-shirts printed with the slogan, “ I Survived Hambot.”
M: What inspired you to start hosting a Blood from a Turnip?
VG: With scenic designer Jeremy Woodward, I co-founded Blood from a Turnip, one of the first puppet slams in the circuit.  We started just months after Kristen McLean started the slam at the Puppet Showplace Theatre in Brookline, MA.  This was in 1996/97. As well as working with Big Nazo Puppets, Jeremy and I were making shows collaboratively as well as individually and started noticing that other artists were finding puppets too.  We decided to create Blood from a Turnip as a venue for artists to perform their shows, which were often quite different than their other work. This led us to the wonderful underground scene of puppets for adults.  We determined that Blood from a Turnip would have the following qualities:

1. Blood from a Turnip would be a salon, not a slam.  Slam connotes competition and we wanted there to be only winners at the end of the evening.
2. We would welcome anyone who had a puppet show or thought that they had a puppet show.  It was important to open the door to people who were new to puppetry in addition to the seasoned professionals.  We adopted a “ If you are so moved to do a show, we will present you” attitude that has served us well for 15 years
3.  We would limit the acts to 10 minutes. 
4.  We would be a late night event; we wanted to serve adult audiences both to reclaim puppetry as a form for adult enjoyment as well as provide an alternative to going to a club.
5.  We would ask a local musician to provide “charming and personable musical interludes” between the acts

M: Wow, you just got bullet pointy at me! Anything else?
VG: There were other rules that have gone by the wayside over the past decade and a half; for instance, when we began, we hosted a communal dinner for the performers that always featured turnip as an ingredient.   We also started out as a monthly event, with 9-10 shows per year. After a year of constantly having to program and publicize the salon, we settled on a 5 show per year formula that has served us well. 

M: You had a series of co-hosts…
V: Jeremy and I would co-host, but after three or four years, we were eager to move on to other things, even though we loved Blood from a Turnip.  At that time, Jeremy and I split the hosting duties between us and I invited you, Marsian, to join me. What fun times we had, no? 

M: It was so many moons ago. We’ve become different people and yet remained the..
VG: ..Right, and when you left us for graduate school, I invited my husband David Higgins and my puppet husband, Evan O’Television, to become part of the producing/curation staff.  We have also been joined as a host by Nicky Heart and playwright/puppeteer Amanda Weir.

M: What gap do you think puppet slams fill that is not filled by other forms of puppetry?
VG: Slams are a place to celebrate adults who still play with dolls and enjoy the thrilling exchange of energy between a performer, an object, and an audience.  Even though there is a place for puppetry in the neo-vaudeville circuit, Slams (and Salons) provide a focus on unmitigated delight.  Don’t we need more unmitigated delight?

M: Who are some other artists on the puppet slam circuit who you are inspired by?
VG: Pretty much every performer who comes through our doors is inspiring to me.  Artists are not on the slam circuit to make money, so there is a no-holds-barred sensation about their pieces.  Some of our more recent folks include Kim Mikenis, The Human Light Box, who makes naughty and hilarious shadow puppet pieces that she performs within a shower curtain stage; Liz Joyce of Goat on a Boat puppet theatre on Long Island, whose hand puppet shows make me guffaw; and Carole D'Agostino, who is really an excellent puppeteer with remarkable comedic timing.  I also really love the folks who bring us their first puppet shows.  Beth Nixon of Ramshackle Enterprises made one of her first puppet shows for Blood from a Turnip, and now she is touring the NorthEast with her work.  Folks don't always know where the puppet is going to lead them.

M: What pieces do you have in circulation to perform in puppet slams?
VG: I recently revised an object theatre piece that is a retelling of the Vasilisa, the Beautiful fairy tale in which Vasilisa is a small wooden match.  The story is a Russian version of Cinderella, really, in which Vasilisa is sent out to the deep dark woods by her evil stepmother and stepsisters to fetch some fire from Baba Yaga, a witch who purportedly eats humans and makes their bones into the gates of her chicken-footed hut.   Not too many theatres may be happy about hosting the piece as I light a match; none of this LED fire substitute for this girl.

M: Well hopefully, you won’t get blacklisted from this interview. Where do you see the Puppet Slam Network in the future?
VG: I think that the Puppet Slam Network has had a critical impact on the connectivity of all of our separate performances.  Because of the PSN, I feel as though I can call folks all across the country for inspiration and guidance. 

M: Do you have any exciting news announcements that you would like to drop here first, exclusively on our Puppet Slam Blog for the tens of hundreds of readers?!?
VG: On Friday May 18th, we are retiring the late-night format for some prime-time slots that will allow us to have longer shows.  We are reuniting the entire gang of hosts in person or via Skype to give back the night.

M: It’s a date!
VG: I am quite looking forward to it.  I will probably wear a dress, which rarely happens.

M: Do you expect any backlash? Never mind... You heard it here first!