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!