Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Geeking out on Puppet Slams with Beau Brown

In our latest Lives of the Slam Artists series, PSN interviews Beau Brown, curator of Atlanta’s Puckin’ Fuppet Show, The Puppet Slam at DragonCon and the National Puppet Slam

Beau has been involved in Puppet Slams for the past decade. The Puckin’ Fuppet Show is one of PSN's more prolific slams, clocking in at eight slams per year. Recently, Beau curated the very first National Puppet Slam, showcasing some of the best Slam pieces from the PSN, at the National Puppetry Festival. The next National Slam will be August 3rd – 5th , 2012 at the Center for Puppetry Arts.
photo courtesy of Beau Brown
Marsian: So, when did you start performing at Puppet Slams?

Beau Brown: My first puppet slam piece was when I fresh out of college and had just moved back to atlanta from Dallas in 2002. It was at the Puppet Slam at Dad’sGarage Theatre. It was called Beef and it was about a small army of steaks liberating some other steaks from a cow.

M: Sounds like a serious political piece... And what are some other Puppet Slams you have performed at? 
BB: We do some many slams here in Atlanta.  I have no idea how many I have done now. I have performed in Slams in Atlanta, Asheville, New York City, and New Jersey. I have had some of my videos and films screen in other cities. I suppose New York City is the furthest I have physically gone. I think the most rewarding was the first National Slam at the Puppet Festival last year. I have received such great feedback from both other 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 that 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.    

M: Where did you get the idea to host Puppet Slams?
BB: Lucky Yates at Dad’s Garage Theatre in Atlanta started one of the oldest slams in the country [after Great Small Work's Spaghetti Dinners - running since 1985]. That and another show at that theatre called Late Night Creepy Horror, which was more of a variety show that was heavy on puppets.  I had never had any real formal puppetry training and sort of cut my chops at his shows for many years. It was a really supportive fun environment that focused more on comedy rather than “high puppet art.” That slam was four times a year and it really gave me a deadline and a reason to write shows.

It was at the slam that I created the piece that would later become my web series The Sci-Fi Janitors. About three years ago, Caroline Masclet started The Puckin’ Fuppet Show, which was a competitive slam with cash prizes.  After a few shows she moved to France and asked if anyone wanted to take over and keep the show going.  I volunteered.  At first I didn’t host the show.  I just organized it and had local actors, puppeteers, and stand up comics host it.  It was after hosting at the National Festival, where I had such a good time that I started hosting my own slam.  The Slam at Dad’s Garage was a sort of best of Atlanta’s puppeteers getting together to put on a show.  The Puckin’ Fuppet Show is much more like a loose open mic amateur hour type event where new people are encouraged to give it a shot.  Like I say at the show, “Atlanta has a lot of really incredible puppet art, this isn’t it” I usually have no idea what the show is even going to look like until about an hour before it starts and everybody who is going to perform has shown up. Which is really stressful and nerve wracking but I just try and remind myself that it always works out.

M: When do Puppet Slams go wrong? 
BB: I have been at some slams that have done a great job of pushing the envelope only to have been criticized for it. The idea of censoring a puppet slam goes against every bone in my body. No one ever got sued for doing a puppet show. That is a really unhealthy and unsupportive artistic environment and not what the Slam Network grant is for at all. I am very fortunate to be my own boss with my Slam and I don’t have to answer to anyone else with it. Some other slams are tied up in the politics of their local puppet community and don’t have the kind of freedom.   

M: Tell us about a fabulous failure and what you've learned from it.
BB: Never try and simulate the sound of someone’s pelvis cracking by breaking celery into a microphone. It won’t work.

M: The more you know! Now why are Puppet Slams important to you? What gap do they fill that is not filled by other forms of puppetry? 
BB: I feel like Slams fill a several important roles. It is 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 is a way to try things out in front of audience and see what sticks.  For me it was crucial to have a deadline. I would love to be the kind of artist who is inspired to build puppets and write shows because it just came to me, but I’m not.  I have to sit down, usually with someone else and say, “Okay we need a show.”  The structure of the slams gives me the kick in the pants and I need to write something.  Since puppetry is the synthesis of all art forms (visual art, voice, and movement), it opens so many doors to so many different kinds of artists.  Puppetry allows us to tell any story we can imagine… ANY. The possibilities are truly endless. The only other art form that I think allows that is animation.  I would love to have the patience to do animation, but I don’t.  So puppetry allows me to tell those stories. However most of those stories aren’t an hour long.  So how else can I get them front of a live audience? Puppet Slam.   

M: Do you have any upcoming slams you plan on performing at or organizing?
BB: The 2012 National Puppet Slam is coming up August 3rd, 4th, and 5th at the Center for Puppetry Arts. All of the slams in the network will be nominating their best pieces. The Puckin’ Fuppet Show will continue to chug along with its eight or so slams per year. I plan on performing in the new Spork in Hand Puppet Slam in Columbia, SC, and I am going to try and make to the Wham Bam Puppet Slam in Asheville NC. Then there is the Puppetry Track at DragonCon, which is a beast unto itself. It will be like a mini puppet festival inside a 50,000-person convention. I am really excited about that.  

M: Where do you find the impetus to do a Puppet Slam piece? 

BB: A deadline, a song, a pun, a visual gag, half-awake/half-asleep thoughts, wanting to experiment with a new style.

M: Which Puppet Slam artists inspire you?
I really love Madison J. Cripps - we have a bromance. His process is so completely different than mine. He makes a puppet first and then writes the show around the character and I start with the story first and make the puppets from that.  I think I would really like to try start from a character place first.  I would also like to try my hand at marionettes, which I have never done.  I really love Honey Goodenough’s work. I would love to get some tears out of the audience sometime.  Dr. Gregg vanLanningham is an incredibly witty dialogue writer. I would love to write with him sometime. 

M: What pieces do you have in circulation to perform in puppet slams?
BB: The Moon is about the real transmissions from NASA’s first touch down on the moon. In Doris and the Orifices, Doris and her a cappella band cover Don’t Stop Believin. In A Man and his Gay Horse, a cowboy helps his faithful horse understand himself and they both learn about friendship.

M: I’ve seen that! It’s very Broke-back-I’m-not-sure-what… Anywho, what are you looking forward to?
BB: As a performer I really like traveling and performing at other slams and would like to do more of that. As a producer I really look forward to discovering new talent out there and giving artists opportunities to perform and get recognition.

M: Where would you like to see the Puppet Slam Network in the near future?
I would really love to see the tour show idea come together, but I can see why it is hard to get together. I defiantly want to continue with the National Puppet Slam. I think it is really awesome and important for the best of the Puppet Slam Network to get recognized and to put all of those people together in the same room.

M: What advice do you have for puppet slam performers just starting out?
BB: 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!

Beau has a degree in Theatrical Design and works at the Center for Puppetry Arts. He has a taste for Buffalo wings, He-man, and comics. His dislikes include: throw pillows, listening to people chewing, and people using his birthday as an excuse to eat cake. 
As a puppet filmmaker, Beau created the web series, The Sci-Fi Janitors  and also collaborates with The New Puppet Order, which produces puppet shorts seen at several film festivals. Beau’s Puppet Slam at the DragonCon convention in Atlanta was such a success that the convention asked him to program the Puppetry Track, a full range of puppetry events including a slam at the 2012 convention. Stay tuned for details!

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