Monday, February 13, 2012

Lives of the Slam Artists: An Interview with Valerie Meiss

In our latest profile of Puppet Slam Artists, PSN chats it up with Valerie Meiss, curator of the Wham Bam! PuppetSlam in Asheville. When not hosting Puppet Slams, Valerie tours the country with a band of musicians and puppet shows. Valerie plays accordion and novelty instruments such as the saw, ukulele, or toy piano. She lives and works in her studio known as “The Vaudeville House” in downtown Asheville.

2011, Photo: Zen Southerland

Marsian: What was your very first Puppet Slam experience?
Valerie Meiss: I've been performing in puppet slams for a little over two years. My first slam experience was one I was not puppeteering in, my band was asked to perform our strange puppet musical stage show, The Hellblinki and Cripps Puppet Spectacular (with Madison J. Cripps of Cripps' Puppets), for the South Eastern Puppetry Festival in Wilmington, NC. It was my first exposure to the Puppeteers of America, The Puppet Slam Network, UNIMA, and nearly every professional puppeteer I know. There, Madison and I took full advantage of our complementary puppet festival badges and became immersed in the festival. The rest of my band, I do believe, went to the beach. At the regional festival, we met Beau Brown, who became not only a fast friend, but also our biggest supporter and colleague in putting on puppet slams - which we would be doing in the near future.

M: In all the slams you have performed at, what was the freakiest show you have seen?
VM: I've performed or been involved with five or so puppet slams, mostly in the Asheville area, and Atlanta. The freakiest show I've ever seen would probably have been Keith Shubert's “Chair” piece. It was in the 2011 Wham, Bam! Puppet Slam, it was 4 seconds long, and consisted of: Returning from Intermission. A scream. Lights up. Keith, still screaming is naked, strapped to chair, and a puppet, that is where his unmentionables ought to be, is waving around a collapsible lock blade knife. Lights out. It was sensational, and caused some controversy, but the audience loved it! And it served its purpose beautifully.

M: What was the worst puppet slam you’ve been to?  
VM: I have been lucky to have not been in any disastrous puppet slams. Though the worst slam I've been at was probably a couple years ago, it was a fine slam with many wonderful pieces, but it was too long, and the audience seemed to have been misinformed that it was an adult show with adult content. We discovered later that many of them had come to see a specific piece and didn't understand the nature of the show as a whole. This was a fantastic learning opportunity and now I feel when promoting a slam, nearly half of my publicity is putting out a disclaimer.

M: What is the Wham Bam! Puppet Slam like?
VM: I am one of the coordinators, along with Madison J. Cripps and Keith Shubert (Toy Box Theatre). Wham, Bam! is not so much unique as it is ours. It's in Asheville, a thriving arts community that needed it, and has embraced us. We are trying out various formats for the slam as well, we've done fancy multiple show runs with it, but on National Day of Puppetry, we'll be trying to do a one-off quick and dirty, low tech show, to see if we can involve more people in Asheville who are not professional puppeteers, per say.

M: Are you part of a slam circuit of nearby cities to perform at?
VM: The closest city that has a regular slam is Atlanta's Puckin' Fuppet Show, and we're about to be a part of the first puppet slam in Columbia, SC, Spork in HandPuppet Slam. I feel more and more a part of the Puppet Slam network since the first National Puppet Slam at last year's Puppet Festival in Atlanta, also the Slam Symposium workshop let slam coordinators, participants, and potential colleagues meet and share ideas, strategies, and just network and make new friends.

M: What was it like hosting your first Puppet Slam?
VM: The first slam I was a major driving force in was last year's Wham, Bam! Puppet Slam. It was thrilling, challenging, fun, teetering on the edge of chaos, but just coming round to be a spectacular show. I loved it, I learned from it, and I am ready to do it over and over again.

M: Tell us about a fabulous failure and what you've learned from it.
VM: 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!

M: Why are Puppet Slams important? What gap do they fill? Who cares?
VM: Well I care, for one. I like to laugh at jokes that are on a more adult level of humor, whether it's bawdy, or sophisticated, it's still not for kids. Also I can't write a 45-minute puppet show to save my life, yet. But I can make vignette scenes that are beautiful, touching, funny, creepy, whatever. Short form puppetry happens to be my favorite sort.

M: Are you hosting any upcoming slams?
VM: On April 28th, The Wham Bam! Puppet Slam presents The National Day of Puppetry: Quick & Dirty Puppet Slam! It's a lengthy title, but there was so much information to get out.

M: What inspires you to create a puppet slam piece?
VM: beauty, chaos, unfinished stories in my head, songs, friends of mine, relationships, odd facts I recall from history class... anything and everything!

M: What other Puppet Slam artists are you are inspired by?
VM: Lyon Hill did a piece for us last year called Supine. It was very technical, but worked fluidly and an audience member even said, that it was “worth the price of admission.. The rest was icing on the cake”, I am all right with being icing on that cake. It was like live animation, paper puppets painted in watercolor, filmed and simultaneously projected onto a screen, it was stunningly beautiful. I work with watercolor and paper puppets, but not like this, it was inspiring and I am trying to think of ways to learn from it.

M: What pieces do you have in circulation to perform in puppet slams?
VM: Thirty Centimetres, is about a controversial preserved penis in a Russian museum. It is rumored to belong to Gregori Rasputin. It was an odd bit of trivia that I've known about since grade school, so I made a puppet show out of it. Finding a small pink party favor novelty penis at a thrift store didn't hurt either.

Doom & Gloom is about the end of the world, it's a self-contained suitcase show, where Madison J. Cripps and I try to sell “Doom and Gloom” insurance. It was inspired by a song we made up walking down the street about zombies and other doomy gloomy things.

I'm Just a Fish (and nobody loves me) is a cute bit about a fish (a head puppet) that is looking for love. It is the most pathetic song I could write about fish and play on the ukulele. It was supposed to just be a short distraction piece (so puppet shows could set up or tear down behind me) but it has developed a life of its own.

M: Where would you like to see the Puppet Slam Network in the future?
VM: I would love to see a puppet slam tour, it would be a feat to find time when enough people were available to do it, but a week or so touring up a coast or the Midwest, or somewhere, putting on puppet shows and maybe workshopping in cities to help them start puppet slams would be a really lovely endeavor.

I also like the idea of encouraging slams to get video projectors and screens and have a system where slams can show other slam's work, either as filler, if it's needed, or to show some brilliant show that just happened in Seattle to the fine folks of Asheville, because how else will they get to see it?

M: What advice do you have for up and coming slam artists who are just starting out?
VM: 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.

M: One last question, what’s the story with your photo?!?
VM: Its a still from street performing with Thomas Butler as a can of Beef Ravioli, and Madison J. Cripps in his Walking Theatre Project - a day in the life.

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