Friday, March 9, 2012

Chatting with Slam Curator Roxie Myhrum

Roxanna (Roxie) Myhrum is the Artistic Director at Puppet Showplace Theatre (PST) where she curates year-round programming for adult and family audiences, including six Puppet ShowplaceSlams each year. She regularly provides support, guidance, snacks, and firm-but-loving critique to Boston's community of emerging puppetry artists. When not working at PST, Roxie is a freelance theatre and opera director and puppet coach in the Greater Boston Area.  
2001, Photo: Rachel Krowe

Marsian: Hi Roxie! First off, who does your hair?
Roxie: Wait, what? I have the world's most boring hair, often hidden under a hat. When I went temporarily insane and got bangs I cut them myself. Your hair is much more interesting, Marsian.

M: Flattery will get you everywhere with me!  (dramatic pause) So you are the artistic director of the Showplace.
R: Two years and three months of glory!

M: How does the puppetry for adults at your slams fit in to your regular programming for kids (or not)?
R: I hate the term Adult Puppetry. PST has a history of using Puppets at Night as a way to indicate that a certain event is not part of our regularly scheduled family or kids programming, which takes place in the mornings and early afternoon.  Most of our kid audience is in bed when our slam starts. The audience for the slams is pretty age-diverse, though, including many people who are older adults as well as students and even some teenagers.  Occasionally there are people who come expecting something super raunchy who are disappointed, but I guess I'm OK with that.

M: We all have a cross to bear..
R: Generally I'd say our slam content is pretty much PG-13 rather than X-rated (although not always). I saw some of the best puppetry of my life when I was a young teenager at a puppet slam in my hometown of Springfield, MA.  I was glad that the slam felt like an adult event but was still accessible to me as a kid. That's something I want to replicate for our audiences at PST.

M: You are one of three puppet artists I know of who have graduated from Harvard! What was the puppet scene like there?
R: There wasn't much of a puppet scene - some people did a production of Little Shop of Horrors, which was pretty good (I think they rented the plant) and I once got asked to "consult" (that's a very Harvard thing) on a puppet production of Macbeth, which was pretty bad from its conception and there wasn't much I could do. I called Fred Thompson when I directed a production of Gilbert and Sullivan's "Yeomen of the Guard" because I wanted a raven puppet and he helped me out.

Julie Taymor is a graduate of the ART, which is sort of like Harvard, and Cheryl Henson is a Yale Grad. Are those the other people you meant?

M: One is the president of UNIMA and the other is the co-CEO of a movie studio. Just curious if you knew any other Ivy Leaguers in Puppetry..
R: There are lots of other Ivy League folks in puppetry -John Bell (UCONN) did his dissertation at Columbia, Annie Evans (Sesame Street writer) went to Brown, Jen Bodde (who used to work at the Center for Puppetry Arts Education Department) is a Yale Grad. I'm sure there are others. Maybe we should try to have a very exclusive table at the next PofA Festival!

M: Or a support group! I want you to regress back to your very first puppet slam experience.
R: As a puppeteer, I mostly work on other people's stuff, or work as a director, or work as a host. My first slam performance experience was when I was 16 and I was showing a piece I made called The Litterbug featuring a puppet I made out of trash. I have never been so terrified in my life: to have responsibility for every single element of a show AND to perform while under a black hood? Terrifying.

M: Where have the slam pieces you have had a hand in traveled to?
R: A piece that I coached was in the National Puppet Slam (Michelle Finston) and I was super proud to be there, although I wish Beau Brown had thrown me more candy. But really Sandglass should take the credit for instigating that piece.

M: You travel to a lot of slams, just to watch and look for acts. What have you been to recently?
R: I had a very trippy experience at the UCONN Puppet Slam that was part of the conference on performing objects in the 21st century. There was a guy who set things on fire in his piece, and the tech people apparently didn't know about this and freaked out and stopped his show part way through. There were some great pieces, one terrible piece, and it all ended with Erminio's dancing latex monsters.  Trippy. 

M: I hosted that one! I too was shocked that he was suddenly lighting things on fire on stage. Its wild what happens when you host or organize a slam..
R: I enjoy hosting a bit, but mostly I enjoy watching slams.  The amazing Jon LIttle (Little's Creatures) had actually taken on the responsibility of curating and hosting the slams while PST was still looking for an Artistic Director, and he did a great job. He stayed on as host (and as the closing act!) for a little over a year after that, but he was happy to pass on the headache of coordinating acts.  To be honest, producing slams is a unique kind of hell. 

M: Tell me about it! No really, tell me about it..
R: You have to convince people to perform for not very much money and beg them not to walk out on you the week of the performance. You have 3 hours to tech between 7 and 10 acts. You need to figure out how to cover all of the tech-transitions. And you have to deal with an audience who will love some things and hate others. It's a very manic process. But when it works, it's awesome.

M: Would you say you are part of a slam circuit?
R: We're near Providence, RI where Blood From a Turnip takes place…

M: Yes, when I was curating BfaT with Vanessa Gilbert, I organized the very first Slamtastic Puppet Mini-Tour between Perishable Theatre and PST and it sounds like you continue to have many of your events on the same weekend to encourage touring… What other cities are you close to that have puppet slams?
R: ..We're reasonably close to UCONN and Hartford. The slam circuit is a goal of ours, but it's still in development. We have definitely shared many performers with BFAT, and each year people do their slam on Friday and ours on Saturday. What makes our slam unique? We're in a dedicated and historical puppet theatre, so it helps to frame the evening as a puppetry event (rather than an adult event or a comedy improve event or as an evening of experimental theatre).

M: Many performers, including myself, have used slams as a way to develop short portions of larger shows..
R: We have excerpted from full-length shows. Sometimes we ask the family performer to do part of their shows, or we use slams as a way to try out a scene from a longer piece. We did this a lot for Brad Shur's show The Magic Soup and Other Stories.

M: Tell us about a fabulous failure at a slam and what you've learned from it.
R: 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.

M: And the moral of the story would be to have audience sign sworn affidavits before they leave… If you were to sign an affidavit about why puppet slams are important, what would it say?
R: I think they let people see so much about the art form all in one night. They learn about different styles of puppetry, they see how an individual artist creates a piece unique to their vision, and they can experience art that is improvised or do-it-yourself or in progress alongside art that is mature, polished, and complete.

I think "slam" is a great word to describe this: a puppet slam is a high-impact event.

M: Do you have any upcoming slams you plan on performing at or organizing?
R: There is always another slam. There is one [this] Saturday [March 10th]. There will be another one in two months. Oy vey.

M: What inspires you to create a puppet slam piece?
R: I most often give feedback to other people who get inspired by all sorts of things to make slam pieces. Sometimes they have a puppet but nothing for it to perform so they need to write a piece for it. At PST we have a semi-regular meeting called "Incubator" where people can try out new work and develop it with their peers.

M: Who are some other artists on the puppet slam circuit that inspired you?
R: BonnieDuncan [of Snappy Dance Theatre] is my hero. When she was pregnant with twins, she called me up and said "hey, there's this slam piece I want to do that I can only do while pregnant," and she showed up with this amazing puppet face festooned on her belly and did a puppet burlesque act. She has also teamed up recently with Puppet Master Jake to make some amazing shows (If you give a mouse a cookie he'll come back from the dead and eat your brains; and Keep off the Grass).

Michelle Finston has performed in several of our recent slams. She's a great interdisciplinary artist who stumbled into puppetry one day and found herself at home. She has trained hard since then and has taken some great risks as a performer, and she has been very successful--she represented us at the P of A Festival, and she won the Connecticut Guild's Who Wants to Be a Puppeteer? contest.
I have to give a shout out to our slam tech, Allie Herryman. Allie is my rock: without her, all would fail. The same goes for Brad Shur, our Artist in Residence. Both of them do so much to support the production side of our slam. On top of all that, they are amazing creative artists, and they make and share new work on a regular basis. 

I am also really proud of all the adult students who have taken classes at PST and then used their newfound skills to create slam pieces. They are very brave!
M: What is the future of puppet slams?
R: I see more collaboration between puppeteers and musicians. Puppet Playlist did this successfully, and many of our regular performers are musicians themselves or are tapped into the musician community. And puppet shows are infinitely better with live music.
M: What advice do you have for up and coming slam artists or performers who are just starting out?
R: 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!

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