Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Serving up New Brew: Alissa Hunnicutt

When she's not organizing New Brew, Alissa Hunnicutt performs at puppet slams in the tri-state area. Her original show,  The Kid Inside”, has been seen at cabaret venues, Dixon Place , and at the Orlando Puppet Festival.  Alissa is the resident puppeteer at Mount Sinai Kravis Children’s Hospital.  She has been a featured participant at the O’Neill National Puppetry Conference and has performed at Great Small Works’ InternationalToy Theater Festival.  Her short film, Can’t Buy My Love”, was included in the Puppets on Film Festival at BAM.  Alissa’s puppet theater credits include Die Hard the Puppet Musical, David Michael Friend’s EGO, Cosmic Bicycle Theater’s “Edward Lear’s Absurd-Ditties”, and the UNIMA Award-winning Kevin Augustine’s “BRIDE”.

Marsian: So you are hosting, New Brew this month? I know you've performed at a lot of slams, but is this your first time hosting one?

Alissa Hunnicutt: I am hosting an event on March 16th at Barbes in Park Slope, called New Brew: It's Better with Puppets!  This is actually the third slam I've put together.  The first was in 2008 called A Puppet Music Thing as part of the New York Musical TheatreFestival (I curated, performed and self produced).  That was a great opportunity to expose the musical theater community to a wide variety of styles of puppetry.  And in December 2009, I co-curated the first New Brew evening with puppets.

M: Sounds intoxicating and musical. What exactly is New Brew?
AH: New Brew is a subgroup of a company I sing with, Opera on Tap. New Brew is a Contemporary Collective of Performers/Performance Curators showcasing the work of 20th and 21st century composers. We each take a turn at curating an evening of arias and art songs by living composers. My contribution as a curator has been to bring a puppetry element to that material. It's really fun music to do because very often the composer is in the room for the show.

M: So how do you incorporate puppets into these works by living composers?
AH: Here's how the New Brew show works - I reached out to the NY puppetry community (through my newsletter, guild meetings, a puppetry listserve, and individual requests) to ask who would like to participate in a grab-bag puppet slam of sorts. To create a short puppetry piece for an adult audience based on a contemporary classical art song NOT of their choosing.  The very brave puppeteers who answered that call have had less than a month to come up with some visual representation of songs from the repertoire of music performed at previous New Brew shows. My co-curator, Delea Shand, coordinated the line-up of songs and I assigned them to the puppeteers.

M: Sounds like half the show is what happens behind the scenes.
AH: It's an interesting process, because it's more like a puppet challenge since the puppeteer isn't waiting to be struck by some kind of inspiration to begin the process.  They have to come up with a visual concept with no choice in the material. The show is also special because all of the music for the evening is performed live.
M: What was your first puppet slam like?
AH: My first puppet slam was Puppet Art Attacks as part of the Voice4Vision Festival in 2007.  I had developed my first short piece that same year during my first summer attending the O'Neill National Puppetry Conference.  It's a table-top, moving-mouth puppet piece called Raggedy Ann.  I have a semi-costume element in that piece as the puppet represents me, so I was wearing a white pinafore and my hair in pigtails.  That was the first time performing at a puppetry event in NYC, so I was really nervous.  And the piece is tricky because I think it's really sad and speaks to a lot of personal truth about heartache and struggles I've been through, but often an audience thinks it's funny.  It's not typical slam material since it's serious, but I was glad to get a chance to perform it again.

M: I’ve seen Raggedy Ann, and it’s a mix of emotions, just like life. Now you’re also really good at mixing up the world of cabaret singing and puppets.
AH: Yeah, that's kind of my thing. I came to puppetry with a background in music. I've been singing my whole life, but I never really found my own artistic voice until I took my singing and combined that with puppetry.  In all my years of performing, I never had the desire to create my own work.  But I have been prolific with my desire to create new puppet shows.  Puppetry gave me that voice. And puppet slams gave me the stage.

M: You’ve performed at a LOT of puppet slams, some further away than the tri-state area.
AH: I hadn't added it up before, but since 2007, I've performed in around 35 puppet slams.  In NYC we're really fortunate because there are a lot of slams, cabarets, variety shows, soirees, etc., where there are performance opportunities - some several times a year, some annual, some festivals, and some one-time special events.  In addition to local performances, I've traveled to CT, NJ, MD, MA, GA, FL, and I've had a film shown in IL.

M: Wow, that’s a lot of traveling, and what would you say was the freakiest, edgiest or weirdest show you’ve seen in your travels?
AH: The "freakiest, edgiest, or weirdest show” would probably have been something performed at slam that isn't around anymore produced by Kate Brehm called Slutty Puppets.  The theme was exactly that.  Pieces that were edgy.  Lindsay Abromaitis-Smith is an amazingly talented puppeteer who also has a wonderfully sick imagination and I love her work.  "Funniest" is impossible to choose. I am a very lucky girl to be surrounded by really funny friends, and a late night slam really lends itself to that kind of material.  Liz Hara is hilarious and her pieces are clever and well-written.  Spencer Lott's last bamboo piece cracks me up!

M: On the flip side, any slams that were real disasters?
AH: 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'."

M: If you were to say you are part of a slam circuit? What would that encompass? Have you ever been on a slam tour?
AH: The closest thing I've been to a slam tour  is performing in Honey Goodenough's Puppet Pandemic in 2010-2011. She got a few of us to do several slams in the Northeast by loading into a couple cars and finding local housing to keep the costs as low as possible.  Many of us performed in each other's pieces, so if you got the right combination of performers you could really maximize the number of pieces available to showcase.  It was a lot of fun.

M: Like a lot of performers I know, it seems like you have used puppet slams to help in developing full-length works.
AH: When I got back from the O'Neill with Raggedy Ann, I knew I wanted to find more opportunities to perform that piece, but I didn't want to do a full show that developed that character further specifically.  I'd been toying with the idea of doing my own cabaret show of songs for a long time, and this seemed like a great catalyst for that.  So I said to my musical director, Steven Katz, "ok, let's do a show."  And he and I began choosing songs I was drawn to sing or inspired with a puppet idea.  Because my work has its inspiration come from a song, by the very nature of that the pieces are short form.  And because I like to explore emotions in my performances, putting my heart and vulnerability on the stage, the work doesn't lend itself to a children's audience.  Steven came up with the title song for the cabaret show "The Kid Inside" to pull all of it together.  The universal inner child we all have, especially as puppeteers.

M: And from what I’ve gathered, you set out on a longer process to creating a fully developed show from short pieces that you debuted at slams? 
AH: So over the next three years I kept the big picture in mind as I chose songs to develop as puppetry pieces.

I couldn't have gotten the pieces ready without using puppet slams as my development sandbox. 

Knowing a slam was coming up and what goal I had set for it gave me deadlines and milestones to reach for each piece.  I worked with my collaborators to explore new styles of puppetry using these short form pieces to also grow technically as a puppeteer.  At the same time working with my musical director to keep the pieces on theme for what would eventually be our larger show where we knit the songs together into an evening where the emotional journey of growing up, loving, living and laughing was the through line.  I'm really proud of the way it all came together.

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

M: Why are Puppet Slams important to you?
AH: Puppet slams are a great way to try out new material for the performer.  Also a way for someone new to puppetry to put their toe in the water since doing a short form piece is less overwhelming (or can be).  I think it's also really important to use these short pieces, and evenings of short pieces, to showcase forms of puppet theater the general theater-going audience is unfamiliar with.  That's why I get most excited when the show collaborates with a non-puppet audience.   

I love performing for my peers, but I think it's got to be our mission to educate and expand the definition of "puppet" to the general audience whose whole exposure to puppetry has come from their television.   

Puppet theater is powerful and beautiful and moving and exciting and funny and different from other forms of entertainment in a really special way.  I care a great deal about it.

M: What inspires you to create a puppet slam piece?
AH: For me it almost always starts with a song.  Something that when I hear the song I "see" something, usually a moment, a single image that becomes the jumping off point visually.

M: Who are some other artists on the puppet slam circuit who you are inspired by? 

AH: I love what Jon Levin brings to his work. He really reinvents a story when he's working with a song.  As one of the forces behind Puppet Playlist, he sets a wonderful example of how to develop something within their structure. Hugo Gets Flushed, or Plenty of Fish in theSea is a piece he does using his hands painted like a fish. The movement and expression he gives that puppet is priceless.

Honey Goodenough's sweet marionette pieces Handle with Care and Sweet Dreams) are beautifully thought out and touching. I am enjoying watching her develop her individual pieces with an eye for a larger theme and am looking forward to seeing her put them together into a longer program someday.

WonderSpark Puppets (Z Briggs & Chad Williams) are such great writers and storytellers.  They are funny and smart. Jack and the Beanstalk, Part 2 is a great example of that.  They are concentrating more on their puppet company's business these days and they are sorely missed from the slam line-ups.

M: What pieces do you have in circulation to perform in puppet slams?

AH: Red Dress is a solo marionette piece, a moment of a woman's reflection on expectations from her youth that didn't come true. The marionette form, costume, and my costumes were designed/built by Sarah Lafferty. The piece was developed at the O'Neill with Phillip Huber.

Marry Me is a toy theater piece based on a Dolly Parton bluegrass song. It's cute and funny, about how easy it is to get carried away with the excitement of the potential of a first date and first kiss.  The show was designed/built by Michael Schupbach of the The Puppet Kitchen, sung to a track recorded by The Birdhive Boys, and most often with the human acting partnership of Chad Williams.  Performed originally at the Great Small Works' International Toy Theater Festival.

Almost Everything I Need is a solo miniature theater piece that's fairly new. Using a puppet built by David Fino.  It's the story of a woman in her new apartment, alone, after a relationship ended. Feeling out of place.  Taking stock of the situation.  Created for the first New Brew puppet slam and will be reprised this Friday.

Uninvited is a table top puppet designed/built by David Michael Friend based on a song by Groovelily from their musical Sleeping Beauty Wakes sung by the Ugly Fairy who wasn't invited to the ball...and she's pissed.  The other puppeteers on that team are Honey Goodenough and Z Briggs. Uninvited debuted at Puppet Playlist's Seven Deadly Sins show.

M: Where can people contact you to perform?

They can find contact info on my site, to sign up for my newsletter to find out when and where I'm performing next!  But at the moment I'm more interested in people contacting me to collaborate on new slam pieces that then can start hitting the stage.  If you're a builder and would like a gig creating a new piece with me, let me know.

M: Where would you like to see Puppet Slams and the Puppet Slam Network in the future?
AH: I really appreciate what the Puppet Slam Network does with financial granting for the people who produce slams on a regular basis.  I found out the hard way with my first producing experience how much money it costs to do a full slam in a theater space out of pocket when you pay your puppeteers, lighting designer, sound designer, publicity, programs, host, etc.  If we want people to produce evenings of high quality theater, the financial help that the network is doing is so important.

I love the communication that has opened up between slams cultivated by the Slam Network. It's a great resource for a new performer to find performance opportunities if they aren't tapped into those in their area.  I hope the network continues to grow its support of the individual performer along with the producers.  Offering ways to showcase their work (maybe individual pages with a simple CMS performers can use to generate a profile), and perhaps offering financial support for developing new short form puppetry is an area that could be considered.

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

M: Anything else we should know?
AH: I have some new ideas for pieces I'd like to develop over the next year and add into The Kid Inside in order to put the show back on its feet in 2013 with some fresh material for returning audience.  So you will see a lot of me as those new pieces come to life!

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