Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Nancy Smith on the Yanky Panky Puppet Slam #Phoenix

Nancy Smith is the curator of Adult Puppet Slam in Phoenix and director of the Great Arizona Puppet Theater where she is a writer and performer.

Prakash Bhatt performs at Adult Puppet Slam #Phoenix, 2011, Photo: Nancy Smith

Marsian: So you are hosting the Yankee Panky Puppet Slam in July? 

Nancy Smith: Yes, we are. It will be July 6 and 7 (1st Friday and Saturday of July). That's about all we know right now. It will probably have an Independence Day kind of theme.

M: You change the name of the Adult Puppet Slam based on a theme, correct? What are some of the more memorable slam names?
NS: We change our name generally based on the season or current events.  This past December it was The Naughty List Puppet Slam. We had a pirate themed slam called The Pillage and Plunder Pirate Puppet Slam.  In the summer we've used, Steamy Sticky, Hot and Sweaty, and Sweaty Butt Puppet Slam. When the world didn't end last year, we had the Left Behind Puppet Slam. Seeing as this is Arizona, we've also had a Are Your Papers In Order Puppet Slam

M: What inspired you to start hosting puppet slams?
NS: We had ideas for puppet pieces for adults. We stole the name Slam from the poets, although our Slams are not structured like a Poetry Slam. We just liked the name. Coincidentally, it was about the same time that the people in Brookline came up with the same name and general concept.

M: Have you performed at other slams?
NS: Karen Larson and I organized the first Puppet Slam at a National PofA Festival at the first St. Paul festival and I performed at it as well. I also performed at the first Atlanta Festival slam.

Editor Note: There have been a number of claims to the very first puppet slam. We have been talking with all of parties and puppet historian John Bell. It appears that Great Small Works Spaghetti Dinners have been happening since 1985, The Puppet Showplace Puppet Slam since 1995, and Blood From a Turnip since 1996  This is a developing story and we hope to have more of an answer in an upcoming blog post.

M: How does what you do at the puppet slam tie into the other kinds of performance you do at the theater?
NS: Some of the audience comes from the regular shows at the theater. We often use puppets in the slam that we have for our other shows, and occasionally will do an adult take-off of one of our shows.

M: How did you get the Great Arizona Puppet Theater?
NS: We were renting an old fire station that we had fixed up to be a theater. Then the landlord wanted it back so we started looking for a place we could buy. We wanted a central location, high ceilings so we could do our large rod puppet shows, adequate parking and we thought it'd be great to have a historic building near a park. Driving around, we saw just that - but it was owned by the highway department and they were renting it to the historic society for storage for only $350 a year. I said we'd like that deal and we'd fix it up and open it to the public. They said it was leased until 2020 unless someone wanted to buy it so I swallowed hard and said we wanted to buy it. They said put it in writing, which I did, and 4 years later they declared it excess property. In the meantime, we continued to perform year-round at various rented spaces.

M: Full disclosure: I've stayed there when I performed at the slam in 2009. Its the only time I have slept overnight in a church and its quite a lovely space.
NS: Once they had the appraisal they gave us about 5 months to put together a deal. The building had to be sold to a public entity (such as a city) at the appraised value or it would go up for public auction. The Parks Department wanted us there as an anchor to the park, as did the Preservation Commission, since they knew we were serious about renovation. So Phoenix Historic Preservation bought it at the appraised value and immediately resold it to us. We had to get permission from City Council to do the deal. Then it took us 3 years of renovation to get the building open.

M: Tell us about a fabulous failure (at a slam) and what you've learned from it. 
NS: We have regular performers at our slams and I got a call from a member of a group who had not performed for some time that they had a new piece and would we be interested. I said yes, and agreed to pay travel expenses for a new piece. When they showed up, NONE of the original performers were with the group. They were TERRIBLE. The piece was long, obviously unrehearsed and pretty much pornographic and tasteless. The audience left in droves and a couple of people posted very negative reviews on-line. Aaaaagh!  What did I learn? Ask who will be performing and what they're doing if I haven't seen them in awhile.

M: Why do you think Puppet Slams are relevant in today's world?
NS: There is so much high tech available today that the very low tech world of live puppetry is refreshingly spontaneous and real.

M: What inspires you to create a puppet slam piece?
NS: Sometimes current events inspire. Sometimes I realize there's a back story for a puppet in a children's show that could be explored.
M: What pieces do you have in circulation to perform in puppet slams?
NS: A lot of my pieces have a short shelf life since I do a lot of political pieces and many of these are about Arizona - we have ample material here.
M: Someone really *has* to make a puppet of Jan Brewer.
NS: The pieces that would translate to other locales or times are monologues by characters, such as Fairytale Mother in which Rapunzel's mother reflects on losing her child and how fairy tale mothers are overlooked. Turtle Talk is about an angst ridden turtle who talks about sexual identity and loneliness.

M: Where can people contact you to perform? 
NS: 602-262-2050 or

M:  What are you looking forward to?
NS: We greatly appreciate the funding and use it to bring in performers from afar. We'd like to have more performers coming in. The weather's great here in the winter and unforgettable in the summer!

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

 "Be good, have a reasonable set-up, and be easy to get along with."

M: Anything else we should know?
NS: We have a guest room in the theater and a limited budget for travel expenses. We especially like to book guest artists who can perform a children's show and an adult piece for our slams. We hold our slams most first Fridays and Saturdays

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