From shadow puppetry to marionettes and everything in between, the Ballard Institute and Museum of Puppetry and the UConn puppet arts program held the 2020 Winter Puppet Slam at von der Mehden Recital Hall Friday night.
The emcees of the night were John Bell, the director of the Ballard, and Kat Folker, a recent graduate of the puppet arts program.
“We started doing the puppet slams… as a way to present all sorts of new work by puppet arts students and by puppeteers from around the northeast,” Bell said. “It’s a really great way to see short pieces that [performers] don’t have to spend months and months working on.”
In the lobby of von der Mehden, there were miniature installations by UConn Design & Tech students and an audience-of-one show called “Miniature Migration” by BodyWave, a Boston-based collective of performers and artists. All performances of the night were by students, alumni and puppeteers around New England.
The event hosted its second annual “Bimpy Awards,” a pseudo-award ceremony that parodies other award shows for each performance of the night. Bell said the awards are “like the Oscars, but with puppets.”
The first performance of the night was “There Are Too Many Kinds of Chips” by Felicia Cooper with its accompanying Bimpy award being “Best reflection on capitalism using potato chips.” Cooper’s performance was labeled a pseudo-autobiographical piece and was a story about when she was at a rest stop and felt overwhelmed by the amount of choices of potato chips. After humoring the audience with a subtle critiquing of capitalism, Cooper recited “For You O Democracy” by Walt Whitman.
The next performance, called “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Your Face,” was a tribute to the work of Jim Henson, the puppeteer whose work is largely credited to The Muppets and Sesame Street.
The following performance was a film with puppets, called “Aw, Nuts!” that followed the story of a squirrel being followed by a monster that ultimately becomes a friend.
“I liked the atmosphere of the performers. They were very high energy and fun to be around,” Gian Lombardo, a sixth-semester actuarial science major, said. “I was expecting [marionettes], but it was everything. It was a lot of artwork I wasn’t expecting.”
Stepping away from what is normally considered puppetry, the Bimpy award for “Best puppet performance that doesn’t include the use of puppets” was for “Preserving Mystery” by magician David Calamari. He used audience members for his card tricks and delivered a heartfelt message about preserving the element of surprise behind magic at the end of his performance.
“Ballet Recital” came after and used a geometric puppet of a ballerina dancing on stage. “Coming Home To You” followed this and the performance featured an original song by West. After, “Paranoia” was a performance about paranoia and anxiety featuring a big puppet that another person wore. The next performance was a comedy called “The Joust” that focused on two knights jousting while riding on snails. The performance ended in laughter before the knights ever collided.
Esme Roszel, an eighth-semester puppetry major, followed with “The Harvest,” a story following a farmer trying to pull crops out of the ground who had trouble pulling a very large carrot from the ground.
“The head and hands I made for a class project,” Roszel said. “So I sculpted those out of blue foam and papier-mache and it felt incomplete so I wanted to make a little piece out of it to perform at final exams.”
The penultimate performance of the night, “Mr. Lonely Finds Love,” featured rod puppetry and was by Elise Vanase, Will Smith and Rob Cutler. The audience laughed as the performance followed the story of the Grim Reaper finding love and accidentally killing the only woman he loves.
“I’m part of a puppeteer production … and we always try to come up with the most wack show,” Vanase, a sixth-semester puppetry major, said. “We view puppet slams as a way to just entertain purely through like, it can be any kind of humor you want, but we try to go for just the grotesque, simple humor. So, that was kind of our process in writing ‘Mr. Lonely Finds Love.’”
The last performance of the night was by BodyWave, titled “The Good Oak,” which used a moving scroll foreground for many shadow puppets to tell the story of a tree over the course of a century.
Every semester, the puppet slam brings in an audience of students and members of the surrounding community and leaves audience members laughing and feeling much more than they anticipated through the use of puppetry.
“I like the laughs, it’s fun to make people giggle,” Vanase said. “That’s really what we’re here for because puppets are just so wacky and I think that they’re just a way to make people happy.”
Brandon Barzola is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.