Continuing with their virtual events, the Ballard Institute and Museum of Puppetry hosted the 2021 Spring Puppet Slam over Facebook live on March 26.
The event was hosted by Dr. John Bell, the director of the Ballard Institute, and Kat Folker. Following Puppet Slam tradition, Bell and Folker announced the Bimpy Awards in which every Puppet Slam performer is a winner. The “category” and winner is announced before the performance and their performance video is played.
“Whereas in previous years we made cardboard Bimpy statues to give to each performer (as you know, everyone performing in the Bimpy Awards show receives a trophy), this year we were only able to insert an image of the category in which each performer won their prize,” Bell said.
Because of the virtual format, this year the Ballard Institute was able to have 16 performances that included puppetry students at UConn and puppeteers from across the country and around the world. The performances featured a vast array of themes, ranging from comedy, to drama, to sci-fi and more, all of which utilized different kinds of puppetry for their performances.
“It was easier to include work from many far-away places because so many puppeteers have had months to develop their use of video as a means of documenting their work,” Bell said. “That has been a very exciting and positive aspect of the otherwise limiting aspects of the [COVID-19] situation.”
“Butcher Hands Up!” by Jaerin Son, a puppeteer from Korea, retold some of Shakespeare’s famously bloody and gory tragedy, “Titus Andronicus.” However, Son’s performance literally imagined Shakespeare as a butcher who chops up his many characters like animals. Its humorous ending had puppet Shakespeare realize that he had cut his own hand off in the process. Some other performances were more experimental, like UConn Puppet Arts MFA graduate Felicia Cooper’s, “Time Trades,” which played with the concept of light and shadow for her performance right from the comfort of her apartment. Genna Beth Davidson, a UConn Puppet Arts MFA student, had a performance titled “My Parsnips!” which utilized a marionette created from parsnips as she sang Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive.”
“A great thing about this shift to online performance is that pretty much anyone with a digital device can create such a performance, at whatever level of technical expertise they might have,” Bell said. “Some puppeteers are able to use more sophisticated cameras, sound, editing and production software, but it’s also possible to do fascinating work with more minimal setups, which is pretty much where we are.”
One performance that stood out and garnered a lot of comments from the audience was third year Puppet Arts MFA student Rob Cutler’s “Last Puppet Tonight.” The performance was a parody of comedian John Oliver’s “Last Week Tonight.” With a puppet version of John Oliver, Cutler parodied the comedian’s show and, splicing together several clips of John Oliver saying how much he likes puppets, had his puppet John Oliver call upon “flesh John” to consider donating to the few puppetry degree programs in the country. The only schools that offer puppetry degrees are West Virginia University and UConn.
Since all the performances were recorded and edited into a video, it’s clear that puppeteers have had to adapt to the limitations of the pandemic to continue producing content.
“I had to teach myself the fundamentals of the Adobe Creative Suite. I had almost no video editing experience prior to the [COVID-19] shutdown,” Cutler said. “I don’t think that necessarily would have prevented me from ‘continuing’ to work on puppetry altogether, but I wouldn’t have been as productive in terms of content creation.”
In the fall, the Ballard Institute hosted its annual Fall Puppet Slam virtually, and has continued to host virtual puppet workshops and events for the surrounding community. If you missed out on the Spring Puppet Slam and wished you could have seen it, don’t worry. The recording of the 2021 Spring Puppet Slam will be available to watch on the Ballard Institute’s Facebook page through April 30, 2021.