Puppety SLAMateur hour brings the medium back


April 30, 2015
Athens Banner Herald
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Puppety SLAMateur hour brings the medium back
By Kai Riedl

Despite a technologically engulfed world dead-set on consuming the latest frontiers, around every turn is a resurgence in earlier classics.

Depeche Mode blasts over speakers around town, women’s fashion draws every era before 1990 and handlebar mustaches are back. This collective gesture toward earlier forms isn’t lost on one Athenian group — the puppeteers.

Today the Athens Puppetry Group (yes, there is one of those) hosts the Puppetry SLAMateur hour. This rare event offers a wide variety of short performances (less than 30 minutes each) covering a range of subject matters specifically directed at adult audiences. This is not for the kiddies, as themes harken back to earlier times when puppeteers had few boundaries.

But unlike their historical counterparts, the SLAM also offers the chance to experience new technological twists on the medium, such as digital projections and robotic puppets.

The main fuel behind the SLAM is local artist Emily Silva who took a moment to shed light on how puppetry fits into 2015 and what can be expected at Thursday’s performance.

Volume: I love the idea of this whole endeavor, but why puppets and why now?

Emily Silva: I think it’s a partially generational trend. There’s a lot of nostalgia for puppet television and movies we watched as kids and, for me at least, there’s also a backlash against the ever-slicker CGI and visual effects that movie budgets are now poured into. Add to that the relative scarcity of any kind of live theatre in most people’s day to day, and it makes sense that puppets are getting more attention. They are tactile, often handmade and imperfect, and they’re kind of right in your face. People get confused and a little nervous, and very excited when someone approaches them talking through a bug-eyed creature apparently made of old socks. That kind of interaction has a lot of possibilities not just for entertainment, but for education, and social activism.

V: So, our technologically based world has circled back to puppets. For many, I’m sure this is refreshing and I’m curious if there is a tech element to the performance.

ES: We do have some techno-magic planned for the show, specifically in the form of a interactive digital puppet projection named Demetrio created by Caity Johnson. What falls under the definition of puppetry is constantly changing. It will always include the traditional felt and foam standards, but robotic puppetry and interactive programming are just as entitled to their place in that definition. For kids like me who grew up on a steady diet of Dark Crystal and Jurassic park animatronics, there is no question that puppets, robots and computers can and should live in harmony.

V: The description of the performance eludes to adult themes in the SLAM. What are we looking at here, and what kind of themes are we in store for?

ES: One of the interesting things about working in puppetry is challenging the assumption that it is a entertainment medium intended only for kids. On the contrary, lewd humor, sexuality, horror, etc have always been a part of puppetry and continue to be some of it’s most fascinating subjects. We’ll be featuring some puppet-burlesque fusion, a raunchy witch, a new take of Shelly’s Frankenstein, and some sort of dramatic birthing process. Hence, the parental advisory.

V: When you say SLAM, does this imply that Thursday’s performance includes a competition of sorts?

ES: Not exactly, although in many cities where they have monthly puppetry slams, there will be a prize for the audience’s favorite. Having events that regularly would be a great goal for the group moving forward. In this case, though, we use slam just to specify the format of the show. That is to say that it’s made up of multiple short pieces by different artists rather than one longer cohesive narrative, which is what many people expect when they hear simply “Puppet Show.” Also it sounds way more badass.

V: This project has a relationship with Ideas for Creative Exploration at UGA. How did the project get involved with ICE?

ES: This project grew out an event I helped put together in the summer of 2014 and morphed into an identity design project for my senior thesis exhibit. Everyone in the ICE office was extremely enthusiastic when I approached them about the project, and encouraged me to apply for their IdeaLab mini grant, which funds interdisciplinary arts/research projects up to $500 to produce an event, publication or other creative undertaking. It’s been an excellent partnership so far, both in terms of having the funding to attempt larger scale ideas and having some logistical support in the nitty gritty of event planning.