In the past 18 years, the Squallis Puppeteers and their puppets have been to a lot of places — the moon, the bottom of the ocean, Forecastle.
But it was a trip to a puppetry festival in Minneapolis last year that inspired their latest show. Squallis traveled to the Hand Made Worlds Festival using funds from a capacity building grant awarded to them by the Community Foundation of Louisville. There, they were inspired by a “puppetry slam” produced by Open Eye Figure Theatre.
Now Squallis has decided to step back into the world of adult-oriented entertainment after a 10-year absence. On Saturday, March 14, the “Skitchy Puppet Variety Show” has its inaugural outing at The Bard’s Town.
Squallis artist and volunteer coordinator Zach Bramel sat down with Insider last week. He’s the driving force behind bringing the puppetry slam format home from Minneapolis. “This is my baby,” he says. “Or maybe I’m the midwife. I think ‘coordinator’ or ‘instigator’ would be a fair title for my role, too.”
Bramel discussed puppets, the recession, building a puppet-loving community and just how adult “adult” is.
The Minneapolis Experience
“Minneapolis is like a fairy land,” says Bramel. “Theater arts, specifically puppetry, are so alive up there.”
A quick Google search revealed a trove of Minneapolis-based puppet-centric companies, including the Ridiculous Puppet Company, the Puppet Forge, BareBones Productions, In the Heart of the Beast, and Open Eye Figure Theatre. Some feature Muppet-esque collections of characters aimed at kids, others focus on adult performances, and one company is strictly an outdoor performance troupe.
The puppet slam thrown by Open Eye was a chance for all the Minneapolian companies and festival attendees to come together and put their brand of puppetry on stage in five-minute increments.
“People were up for anything, trying all kinds of crazy silly ideas,” Bramel says.
The folks behind the Squallis Puppeteers want Louisville to be just as much a puppet town.
“We’re not there yet, but you gotta start somewhere,” Bramel says.
Collaborating with the “Con” Artists
While the lineup is set for Saturday’s slam, Squallis hopes this will be the first of many, and they want you to be in the next one. Bramel hopes the variety show works as an open invitation for people to collaborate.
“We want this to be an opportunity for anyone to try out puppetry and storytelling,” he says. “If somebody has an idea, we’ll help them with development and then offer them a venue to try it out.”
Since Squallis moved to their current home on Barret Avenue in late 2013, they’ve been actively searching for more artistic partners in the community — they want more puppet people. They’ve had some notable successes, like the rock musical “Beagle Weasel.” That show was built around a song cycle written by local band Lady Pyramid, who introduced Squallis to projection artists Spettra. Finally, the puppets for “Beagle Weasel” were made by another contributor, friend of the company Deva North.
All those artists came together and created a unique vision, growing the puppet-loving community in Louisville. Squallis refers to those who work with them on a single show or limited contract “con artists.”
People who appreciate puppets are plainly pleased by puns.
For Squallis, reaching out to new “con” artists comes after a time of pulling in and trimming down.
During the recession, like many nonprofit and arts organizations, Squallis saw its numbers shrinking and money drying up.
It was tough, but Bramel says, “we contracted and adapted.”
The budget is now almost back to its pre-recession range, and attendance for their offerings, especially their first Saturday puppet shows and workshops, has surpassed what it was in their old home on Eastern Parkway.
How adult is adult?
“I think the temptation is to assume that since this is for adults, this will be an extension of the puppet sex scene from ‘Team America,'” says Bramel about the upcoming show. “There will not be any puppet sex, as nobody wants to see that shit. But we’ll probably say ‘shit.’ That’s why we’ve called it an adult show.”
Squallis’ last adult show, “Trash,” was 10 years ago, “but there is a demand for more mature programming from Squallis,” he says. “We do primarily kids shows, but we have many supporters that don’t have kids and don’t always know what to do with us. We hope this series will meet that demand.”
Bramel is not wrong about that demand. Last time I hit up one of Squallis’ monthly Saturday shows, the audience was about half hipster, half families.
Of course the venue of choice also adds some adultness — in the form of adult beverages. The Bard’s Town, well familiar with performers who work blue, is a “rowdier venue and they serve drinks, both of which will be key,” says Bramel.
The “Skitchy Puppet Variety Show” begins at 8 p.m. on Saturday, March 14, with house band French Lounge opening. Tickets are $15 at the door. Have a drink, enjoy some puppetry for grownups, and, who knows, maybe you’ll be so inspired that you end up in the next slam.