Pulling (and slamming) the strings

Space Trip! Puppet Slam showcases the best of adult-oriented puppetry

Left to right: Tubey (Hailley Rhoda), Captain Bunk (Curtis L. Wiebe) and Mr. Tambourine Man (Brian Longfield) are three of the characters featured in the upcoming Winnipeg Puppet Slam.

Supplied photo

All work and no play can turn the best a bit dull. A local puppet collective hopes to give grownups the gift of fun with the help of marionette controllers and a little imagination.

Hosted at the Gas Station Arts Centre on Nov. 18, the Space Trip! Puppet Slam will take audiences through a wacky, science-fiction-tinged variety show, performed entirely by puppets and their masters. The short-form show consists of live acts from local performers and video acts from international puppeteers.

“It’s often a cabaret or variety-show style, where you have a host or somebody emceeing, and then you’ll have anybody who has a performance that they want to show, usually around five minutes long,” Curtis L. Wiebe, curator and co-founder of the Winnipeg Puppet Collective (WPC), says.

This year’s Space Trip! Puppet Slam follows the adventures of Captain Bunk, an intrepid spaceman and recurring character in WPC productions. Bunk is portrayed by Wiebe, and his plight as he runs an intergalactic cruise ship serves as narrative cohesion for the diverse lineup of content.

“Traditionally, it’s been all live acts. But since the pandemic, a lot of puppet slams have also included video content. In 2020, we put out a call for acts on the Puppet Slam Network and beyond, and we got acts from all over submitting videos. We’re trying to get back into more live content,” Wiebe says.

The WPC was established in 2010 when a few like-minded puppet enthusiasts sought to get puppet royal Heather Henson, daughter of Jim Henson and co-founder of the Puppet Slam Network, to perform in Winnipeg.

“There were three of us puppet enthusiasts who knew that Henson was coming and came to meet her,” Wiebe says. “We met her, and she said, ‘If you get this organized and set up, I will come to Winnipeg and perform in your first puppet slam.’ And so, we did.”

Henson attended and performed in the very first WPC slam at the Park Theatre.

“Henson said that everywhere she went, she would meet people that had puppets in their basement. There was nowhere for them to perform,” Brian Longfield, the WPC’s stage manager and long-time participant, says.

“That’s what the Puppet Slam Network is kind of about: giving a place for people to try puppetry with their stuff they’ve never put forward into the world.”

In the interest of inclusivity and general participation, the WPC doesn’t have any stringent criteria for puppet-slam submissions beyond an air of sensitivity and respectfulness.

“The mandate of the puppet slam is that it’s giving an opportunity for adults to play and just express themselves. The quality range is really all over the place, and that’s by design,” Wiebe says.

Wiebe and Longfield agree there’s an ineffable, alluring quality to the type of performance that they’d like to share with the world.

“One of my favourite things about puppet slams is it’s easy to get away from the traditional structure of theatre,” Longfield says.

“There’s an aspect of play that’s a chance to get out of your own head. It’s not you that the audience is paying attention to. It’s the object,” Wiebe says. “There’s a certain kind of magic, a suspension of disbelief that everyone buys into. It’s really just giving an inanimate object a soul.”

The Space Trip! Puppet Slam plays at the Gas Station Arts Centre (445 River Ave., Unit 2) on Nov. 18 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are available at the door for a pay-what-you-can suggested price of $15.

Published in Volume 78, Number 08 of The Uniter (November 2, 2023)

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