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History of the Puppet Slam Network

By Marsian De Lellis 

When was the very first puppet slam? Surely there must have been Paleolithic Slams or something like them with cave people projecting shadows onto their walls by torchlight to communicate where all the food was.

When did the modern day “puppet slam” *actually* evolve from the smelly sounding potpourris of PofA festivals past, or the glitzy Vegas cabarets of short works by one artist? Were they an extension of poetry slams?

There was one person to turn to, so we conferred with John Bell, puppet historian, and founding member of Great Small Works.



UConn Puppet Slam #Storrs - John Bell, 2010, Photo: Bart. P. Roccoberton, Jr.

John believes that Puppet Slams can be traced back to The Ninth Street Theater’s Spaghetti Dinners which started in February, 1978 predating the founding of Great Small Works in 1995, (which shared many of the same members). They never called their Spaghetti Dinners "puppet slams" - a term, which, seems to have been invented later. 

John remembers, “Our spaghetti dinners pretty much always featured puppet shows in an evening of short performances that also included eating spaghetti (an influence, I believe, from the bread sharing in our common Bread and Puppet background).”

The 9th Street Theatre’s Spaghetti Dinners started out as block celebrations located in a storefront on East 9th Street between 1st and 2nd Avenues, that then drew in audiences from farther afield. “The Nuyorican Cafe, a few blocks away, started doing poetry slams in 1989 (according to their website) - that's when I first became aware of something called a slam…Ninth Street Theater shifted the spaghetti dinners to P.S. 122 around 1985, with the support of the Learning Alliance and P.S. 122 director Mark Russell.…We were invited by the Henson Foundation to curate the late-night puppet cabarets at P.S. 122 for the 1992 and 1994 Jim Henson International Puppetry Festivals… Great Small Works took over presenting Spaghetti Dinners after forming in 1995, and we continue to present these events at Judson Church, One Arm Red, and other spaces in New York City." - John Bell

Kristen McLean, then artistic director of the Puppet Showplace in Brookline, MA, recalls starting “PuppetSLAM” in late 1995 (which later evolved into the Puppet Showplace Slam that is still happening today). Nancy Smith of the Great Arizona Puppet Theatre, which hosts an Adult Puppet Slam (a slam that changes its name based on theme) in Phoenix, remembers hosting her first puppet slam with Karen Larsen at the National PofA Festival at the first St. Paul festival. 

According to Nancy, “The argument could be made that Puppet Slams, if you're defining it as short form puppetry for adults, grew out of the late night tradition of Potpourris at Puppeteer of America Festivals.” 

“We came up with the name about the same time, but independently, of the Slams at Brookline. At that time, Great Arizona Puppet Theater was renting space from Playwrights Workshop Theater in an old church complex in central Phoenix. I was inspired by the poets who were performing across the hall from us with Poetry Slams. Having puppets always on my mind, I said something like, 'We should have Puppet Slams', and people responded to the name. I'm horrible of keeping track of times but I think our first evening of short form puppetry occurred at our present theater in the evening of a National Day of Puppetry. (1999?) I think we called it something like, "Sex, Drugs and Puppets." It was well attended but we were co-producing the whole National Day of Puppetry with the Phoenix Guild of Puppetry and some of them were horrified by the name and some even that puppetry would be adult entertainment”

It was soon after that that Vanessa Gilbert and Jeremy Woodward started Blood From A Turnip in February 1997. In 2002, when Marsian DeLellis moved to Providence, having recently graduated from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, studying performance art and puppetry. Blood from a Turnip seemed to Marsian like it would be a promising outlet to develop new work – At the time, he had only performed a handful of short puppet shows, so he contacted the host, Vanessa Gilbert to see if he could perform. After a couple times performing there, Marsian offered to help, and ended up curating and hosting 2 seasons with Vanessa until 2006 when he moved to Los Angeles to further study at Puppetry at CalArts. 



Blood from a Turnip #Providnece - Marsian & Vanessa Gilbert, 2004,  Photo: Tony Yang

Marsian and Vanessa would invite artists to perform, have tech in the early evening, cook a meal for them during one of the main stage shows at Perishable and then go on to host Blood from a Turnip from ten until about midnight. They would pay artists a cut of the door (which did not amount to very much monetarily) and would frequently host out of town performers in their living rooms. It was around that time, in 2005 that Marsian met Heather Henson, who had previously lived in Providence when she attended RISD. She had been an early supporter of Blood from a Turnip soon after it started in 1997.

Marsian met Heather again at the National Puppetry Conference at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre Center (a breeding ground for puppet slam acts - if anyone is interested in refining their work, please check out the National Puppetry Conference) and then worked together during a puppet residency with Janie Geiser at the Atlantic Center for the Arts in Florida. Heather had been quietly supporting a handful of Puppet Slams throughout the country, mostly concentrated in the Northeast with modest slam grants. 

“They were giving people opportunities… and they were selling out! They were popular. They were hitting a new audience.” - Heather

Henson asked Marsian to design a website to help link up the puppet slams with puppet artists and the people who love them, and in 2009 renamed it the Puppet Slam Network. The Puppet Slam Network now follows over 70 Puppet Slams in North America (including the US, Canada and Puerto Rico), Europe, and Austalia. The National Puppetry Slam, hosted by Beau Brown, alternates years at the Puppeteers of America National Puppetry Festival (every odd year) and Dragon Con (every even year). 

And so started the contemporary Puppet Slam Network...

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