IN 2006, Jollyship the Whiz-Bang was the first-ever band to play at the Someday Lounge. The group performed an episode from their "pirate puppet rock opera" Sleepless Fishes as part of PICA's TBA Festival, hitting that elusive sweet spot of high and low art, and inaugurating the Someday as a vital part of the city's performance community.
One of the performers in the New York-based pirate/puppet band was Katie McClenahan, an NYU student who stumbled into puppetry by way of an interest in musical and experimental theater. In a circle that took nearly four years to close, McClenahan is now living in Portland and hosting her own puppeteering events at the Someday, under the auspices of her new company Beady Little Eyes.
McClenahan moved to town in March, packing a background in theater, puppetry, and gallery management. Upon arriving, she started Beady Little Eyes out of what she describes as "unemployed panic," envisioning a forum for grownup events at the intersection of puppetry and visual art.
The panic that inspired the company's foundation presumably subsided when McClenahan landed a job as a touring puppeteer for Tears of Joy Theatre, the venerable local puppetry organization that's been placating the region's kids (this writer included) for 35 years with renditions of fairy tales and Native American myths. But Beady Little Eyes lives on—since May, McClenahan has invited local puppeteers to perform in rotating puppet-based variety shows, dubbed "adult puppet slams."
Now, it should be clarified that this does not mean the puppets are fucking each other. Necessarily.
"Puppetry is an art form that has been [defined by] children's education," McClenahan explains. "'Adult' doesn't mean raunchy or dirty. It's not triple-X puppetry. It's puppetry for an adult audience."
A recent food-themed slam featured a range of themes and characters—acts included a ravenous stove, the bar-top saga of a tequila worm, and a live band-accompanied rendition of "Froggy Went a-Courtin'," all hosted by McClenahan and a life-sized, extraordinarily foul-mouthed Mr. Toad (a character that, in one of the evening's highlights, contrived to retch out the puppeteer inside).
While individual acts were hit and miss, the show overall was fast paced and entertaining—and, to a puppet noob, surprisingly diverse. Among the evening's seven-odd acts were costumed humans and animate appliances—an anthropomorphic free-for-all not limited to the typical Jim Henson and critter-on-a-string approaches. (At one point, I whispered to a friend, "Well, I guess I don't know what a puppet is.")
"I don't spend too much time deliberating over 'what is a puppet?'" McClenahan says when I ask her just that. It's as simple as "telling a story with objects"—something, she emphasizes, anyone can do. "I don't want the slam to be exclusive to puppeteers," McClenahan says. "It's for anyone who wants to tell a story in eight minutes or less."
But Portland's puppeteering community does seem to be embracing an opportunity to tell stories outside the kid-friendly realm. Other participants have included (or will include) Bruce Orr of the generally kid-themed Mudeye Puppet Company; the Red Yarn Puppet Band; and fellow Tears of Joy members. At the next slam, two puppeteers from the locally based studio Michael Curry Design (which produced the puppets for Julie Taymor's The Lion King, among other things) will adapt The Giving Tree. "People are excited in general," McClenahan says of the slam's reception in the puppet scene. "It's good to have deadlines."
The December event has the theme of "money," and will be hosted by a "sassy red puppy dog named Randy"—sounds adorable, but if Mr. Toad's performance at the last slam was any indication, you can bet it'll be more Triumph than Clifford.