Out of the Shadows

Underground puppeteers take center stage at a bawdy annual slam in Portland.

By Victoria Scanlan Stefanakos

On a recent Sunday afternoon, low sunlight beamed through the stained-glass windows at Mayo Street Arts, housed in a former Danish Lutheran church in Portland’s East Bayside. Just past the coatroom-turned-bar, a loose semi-circle of chairs was set out for an eclectic congregation: stop-motion animators, filmmakers, jugglers, theater directors, and others, brought together by their common belief in the power of puppetry. They represent some of the best up-and-coming and established puppet acts in the state (and nation), here for Mayo Street’s every-so-often Puppeteer’s Happy Hour.

Out of the Shadows

Move over, Kermit: Shadow puppets like these silhouetted sorts, from Ian Bannon of Freeport’s Figures of Speech Theatre, take center stage at this year’s King Friday’s Dungeon puppet slam, hosted by Mayo Street Arts.

“I’ve been doing this stuff since I was a kid,” said marionette performer Libby Marcus, a Maine Arts Commission resident artist. “Puppetry is very primal, based on the idea that you can take something inanimate and bring it to life. I think the magic is that we — the puppeteer and the audience — are complicit in agreeing to the ruse. It’s like a secular communion.”

Blainor McGough founded Mayo Street Arts in 2010 with a group of maverick artists looking for art and performance space. The old Nordic church has since become a hub for more arcane arts, international music in particular, but also puppetry — and on November 12, it hosts its annual King Friday’s Dungeon puppet slam.

Why puppets? The uninitiated might think of Sesame Street or The Muppet Show — imaginative and hilarious, for sure, but childish. On the contrary, says McGough, puppetry also has the ability to captivate adult audiences. “It’s seen as really simple and basic,” she says, “[but] it can have a subversive nature and be a powerful tool for storytelling.” The aim of the Puppeteer’s Happy Hour is to let performers test more adventurous works in front of a friendly audience — and the more successful of the bunch will play before a jam-packed hall at the upcoming slam.

Puppet slams came to Maine five years ago, when Heather Henson, daughter of Muppets creator Jim Henson, swung through Portland to drum up support for a national puppet-slam network. The idea was to give puppeteers venues to try out their ideas and push the boundaries of the form. Such slams have since sprung up around the country: Portland, Oregon, has one called Beady Little Eyes; Asheville, North Carolina, hosts Wham, Bam! Puppet Slam.

McGough knew right away she wanted to get Mayo Street involved, although Marcus gets credit for naming the event. Imagining the puppet potentate of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood ripped from his lofty parapet and confined to a dank, dark castle hold, she thought “King Friday’s Dungeon” captured the slam’s irreverent, underground ethos. As the evening’s billing decrees, “Pieces shall be edgy, bawdy, humorous, elegant, or bizarre.”

Out of the Shadows

Bannon’s slam entry this year derives from a jail stint and a game of RISK.

This year, Mayo Street’s placing special emphasis on shadow puppetry, and so far, seven troupes are scheduled to appear, many telling real-life stories. Dylan Rohman, a local visual artist and puppeteer-for-hire, will portray a murky tale of an alien abduction, using a staticky 1950s audio interview with a professed abductee. While the interview runs, Rohman melds song and a style of shadow puppetry with a scrolling fabric background known as a cranky.

McGough, along with three other artists, will use lighting and sound effects to tell the true story of a Marine pilot who ejected from his airplane during a thunderstorm in 1959 and somehow survived after his parachute sucked him into the vortex of the storm — tugging him through the thundercloud for 45 minutes.

Ian Bannon, education director at Freeport’s Figures of Speech Theatre, is basing his show on a stint he did in jail — and the game of RISK he played with his cellmates. With full-body puppets (i.e., they don’t cut off at the torso) and props, he says, “we’ll be leading troops into battle, entering the game of war. . . . I just love shadow puppetry’s ability to meld different visual worlds in a very seamless, trippy way.”

King Friday’s Dungeon — its quirky, formerly Scandinavian-ecclesiastical home shoehorned into a sloping Bayside block — isn’t intended as a polished, finished product. “These are our works in progress,” McGough says. “That’s why it’s a ‘slam.’ It is, in a way, a smorgasbord.”


Tickets to the annual King Friday’s Dungeon puppet slam tend to sell out, so buy early. November 12, 7:30 p.m. Mayo Street Arts, 10 Mayo St., Portland; 207-879-4629

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Photographs courtesy of Figures of Speech Theatre.