Masters of Puppets

If you take a walk through the doors of Highland Community Campus and walk up the dark oak squared spiral staircase, you’ll very soon be confronted with the glaring beady eyes of Bigfoot. Abraham Lincoln too. In fact there’ll also be an owl, a golem, a bear’s head, a vulture, and a pasty 9-foot tall Hunter S. Thompson amongst a plethora of other strange characters.

Squallis Puppeteers – Nora Christensen, son Oscar, Shawn Hennessey and Zach Bramel.

Squallis Puppeteers – Nora Christensen, son Oscar, Shawn Hennessey and Zach Bramel.

This place may seem like a fanciful wonderland – and in many ways it is – but it’s also the headquarters of Squallis Puppeteers, Louisville’s pioneering puppet theater.

Founded in 1997 by now executive director, Nora Christensen, her sister, and a friend, Squallis was a mere hobby aimed at making concerts of the the demure shoegazing scene of the late 1990s more exciting. Somewhere along the line there was a chicken rock opera. But in 2003 it became a nonprofit and in the ensuing decade Squallis Puppeteers has evolved into one of the most exciting and innovative artistic bodies in the city, creating puppet shows for children filled with music, hilarious voices and usually a take-away message.
“I’m a pretty shy person, and would never call myself an actor,” explains Christensen. “I need a puppet there on stage. But when you do that it feels really good to connect to people. It’s a way to communicate and be silly.”

And it’s this whimsical cocktail of childish playfulness with a purpose that drives Christensen and her colleagues.

“Every nonprofit needs a mission and our mission is to use the art of puppetry to free imaginations, craft fantastic characters and tell the stories that are important to our community,” explains Christensen’s husband Shawn Hennessey, who is also Squallis Puppeteers’ director of development and marketing. “So whenever we make up a new show we try to tie it to a need in our community. We see a need and try to address it.

TVT_2646Such needs have been deemed to be everything addressing anger issues in preschoolers through their baby dinosaur filled play title “Rage-O-Saurus Rex” to potentially staging a play geared towards sex education for kids in middle school, as funded by a grant from the Kentucky Foundation for Women – no nudity whatsoever, of course.

Then again, sometimes it’s just about the comedy.

“Shawn made a Big Foot character recently,” remembers Zach Bramel, Squallis Puppeteers’ artistic and volunteer coordinator. The play in question happened to be “Get a job, Bigfoot!”

Every nonprofit needs a mission and our mission is to use the art of puppetry to free imaginations, craft fantastic characters and tell the stories that are important to our community.”

“We just recently finished a show where Bigfoot is trying to get employed, and he’s just bumbling, and knocking stuff over and trying to get a job. The best thing is he’s a big, mute straight man and the perfect vehicle for funny stuff to happen around him.”

Go to any performance, and invariably you’ll see a room filled with children laughing, alongside parents who are glad to be able to fill an afternoon, not with television or other digital entertainment, but with one of the oldest art forms on the planet; one that’s proved to have been successful for millennia. For Christensen, Hennessey and Bramel, the goal is also to get out into the community, something they have been able to do thanks to a grant from the Norton Foundation, that enables them to reach underserved and disadvantaged neighborhoods and charge reduced tickets or even play free shows.

Hunter S. Thompson at Forecastle Festival.

Hunter S. Thompson at Forecastle Festival.

And along the way, the team at Squallis Puppeteers have amassed a whole bank of memories. Whether it’s having the privilege of performing for children in hospitals or in front of thousands at outdoor concerts, each one is firmly imprinted on the minds of the team. For Hennessey, his mind invariably drifts back to one of the first times the company’s giant puppets was put into action, which just happened to coincide with one of Louisville’s favorite nights out – a My Morning Jacket concert.

“Nora and I are friends with [lead-singer] Jim James and the rest of the band, so when they play in town we normally come on stage for the final song,” explains Hennessey. “The day that I finished an owl puppet, I got in the car to go to the Waterfront and after wandering around the audience got on stage and everyone just cheered and by sheer dumb luck we ended up center stage and Jim and the rest of the band were running circles around us and the audience was just freaking out.”

But while concerts allow the adults of Squallis to indulge a little, it all invariably comes back to the times when Hennessey, Bramel and Christensen get to perform in front of children – creating that sense of wonder from the earliest of ages. The chance to show that even the best stories sometimes require a mere toilet paper roll, some glue and a dollop of imagination.

“We have a very unique aesthetic,” explains Bramel. “And I think that makes us very accessible. An important part of our mission is that we want to inspire people to make art, and explore any other ideas they have.”

148100_145167965536014_3450284_nIt’s for this reason that at every monthly performance, children are treated to hand puppet making workshops aside from the array of performances on offer.

“One criticism that some people have of modern art sometimes is, they say that ‘anyone can do it,’” explains Hennessey. “Well we think that’s a great thing. We want people to be able to make our art. One thing that we do at the end of each performance is allow every child to shake hands with the puppet on their way out and to see their reactions. There’s nothing like it.”

For now though, Squallis are gearing up for their annual fundraiser – The Puppet Prom on Feb. 14. As in other years past it will be a night of music, entertainment, food and drink with a mixture of kids and adults alike.

“It’s our annual fundraising event where all ages, families, people with no kids – a complete cross section of who our people are, just come and dance,” explains Christensen. “We have a puppet show that night, we’ve got a live band, we have a DJ, so it really evolves through the night. Whereas earlier it’s maybe for kids, later adults can enjoy more too.”

“We’ve also got a bar to keep it loose,” laughs Christensen. “So it’s just a great way for adults and kids to hang out and there are not a lot of places where that can happen.”

TVT_2698One person who volunteered at last year’s fundraiser was Tyler McDaniel, a local filmmaker who has spent the past six-months filming a-yet-untitled documentary focusing on the work of Squallis Puppeteers in the community. Blown away by his first ever encounter with the puppets as a volunteer, McDaniels became hooked.
“I was wearing a hand puppet and collecting donations and was just blown away,” explains McDaniel. “It’s all so innocent and fun, and you get to throw away your inhibitions and be a kid again.”

McDaniel’s plan is to keep filming for another 6 months before editing. While the ultimate goal is to enter the film into festivals, the real motivation has been to benefit to an organization he thinks is making a concrete difference in the community.

“They do so many great things in the community and with so much passion, it was a way for me to give something back to them,” explains McDaniels. “I hope the film can help them raise more funds and be able to do more shows around the city.”

Part of filming has been a chance for McDaniel to capture the magical moments that Squallis is so often able to create. Zach Bramel recalls one performance, in particular, very clearly.

“I remember one show where I was in the audience and there was a girl in the audience who was extremely developmentally delayed and not very responsive; no language,” recalls Bramel. “But as soon as the characters came on stage, she was verbalizing in such exciting ways. Her mom was thrilled. Then when the band was on stage she would sing!”

The impact of what they do is clear for Bramel, Christensen and Hennessey and the rest of their volunteers.
“As a collaborator on that show I was so proud, because we were able to access that person. Children open up with puppets.”

“Everything we do has a point,” concludes Christensen. “It has meaning. We’re not just being mascots or being silly, we’re trying to make the world a little better.”

Photos By CHRIS HUMPHREYS | The Voice-Tribune