In the upcoming Winnipeg Puppet Slam production, Dr. Bunk’s Unconventional Sleep Clinic, Curtis L. Wiebe plays the titular role. But you won’t be able to recognize him.
Throughout the show, Wiebe will be wearing a mask of his own making: a foot-tall mattress-shaped head covering that gives the good doctor a look falling somewhere between Frankenstein’s monster and a Sealy Posturepedic.
It’s a literal case of bedhead, as Dr. Bunk tries, in a roundabout way, to help his puppet client, Patient Z, get some shuteye, with help from his assistant, the Sleep Aid. But while the theme of the puppet cabaret is slumber, Wiebe promises that those who show up Saturday night at the Gas Station Arts Centre won’t be lulled into dreamland.
Instead, they’ll get a chance to see that puppets aren’t just for child’s play: they’re an art-form that can subvert expectations, allowing performers to do things with foam, felt and strings that a "real" actor could never get away with.
"People may have preconceived notions of what puppetry is," says Wiebe, a local artist who has been organizing the puppet slam for 11 years. "Maybe they think it’s just marionettes or the Muppets, but it can be so much more and can be done in so many different styles."
There are of course classic marionettes and hand-and-rod style puppets but also shadow puppetry, animatronics and object theatre, where everyday objects take on a role in the story. All those styles and more will be on display at the slam, with contributions from local performers and puppeteers in the sleep clinic forming an interstitial storyline that connects video contributions from artists across North America: those short films, which came from as far away as New York and Hawaii, are Patient Z’s dreams.
Saying puppets are just one thing is like saying all puppet-show audiences are under the age of 10: both show a serious lack of imagination.
It’s that recapturing of imagination one might call "child-like" that drew the adult Wiebe to puppetry. He grew up on the Muppets, and had stuffed animals with "complicated personalities." Children tend to be able to look at inanimate objects and inject into them stories, voices, character traits — souls. Puppets allow viewers to suspend disbelief, something children do very well. That’s the magic trick Wiebe and the rest of the crew of puppeteers are trying to pull off for adults, who can be a critical crowd.
Hailley Rhoda, who has double duty as the Sleep Aid and as a robot programmed to play lullabies, said puppets not only give the audience permission to dream, but offer the same luxury to performers.
"I started as an actor doing a one-woman show and soon realized puppets could make my life a lot easier," says the Winnipeg artist. "Puppets give you permission to do very absurd things but also to explore very heartfelt moments. They give permission to do both extremes."
"Performing with maskwork or clownwork gives you license to go further, and the audience is more than willing to go with you," she adds.
Rhoda first got involved with the local puppet scene in 2019, and with the pandemic causing last year’s event to be performed via livestream, this year’s will be her first real, live slam. She’s excited for that, but also that the performance will retain a digital element, which allowed creators from far away to contribute.
With a wider net cast, the interpretations for what contitutes a "puppet show" is also widened. "There’s no hard and fast rule on what a puppet is," she says. "It’s whatever speaks to you."
Wiebe says admission is donation-based, with a pay-what-you-can style. He says it’s important to be able to provide performers and contributors a decent honorarium for their work.
Rhoda says she can’t wait to perform for a safely packed house filled with (double-vaccinated) enthusiasts new and old, alongside some talented local actors, like Wiebe and Elizabeth Fehr, who will play Patient Z.
"It’s just nice to be making art with people again," she says.
With people, and with puppets.
More information on the puppet slam is available on Facebook.
Ben Waldman covers a little bit of everything for the Free Press.