Provocateurs

Grayson Morris with some of her puppets. Photo by Molly Must.

A muggy summer evening descends as a group of mismatched and apparent strangers gather in a bungalow in Montford. Greetings are mumbled. Awkward glances exchanged. Then Bruce Kamison pulls out a box of homemade puppets.

“These are amazing!” Catherine Shane exclaims, impressed by Kamison’s resourcefulness and creativity. Panty hose, cotton stuffing and children’s clothes have been inventively crafted into human-like characters. As participants work puppet mouths and arms and experiment with voices, laughter erupts. Excited energy radiates throughout the room as Kamison leads his team of puppeteers, including Jen Pyne, Geneva Bierce-Wilson and newcomer Melissa Howarth, through a rehearsal of Toilet Talk; reminiscent of Car Talk on NPR, but with magical elves and long-lost items fished from a papier-mâché toilet.

Puppet Club is the brainchild of puppeteer and comedienne Grayson Morris, “I wanted people to have their hands on puppets; cutting, pasting, making funny voices. I wanted to have a club that people could drop in and out of; they can just come, check it out and see if they like it.”

Puppet Club provides that informal low-pressure environment that creativity thrives on. “I joined Puppet Club to push myself out of my comfort zone creatively,” Jen Murphy admits, “I was a puppet maker, not a puppeteer before this. I kept coming to Puppet Club because Grayson made me feel so welcome and it was fun. Now I’m grateful to be part of a growing group of smart, funny, weird and creative people.”

Currently the members are preparing for their upcoming Friends and Fam Puppet Slam’happening this weekend. Their biannual event features a collection of original puppet shows intended for adult audiences; it is free and open to the public.

“Puppet slams are a great opportunity to get started because it’s so informal,” Morris explains. “We have workshops leading up to the slam where everyone practices their show.”

Recent member Pyne says, “I've always been drawn to theater, but never really found my place until I discovered puppetry. It’s a very creative medium that incorporates so many of the things I love: music, dance, theater, art, drawing, painting, writing, building.”

Usually puppets bring to mind children’s shows like Sesame Street. But as demonstrated by the success of Broadway’s Avenue Q, adult puppetry has an audience, and allows for exploration of mature themes and humor. As Kamison remarks, “With kids it's a little easier because they have strong imaginations. Adults can be much more serious. You have to work harder to please the audience.”

Still flying high from her recent trip to the Puppeteers of America National Festival in Pennsylvania, Morris agrees, “Almost any art form can be applied to kids or adults. I’m a storyteller and I tell stories for both adults and children using comedy and puppetry. I don’t know why adult puppetry is so obscure because it’s awesome.”

The current Puppet Club is a broad mix of age and experience. Enticed by the fun and camaraderie they find among their fellow puppeteers, retired seniors Nancy and Bob McLane built puppets and paraded with Puppet Club in this year’s National Day of Puppetry. But they’re far from amateurs. “We have attended a number of puppetry festivals and have been members of the Puppeteers of America for 45 years,” Bob explains.

A subsection of members, designated the “Asheville Giants,” are devoted to making giant puppets. Denisa Rullmoss, Alina Ahh Ever, Morris and Murphy brought Donovan Zimmerman, co-founder of Paperhand Puppet Intervention in Chapel Hill, to lead a workshop last November. Creating giant puppets has made clear that Puppet Club needs a space to store puppets as well as make them. “Having our own space would allow us to offer workshops and classes leading up to events for any and all folks to come and make puppets,” Ever says. “It's a lot of fun and it's multi-generational and a great way to build community, self-expression and self-esteem.”

As the night’s meeting winds down, Sheila Ann Thibodeaux volunteers to direct a show about Swaziland, inspired by Bierce-Wilson’s recent trip there. Several members have written material for this show and others will contribute their skills as puppeteers. Plans are finalized for puppet-making sessions and rehearsals before the meeting adjourns.

Morris observes, “I used to feel like I was running Puppet Club, but one day I realized people were doing stuff on their own, and that’s what I wanted. What I hope in the future is that people are doing more projects and also taking leadership, producing their own shows and being whatever kind of puppeteer they want to be. I like empowering people.”

Interested in joining Puppet Club? Or looking for a puppeteer for your next event? Contact Grayson Morris: http://graysonmorris.weebly.com/

what: Friends and Fam Puppet Slam
where: Firestorm Café
when: Saturday, Sept. 14. (Shows at 7 and 8:30 p.m.

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About Toni Sherwood
Toni Sherwood is an award-winning filmmaker who enjoys writing articles, screenplays, and fiction. She appreciates the dog-friendly, artistic community of Asheville.

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