In October 2018, at the third Rocky Mountain Puppet Slam, Katy Williams performed in front of a full house at Sunnyside’s Diebolt Brewing Co. The 26-year-old didn’t have a dummy on her knee, nor was she working the strings of a marionette. Instead, she’d created a “crankie” by mounting a long, rolled-up piece of paper with a series of illustrations on it inside a suitcase tipped on its side. When Williams cranked the handles, the scroll slowly uncoiled, sharing the tale of Jack as he tried to save the world from the apocalypse by building a rocket ship to the moon. The production involved shadow puppets, flashes of light, and a song titled “Jack and the Apocalyptic Moon Journey” performed on a mandolin.
It isn’t what most people think of when they imagine a puppet show—and that’s the point. Williams launched the Rocky Mountain Puppet Slam a year ago to show that the craft isn’t solely Muppets and Howdy Doody, which she hopes will engender a larger following for her art in the Mile High City. These open-mic-style gatherings feature five to 10 local puppet artists giving five-minute performances three times a year, including this month. Styles range from found-object puppetry (like, say, bringing a random item such as a fork to life) to massive, realistic-looking puppets that require several handlers.
Williams has worked in many of these disciplines herself, starting in high school when she was introduced to puppets via the raunchy coming-of-age musical Avenue Q. “I loved being an actor,” she says, “but something about taking all of that and putting it onto your hand, I found really fascinating.” Once smitten, she began attending puppet festivals to learn more about the craft and incorporating puppetry into her research projects at the University of Denver, where she studied neuroscience and theater. For her thesis, Williams built a five-foot-tall, seven-foot-long Pegasus out of a backpack, PVC pipe, and foam. The winged stallion needed two operators: one to wear his body and another to control his head, neck, ears, and breath. No, he wasn’t literally exhaling, but the illusion of breath created the perception that the puppet was real.
Unlike magicians, who keep their methods a mystery, Williams and other puppeteers are more than eager to share these types of secrets. During introductory workshops for theater companies and at schools and libraries, Williams hands her students scarves or plastic Safeway bags in order to teach them movement techniques. (In return, the pupils give her a “crazy puppet lady” look, she says. “By the end of it, they’re asking if they can keep the bag and take it home.”) And before and after Puppet Slams, Williams hosts Puppet Lab, during which audience members chat with puppeteers to see how their contraptions work. “We want puppetry,” Williams says, “to be this form people can watch, try, and explore.” No strings attached.
Check out Katy Williams’ work at the next Rocky Mountain Puppet Slam.
Date: March 9
Venue: The Black Buzzard at Oskar Blues Brewery
Admission: Free, though there’s a suggested donation of $5 per person