Puppetry speaks truth to power, it is full of surprises, it is silly and sublime

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BRATTLEBORO — New England Center for Circus Arts (NECCA) just keeps growing, it seems, stretching its sinews to embrace an expanding universe of dramatic and kinesthetic arts.

This Sunday, Aug. 20, NECCA hosts North Star Puppets to present Hot Jam Puppet Slam Festival, an event of puppetry, music, theater, crafts, and food.

From 4 to 7 p.m. under the circus tent, a family-friendly festival will feature an all-ages puppet show, silkscreening, live music, and a craft workshop.

Festivalgoers will hear singer-songwriters Stephen Peter Rodgers, Ponybird, and Sean O’Reilly, and see Wandering Theatre’s festival-style puppets, Big Chicken’s large parade puppet, and Dragon Treasure shadow puppets by Nappy’s Puppets. Cloudgaze will also perform immersive theater.

At 7 p.m., festival creators Phoenix Leigh and Aaron Lathrop (North Star Puppets) will offer and host the Hot Jam Puppet Slam, an adult-oriented variety show of 12 short acts by 11 puppeteers from throughout New England and beyond.

“Puppet slams are an underground phenomenon,” Leigh explains.

According to puppetslam.com, such an event is “an evening of curated short-form puppetry acts intended for adult audiences.”

Having settled in Brattleboro in 2022, Leigh – the reception manager at NECCA – and Lathrop first met at the National Puppetry Conference at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre Center in Waterford, Connecticut. Leigh, a puppeteer for nearly 20 years, is a writer, creator, director, and producer who’s had their hand in a host of puppet slams, variety shows, festivals, and workshops.

Lathrop, an actor by training, began in puppetry in 2008 and has been working with, and married to, Leigh since then. Together they’ve toured the United States performing in family shows and late-night puppet slams.

They’ve puppeteered for The Jim Henson Company, Tears of Joy Theatre, Enchantment Theatre Company, and Dragon Con, and they co-produced Puppet-Delphia Fringe Slam in the Philadelphia Fringe Festival. Resident puppeteers for the Philadelphia Folk Festival since 2016, they’re the balloon handlers in New York’s Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.

Lathrop’s act – “This Too, Too Solid Flesh,” directed by Sarah Borne and developed as part of the O’Neill Center National Puppetry Conference – will be in the lineup while Leigh invites attendees to “experience what’s possible when puppetry is presented with its full scope,” according to a media release.

“Prepare to be dazzled, to laugh, to cry, to ask: How did they do that?” Leigh and Lathrop promise.

Also on the program, the first of its kind at NECCA, the 7 p.m. show in the school’s Trapezium features acts that are, Leigh explains, “fun [and] participatory – small and intimate to meaningful to fast and silly to experimental.”

Among them will be Theatre Adventure of Brattleboro; marionettes by Cripps Creations of Northfield, Massachusetts; toy theater by Eva Cranky Pantz Productions of Fort Greene, New York; Break-Fast Puppets from Storrs, Connecticut; toy theater with Massachusetts’ Christine Dempsey; Playdoh Puppet Productions from New Orleans; projections, shadow puppetry, and movement by Theatre Immediate of western Connecticut; body and rod puppets by OompaPossum Puppets of Western Connecticut; marionettes by Frechettist Marionettist of Burlington; and clowning/mixed styles puppetry with Joel Baker of Brattleboro.

“Puppetry is alive and vital today,” Leigh adds. “It’s getting harder to make a living in today’s world of performing arts, but it’s accessible to pick up puppets and create a show.”

Furthermore, “there are so many styles of puppetry, from cardboard to intricate marionettes, and they’re all effective in their own way,” they add.

“Puppetry is one of humanity’s oldest art forms,” Leigh continues. “It will continue to survive no matter what. Puppetry speaks truth to power, it is full of surprises, it is silly and sublime. There is a lot to be said for gathering together in one place to laugh, cry, think, and be entertained.”

“New England Center for Circus Arts is proud to host the first Hot Jam Puppet Slam,” says NECCA’s producing director, Serenity Smith Forchion, the school’s co-founder.

“This production supports NECCA’s goal to be a vital resource for the local community and beyond,” she continues. “We will continue to expand our ability to offer the community outstanding professional performances, attract visiting guest artists and instructors from around the world, provide a high level of training for students who aspire to be professionals, and facilitate greater access and programming to area schools and youth organizations.”