Shawn Hennessey is sitting in the Squallis Puppeteers offices. On his right hand is a black, fuzzy sock with googly eyes. This is Bucky, the first puppet Hennessey made while working his first Squallis summer camp back in 2008.
“Bucky is a pretty terrible sock puppet,” Hennessey says. “He has two different-sized eyes. He’s got little felt buck teeth and a little red tongue, and like, blue Bart Simpson hair on a black sock.”
Then, Hennessey transitions into a high-pitched, kind of puny-sounding voice: “Hi everybody, my name is Bucky! Have a better day!”
Over the past two decades of working with the nonprofit, Hennessey and his wife, Squallis founder and executive director Nora Christensen, have developed a lot of puppets — and a lot of voices.
There’s the voice of Trixie the Fox, done by Christensen who punctuates the ends of sentences with a sharp cackle; there’s Hennessey’s cheese pizza puppet voice, which sounds like a lazy version of Bucky; or there’s the voice of Christensen’s fried egg puppet, which talks about health food with a soft drawl.
Looking around the Squallis offices, it’s easy to see where the inspiration for all these characters comes from — the space can only be described as an ‘imagination kickstarter.’ All around there are boxes of fabric pieces, glitter, fake fur and PVC pipes, and the creative possibilities seem endless.
According to Christensen, that’s kind of how the organization got started — people just getting together and making things.
“It really started by playing music with friends,” Christensen says. “We wondered how could we make this more visual and entertaining. And we were also cooks at the time, and we were cooking raw chickens and started making them talk.”
The eventual result was a puppet-chicken rock opera.
Along the way, Christensen started making the larger-than-life backpack puppets Squallis is now known for, like their Abraham Lincoln and Hunter S. Thompson. And then in 2003, Squallis became a nonprofit.
“We developed a lot of educational shows,” Christensen says. “We toured those to libraries and then schools. And as we grew we just developed programming to sustain that model of supporting education and everyone connecting to their own creativity.”
As Squallis continues to grow, Hennessey and Christensen say their next move will be to expand the reach of the organization. They have space in Portland’s Dolfinger building which they are working on renovating into a black box theater.
It’s a new opportunity, they say, to continue developing new puppets — and new voices — for years to come.