A sponge, a jellyfish and a crab walk into a Christmas party—stop me if you’ve heard this one before.
If you haven’t, it’s because a Squallis Puppeteers show isn’t your average holiday fare. Created by puppet artist Kathryn Spivey, “Plank’s Holiday Special” is the story of three sea creature friends whose party is threatened by a dangerous, unwelcome guest who turns out to be a harmless brine shrimp—and the life of the party.
This whimsical storytelling style is a hallmark of the Louisville puppet theater company, now celebrating their 15th year of telling stories with their hands.
“This show is neat because it has lots of different kinds of puppetry. It has hand puppets, shadow puppets, and video,” says executive director Nora Christensen.
Saturday afternoon’s holiday performance (recommended for kids ages 2-12) is followed by a hands-on puppet workshop, which Christensen says is a unique opportunity for kids to explore their creative sides.
“I think puppets make you say things you wouldn’t normally say or be someone different for a minute,” says Christensen. “They have to make a piece of artwork with pompoms, feathers and fabric scraps, and then give it a voice and bring it to life.”
“I think that’s really when things really lock in for kids and their families, when they get to make their own puppet and get to feel the magic first-hand,” she adds.
While Squallis puppets are a fixture at local cultural events like the annual Forecastle Festival, most of their programming has focused on young children and their families since the company moved into their School of Sharks theater and workshop space in the former Mother of Sorrows school building on Eastern Parkway in 2008.
Their performances and workshops are held on the first Saturday of each month, to build a consistent presence in the children’s art community. The former school also has the facilities the company needs to run summer day-camps that can accommodate groups of children, like lockers, classrooms and plenty of bathrooms.
“When we did adult shows, which is how we started, it was very sporadic, it was hard to keep in touch with folks and stay solvent that way. We couldn’t find a way to make a living, so we chose one audience over another,” says Christensen.
Now, she says Squallis is ready to start adding back more events geared at more mature audiences. Puppeteers will perform at the InKY Reading Series at The Bard’s Town on Dec. 14, and a sex education puppet show for middle schools is in the works.
Puppet theater might sound old-fashioned, but puppetry plays a key role in live performances that can’t rely on animation or the computer-generated imagery film and television use. Puppets pop up on stage in big-budget concert tours like Roger Waters’ “The Wall” Live and Lady Gaga’s Monster Ball, as well as in Broadway blockbusters like “The Lion King” and, of course, the puppet parody musical “Avenue Q.”
Locally, Squallis relies on a variety of collaborating artists like Spivey to build new shows to keep Squallis programming fresh. Despite local support for Squallis and their productions, Christensen says word of the local puppetry community hasn’t spread beyond its borders.
“When you go outside of Kentucky to puppet festivals, not many people know about Louisville or Kentucky and what’s going on here. I feel it’s my job to connect the outside puppetry world to Louisville,” she says.