The Animal Cracker Conspiracy: Puppet Slams Popping Up in San Diego

By Jim Bliesner

Ian Gunn and Bridget Rountree are masters of “creative collaboration”. Their Animal Cracker Conspiracy is part of the Puppet Slam Network which states, “Underground puppet shows are popping up everywhere. They feature contemporary short form puppet and object theatre for adult audiences, open late at night in small venues, night clubs and art spaces, Puppet Slams exist at the nexus of vaudeville, burlesque and performance art through the intersection of experimental theatre, art, music and dance as a viable alternative to the culturally homogenous digital mass media”.

Wow, quite a conglomeration of expectations and styles to live up to, but the Animal Cracker Conspiracy pulled it off at their “Adult Puppet Cabaret” happening at  3rdSpace, Friday, July 20th. KaPOW!. The 3rdSpace is a membership only creative incubator at 4610 Park Blvd. provides space for a variety of performance events on their elevated small stage theatre.

Ian and Bridget have worked together for about eight years and maybe four as the partners in the Conspiracy Collaborative. Their medium has evolved from more traditional forms (painting, printmaking) to more recent puppetry and circus arts. They have done collaborations with the likes of the Patricia Rincon Dance, Technomania,  Fern Street Circus. They recently performed at the Museum of Contemporary Art and  are featured on their own TED video. The TED video phenomenon features unique and innovative people doing creative things. The TED video is about to premier on TED (YouTube) and allows Ian and Bridget to tell their whole story.

But The Adult Puppet Cabaret “happening” wasn’t so much about Ian and Bridget, although they did MC and present  new works by both as it was about the people who came there to jam/slam the puppet life. The evening began slowly at 7 and then two or more people by 7:30, then maybe 20 by 8. A few more at 8:30…. The early entertainment is what you can create around a back table filled with glittering scraps of fluffy fur, rubber tubes, packages of eyeballs (varying sizes), and four hot glue guns to stick stuff together. The puppet junkies were obvious. They cut, pasted, pinched, squealed, and busted out in spontaneous character simulations with their neighbor or often with the wind.  I took the opportunity to slice a rubber tube and stuff it with yellow fluff balls for hair, stick green puff balls on each end for ears, paste red lips on and attach some makeshift legs.

The crowd percolated as the opening act sort of got patched together itself on the small stage; “Mack the Knife” performed by Joyce Hutter. Joyce is the elad artist/designer for the Strings and Things Puppet Theater in San Pedro. She made a guest appearance with an intricate and compelling piece. She has been working in China on shadow puppets and her presentation and puppets were immaculate. The puppets were maybe 3-9 inches tall and elaborately costumed. From my cloistered vantage point, spread out on a chaise lounge, I might have missed the elegance of the puppets except for the large video projection cast on the back wall, above the stage.

By now the self help puppeteers at the back table began to fill the 6-8 rows of chairs. Ian had asked all those wanting to introduce their new puppet on stage to put their name in a hat. It would be drawn and partnered with another later for a performance to the group.  I asked my little guy if he wanted to perform. “You  crazy man, I got fuckin yellow hair and green hair comin out my ears and you want me to stand in front of these good folks and talk shit”. Hell no and don’t ask again.” I was sure he said that but…maybe it was the atmosphere. People were sitting around with these little puppets on their shoulders, in the chair next to them, on their laps being petted. I guess the first rule of puppetry is one has to have a willing puppet, hand puppet, not the kind with the strings. This was not exactly the Marie Hitchcock Puppet Theater, maybe a little more risqué what with the LGBT activities going on outside the3rd Space building and definitely much more inclusive, after all this was aSLAM”. One woman was a puppet actually, “Madame Mandible” played by Mary Margaret Bouwman.

The first Puppet E-Oke performance happened. Two very unique figures appeared on stage with riveting music DJ’d masterfully all evening by Jim Call  This DJ laid out an evening of sound that would make anyone a puppeteer. The puppets didn’t speak though. They danced to the music. It has to be hard to find perpetually enticing dance steps no matter how unique your puppet so inevitably the two characters became Punch and Judy and started smacking and screwing each other in honor of the LGBT festivities. Applause and the next act was “Love Those Gays” by Bridget Rountree and  Madame Mandible, followed by another volunteer performance. After that came “Granma” written and performed by Kelly Dancer, consisting mainly of an elderly female puppet and three kids, her grandkids I guess. She spent a better part of the performance farting for the kids as they squealed uproariously. The next audience performance was different because the puppeteers actually wanted to speak their parts or one of them did. At first the mike didn’t work but she sang anyway, speaking in Spanish telling her story remembered from childhood I guess.

By now we were at nearly 9:45 and between people eating granola popcorn and drinking their beers the house was getting a little rowdy, yelling at the characters, responding to the dialogue but generally whooping it up for the puppeteers, artists and wannabe performers. The people in the room were believers. They love this stuff. Sort of a mini cult and for good reason. It is unique and calls on so many artistic skills to do with any quality, writing, costume making, staging, video, seamstress, carpenter, lighting to name a few. You could work anywhere from three inches of cloth to ten feet of wood or paper mache. You could be a hand or a head. Say anything you want.

The humor for the night came from “Chorizo the Clown” who was a self confessed puppeteer in classrooms, birthday parties and quincenietas. BUT, tonight he was…”Chorizo the Clown”. He had a series of jokes, like, “What’s the difference between your wife and your best friend’s dog? After five years your friend’s dog still sucks”. The big slapstick item was when he stuffed his puppet dog into a cannon and when he blasted out he was blood and guts all over the room. The kids’ must go crazy with that one and so did the audience at the Cabaret.

Ian and Bridget performed a new work called “The Way of the Masks”. It was obviously intricately scripted and metaphysical in orientation. His final shot of a deep chasm and a point of light with exotic birds flapping their wings in angst was a victim of bad lighting on the big screen in back of them. Ian says that he likes to sue the Cabaret as an experimental space, to work ideas and settings out especially when he has an idea growing and wanting light.

No wonder Ian and Bridget have become immersed in the craft! But for them and the other members of the Animal Cracker Conspiracy, its “a way of life”, full immersion, idea a minute, many side trips after elusive storylines, visions,  performances all the while managing the group process and the production. The production is no small task with the members contributing greatly to the effort for very little money.

They are anticipating a presentation of their recent work “The Collector” at the San Francisco Fringe Festival and will perform at the City Beat ten year anniversary event.

Ian and Bridget share the goal of wanting to make San Diego part of the national puppeteer circuit, to bring exciting acts for local audiences. “We are trying to build and educate an audience here in San Diego” He has seen other companies start small and grow tremendously and hopes that will be the experience of the Animal Cracker Conspiracy.

Jim Bliesner is a well-known City Heights grassroots  community activist and artist. 


Jim Bliesner

Jim Bliesner is the Director of the Center for Urban Economics and Design at UCSD, a lecturer in Urban Studies at UCSD, resident of City Heights and an urban artist in sculpture and painting.