Time Out Singapore: Jeff Achtem

Think an old spoon or a pair of dysfunctional scissors is useless? Award-winning Canadian puppeteer Jeff Achtem proves otherwise, says Gwen Pew.

Jeff Achtem and one of his creations.

Jeff Achtem and one of his creations.

14 May 2013: Jeff Achtem – often known by his silent stage persona Mr Bunk – has been a seasoned street performer since 1999, delighting audiences young and old around the world with his unique style of puppetry. While his techniques are influenced by traditional European street clowning and improvisation, the idea of creating a shadow puppet show from scrap materials came to him many years ago. ‘I grew up in a family where I was always taking appliances apart in my dad’s workshop to find out how they worked – I would spend hours trying to make my own weird contraptions out of scraps of wood and old machines,’ the Montreal-born puppet master recalls. ‘It was very playful, and got me interested in how things work and move together to achieve a task. Puppetry is a natural extension of that curiosity, since there is so much to play with in the creation of the characters, and then a lot of study in the mechanics of how they move.’

Achtem came up with Sticks, Stones, Broken Bones a few years ago when he challenged himself to create a show from nothing, although the task turned out to be simpler than he had imagined. ‘Really, it was no more complicated than working long hours for five months on end in a dark room with strange toys, with the goal of tying them all together into a show,’ he says. ‘The show has changed a lot in the five years since I stepped out of that dark room. It’s fun to see how the characters come out and meet new audiences in new countries.’

He first presented the show at Edinburgh Fringe in 2010, and has since won numerous awards for it – including Edinburgh Spotlight Best Newcomer 2010 and Best Puppet Show at Adelaide Fringe 2011. He is staging it in Singapore as part of the Esplanade’s Flipside Festival 2013. Centred on the idea of play, it consists of a series of short stories, featuring a range of colourful characters including ninjas, flying chickens and brain surgeons – all of whom are created from household items like spoons, old teddy bears and bath toys, as well as bits of rubber, wood and metal.

‘[The puppets] are designed to give the audience a slice of life in a character that doesn’t exist and doesn’t have much to say – they’re fun for that reason,’ Achtem continues. ‘Somehow we connect with them, despite the fact that they are not alive. Puppetry is a magic trick, filled with emotion. My favourite puppets are the ones that fill you with immediate joy in the instance when you realise how the silhouette is creating a character.’

Unlike most other shadow puppet shows, however, the audience will be able to gain a behind-the-scenes perspective and witness how the puppets are created in SSBB. Another unique thing about it is that it’s a performance without words, and therefore requires the audience to really fire up their imagination. ‘Kids see some things, and the adults understand others,’ he says. ‘[There will be] lots of music and great sound effects. A good image on a screen must have a good soundtrack!’ But as for exactly what viewers should expect from the show, Achtem is hesitant about giving too much away. ‘The less you know the better – just come and play!’ he says with a smile, but adds secretively, ‘look out for the horse race though – it’s an audience favourite.’

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