Christina Donoghue talks to Jeff Achtem about his show Swamp Juice

The simple shadow of a man Bunk Puppets creator Jeff Achtem talks about his show Swamp Juice and the symbiosis between clowning and puppetry.

Puppetry is hardly an overused medium. Apart from an Indonesian Wayang kuilt show, with their traditional art of finely crafted leather figures moving gently to the sound of the gamelan, this historic storytelling is rarely seen in Australia. Enter Jeff Achtem a street theatre and clowning aficionado from Canada who claims no fraternal ties to shadow puppetry, yet has picked it up, stuffed it in his pocket, given it an original soundtrack and sent it stumbling into the twenty-first century using only recycled materials.

Jeff Achtem settled in Australia by default. After travelling through the country many times performing street theatre, all the stars aligned and the city of Melbourne claimed him. Jeff says, “I wanted to have a residence somewhere, and a few things pointed me to Melbourne… It was the high noon of the hipster evolution, and Melbourne had very good international cred—and it’s been a good choice, there are great crafts people here and great puppets made; directors and lighting it’s a great place to be.”

When asked about the journey from clowning to puppetry Jeff quickly lays claim on both titles, “I wouldn’t say that I went from one to the other, it was more just this basket of skills that I kept loading on, like mixing paint in the bucket and the colour constantly changing.”

In his twenties Jeff developed a fascination with the moving image and attended film school. The overuse of complex narrative and dialogue in modern-day films struck Jeff. Consciously through his own work Jeff sought a simpler storytelling method that transcended voice and stimulated the imagination. “There is a great, almost meditation that can happen when a character is presented on film or on stage that really you need to communicate that story without words. That then brings on this really interesting work that an audience has to do to figure out Oh! That’s the mother and Oh! The parcel was supposed to be delivered today. Just that gentle amount of work that an audience has to do.”

Jeff’s company Bunk Puppets in collaboration with Monkey Baa Productions are bring one of his simplest works ‘Swamp Juice’ to Darling Quarter in Darling Harbour Sydney. “In Swamp Juice it’s a very simple show, it’s a cartoon, the plot is no more complex than a Bugs Bunny cartoon,” says Jeff. The world he describes is one of simple characters dealing with a changing environment. Set to original music the show promises to be a step into a world of wonder and whimsy.

Unlike other puppet shows (of which I’m assured this is not) the puppeteers are positioned in front of the screen, “That’s not at all what we do, it’s the difference between being a guitarist in a rock band and in an orchestra, sure you’re both playing guitar, but it’s totally different. I use shadow puppetry in a very different way… Everything is done by sticking things onto our hands, everything is really rough and slap-dash, it’s all found objects and household objects sort of taped together.” Performed from four or five metres away from the screen this show includes, not only the puppets sillouettes, but also the puppet and the puppeteer as a performer.

The trickledown of Jeff’s skillset as a clown, street performer and latent puppeteer combined with his awareness of the film savvy of the modern audience, translated Swamp Juice into a show that is a live performance that like other modern performance pieces employs techniques, traditionally used only in film. “The grammer of the frame, the language of cinematography, it’s completely ubiquitous now, that it’s almost not noticed apart from the way that people might marvel at it.” As though the creative envelope is not being pushed enough, in last fifteen minutes of the show the audience puts on 3D glasses to watch the end of the show in 3D madness, “that usually blows the roof off,” admits Jeff, “all the kids start screaming and music is irrelevant at that point because it’s so loud. It’s quite hard to tell a story in that moment, ‘cos it’s like trying to read a book to a kid on a rollercoaster.”

Now a few years old Swamp Juice has been performed all over the world and has found favour with audiences of all cultures and ages. Jeff says that no matter who you are this is for you, “If you don’t have access to a kid you can still come… It’s a virgin experience for people, they will never have seen puppetry in this way before.”

With productions currently touring everywhere from the Phillipines to Europe and with a new show in production Jeff Achtem and the Bunk puppets team are filling a niche in the creative arts scene of the world, that is honest and fun. Swamp Juice promises to be an escape from the heaviness of news and world events into a swamp that Jeff has created just for you, so that for a moment, with child in tow or not you can laugh and wake-up your imagination that has been fast asleep in the shadows.