Combining his two internationally successful shows Swamp Juice and Sticks Stones Broken Bones into an all-star remix, Jeff Achtem is a one-man puppet machine: creating an entire world with a motley crew of props and lights and his clown character Mr. Bunk. Far from child’s play, these works of wonder are best described as a mixture between Dr. Seuss and South Park, shows for adults that kids can enjoy too.
Achtem has also developed a way of applying 3D technology to the traditionally 2D form of shadow puppetry. Just one of the many tricks that this seasoned festival and street performer will bring to his Berlin debut.
When you create the show do you imagine that the audience is focusing more on you or the screen?
I’m trying to define it as a tennis match, where your head is going back and forth. I sometimes think about Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn character: it’s not about the adventure, it’s about doing it in the most complicated and convoluted way possible. Yes, I can quite easily make a little prop that would be a piece of grass that the snail could go along, but I think it’s much more interesting if my head becomes that grass, and then that’s one less prop to bring.
So you probably travel with a huge suitcase full of props?
I don’t wanna talk about that too much, it makes my heart go (inhales). It’s horribly stressful, it’s a bunch of rubbish glued together but it has so much value, it’s my livelihood, and to have to hand it over to some budget airline – it’s horrid. I hate flying for that reason.
How would you judge the division between entertainment and high art with regard to your shows?
Well, they are clown shows, certainly in my mind and in the audience’s: there’s never a feeling that it is something that it isn’t. One of the things I love about clowning is that the performer is aware of what’s going on in his surroundings, and addresses and reacts directly with the audience. I find it a lovely way of doing theater. It’s entertainment. I’m trying to crack a bullet down to its purest form: there’s very little story, it’s really just these characters and interactions that work at a very simple comic level. I’m quite proud of the fact that it never seems to get predictable. But of course we’re not going to make heavy drama in 3D shadow puppetry.
Berlin does have a very strong tradition of valuing entertainment, especially in circus-style Variete venues like Chamäleon.
Germany is the only place, I think, where you get the gold standard and people are willing to pay good money to see these high-level shows. I lived in Montreal for many years living among the circus scum of the world, and we would all be slithering about, training, and looking for jobs, and so many of them have ended up in Berlin because there’s work.
Your last trip to Berlin was several years ago. What do you remember about it?
Because I was a cheap backpacker at the time, I went on the public transport and didn’t pay for a ticket, and I remember this incredibly weird feeling sitting on the train wondering where the undercover police would be checking people’s tickets. I’d just been at the SS museum, so I had this paranoia in my head. And these kids jumped on the train, and shouted “Everybody we want to see your tickets!” in German, and we all panicked, but they were just kidding. Ever since I’ve decided to buy tickets, because I was so terrified.
What are you looking forward to the most about performing in Berlin?
I’m really interested in seeing how they will react. It’s quite nice when you’re playing the show to think: “Oh you think that was funny, they didn’t think that was funny in Kuala Lumpur.” And later on the opposite might happen. “They didn’t laugh there? They like that in Belgium.” It’s a really unique and odd way to get to know a culture.
Puppet Comedy | Sep 16 – Oct 22, Sun-Mon 20:00, Chamäleon Theater, Rosenthaler Str. 40-41, Mitte, S-Bhf Hackescher Markt