Astonishingly creative shadow puppeteer Mr Bunk (aka Jeff Achtem) transforms household items into magical creations, in a show that encourages everyone to play in the dark! Mr Bunk is currently touring with his show Sticks, Stones, Broken Bones, and he’s bringing his suitcase full of magic to the Glasshouse this month … with Ninjas, UFO Abductions, brain transplants – open your mind to the power of imagination!
Hi Mr Bunk! Fill us in on your background growing up and performing in Canada …
I grew up in a little town in Western Canada. I had a father with a workshop that was not really used, other than for storing things like light bulbs and spare extension cables, so I’d often potter and play in there. I’d amuse myself learning about power tools … as I grew up, I had lots of free time – we didn’t have television in our house, so I was always making projects and cobbling things together … taking apart the toaster and not putting it back together.
I went to school in Montreal, and then I learned a lot about clowning, because I got into street performing and busking. Busking was really a key point for me that enabled me to start travelling and learning and meeting other performers. For about a 10 year period, from about 1995 – 2005, I travelled and learned a lot about performing, clowning and comedy. I slowly started to get into puppetry as well, and during that period I really decided that this was my career and what I wanted to do was to develop shows.
I came to Australia for the first time in 2000, and I busked at the Sydney Olympics. Ever since then I’ve been in and out of Australia quite a bit and visited many of the cities.
The one thing that used to drive me nuts about busking was that you always had to work on the weekend, and you always had to work when it was sunny and good weather! I wanted to start performing in different venues and working indoors, so I started to think about developing a theatre show. I talked to the Adelaide Fringe about 4 years ago, developed Sticks, Stones, Broken Bones and debuted it there in Adelaide. That was the beginning – it’s all been kind of rolling now, it’s been to Edinburgh [Fringe Festival] and it’s doing really well.
I’ve since made two other shadow puppet shows, which I’ve toured a lot. I still don’t really have free weekends, but at least I don’t have to put on so much sunscreen when I go to work!
You’re the creative mastermind behind Bunk Puppets. Where did the name ‘Bunk’ come from?
When I first started to do street performing, I tried to add a bit of marketing savvy, so I sat down with a friend and decided on a colour scheme on my props and costumes – they were all going to be yellow and match … it’s kind of funny to think about now. It was the early days of websites, so I trawled around and found I could get Mr Bunk.com
It’s sort of an expression that’s fallen out of use these days, but my grandfather, I’m sure, would have used it … it means something that’s nonsense …
Oh – like the expression, “A whole load of bunk!”
Yeah – a whole load of bunk. I don’t think teenagers these days are really saying it, but it’s a nice, particular word – and in some ways, these names are given to you. In street performing, I became Mr Bunk, and it’s carried through with me. I suppose my character on stage is Mr Bunk, but I don’t feel a tremendous need to carry this name forward in the future. The characters I’ve developed for my shows … I feel they’ve been birthed and brought to life, and now I feel a responsibility to propagate them all over the universe!
I read a quote from you in another interview that really interested me. I’ll paraphrase: “Shadow Puppetry is my small rant about the overstimulation of audiences in this internet age”. Does this mean you’re really interested in taking us back to basics, so we can experience a simpler, more creative sense of fun?
Yeah. I never set out with this purpose, but as you start performing – especially with comedy – you become aware of the sounds, noises, and the rustling of the audience … maybe when they get a certain impatience … and with street performing, you learn that you need to be sort of hitting them all the time material-wise, so they don’t walk away – you’re competing with the rest of the street.
On the stage, I wanted to move away from that. I wanted to dial back all of the whizz-bang – I wanted to strip things back. I really liked the idea that people need to turn off their phones and sit there – they can’t take pictures – and they just need to trust you to keep them interested for the next 60 minutes. I wanted to develop some theatre pieces that created a bit of stillness and create some characters that came out of nothing.
What types of items do you actually use to transform into puppets?
I use lots of old toys, kitchen utensils, cleaning items, household objects – and I’m not looking for colours so much, as I’m looking for the texture of things. So I’ll often look for old waste – anything that makes a statement – such as old cardboard. They’ll get stuck together, and I make these silhouette characters that are very expressive.
Sticks, Stones, Broken Bones … without giving too much away, is the action kind of indicative of the title?
Well no … the title sort of evolved over the last few years. The show’s a sequence of little stories – it’s a kind of a cabaret of stories … I wanted from the beginning to create a show about a series of characters that relies more on situations and not so much on dialogue.
Developing the stories is a process of having ideas and spreading them out and working things out. I have a box of puppets in my studio that were made and tried and didn’t make the cut, so before the first night they got tossed in the box. Because I’m doing comedy, I can work with the audience and see what works and what doesn’t and adjust the show as I go.
Do you have a favourite character?
It’s kind of like choosing among your children, isn’t it? There’s a very simple scene of an elderly couple that’s probably the one I enjoy performing the most. Every time they’re just a little bit different; they’re kind of like bad clowns. They react very expressively to everything: they get very tired, very sad and very excited, and I quite enjoy the bad acting they’re able to do.
You know … with puppetry, the audience often make the assumption that it’s directed at children. And this show is an all ages show – and I mean all ages – adults without children are very much welcome. I think with children, it’s more for ages 7 and up, as children under 7 can get a bit squirmy in the dark, and some parts of the show may be a bit slow for a 4 or 5 year old. It is quite dark during the show, so kids need to be OK with a few bangs and bumps happening in the dark.
Talking as a puppeteer and a clown, the word ‘puppetry’ and ‘clowning’ are two words that many people shy away from. People may not have experienced much about either that is positive, and I approach both in an interesting and creative way. I really want to encourage people to give them a chance …
Thanks Mr Bunk! Interview by Jo Atkins.
This article can be found in issue 87 of Greater Port Macquarie Focus