Master of puppets

By Gary Francoeur

If you thought being a puppeteer was child’s play, think again. Bringing to life the unique personalities and mannerisms of inanimate characters requires a vivid imagination, impeccable arm-hand coordination and a passion for the performing arts – all talents that shadow puppeteer Jeffrey Achtem, BSc’00, has in abundance.

Since adopting the stage persona “Mr. Bunk,” Achtem has built an out-of-the-ordinary career by putting his unique spin on this centuries-old storytelling art form. Indeed, he doesn’t clown around when it comes to puppetry, using lights, shadows and visual storytelling to make his characters dance on screen and dazzle children and adults alike. The Evening Standard in the U.K. described his work as “wonderfully enchanting,” while the The Times of London applauded Achtem for providing "innovative, memorable, fun."

“I like the challenge of keeping an audience engaged for 60 minutes," says Achtem, "and I like to manipulate their interest and attention. I feed off that energy.”

He is, in many ways, a sort of misfit MacGyver, creating the colourful characters for his shows by combining and manipulating kitchen utensils, pencils, cardboard boxes and other everyday household items. But while the individual parts might be junk, the puppets are anything but, often taking months of twisting, bending and bonding for him to finish.

“Getting the silhouette just right is the only thing that matters to me,” he says. “The objects themselves are secondary and shouldn’t be revered. I want the audience to focus on the shadows on screen.”

Through his three one-man cinematic puppet shows, Achtem has succeeded in doing just that. His debut show, Sticks, Stones, Broken Bones, which featured UFOs, brain transplants and flying ninjas, was a success with both audiences and critics, winning awards at the Adelaide, Perth and Edinburgh Fringe Festivals. Then came Swamp Juice, in which he enthralled viewers with bickering snails, opera-singing mice and a spineless swamp monster. His latest hit, Slapdash Galaxy, is a coming-of-age story of two brothers who take to the cosmos in search of a new home.

Over the years, Achtem has performed his routine at arts festivals, variety theatres and cabarets in countries all over the world, including the United Kingdom, Spain, South Africa and Australia. But how does the seasoned puppeteer come up with such far-out story ideas?

“I start with an idea or image in mind and then build the characters and story around it,” he explains, adding that his shows feature almost no dialogue so creative ways must be found to push the plot forward.

Achtem says he has been fascinated with the performing arts since he was a young boy growing up in Summerland, B.C. He put on his first magic act when he was just five years old. Later, he learned to juggle and participated in community variety shows. But it was during his time as a McGill student that Achtem started to take it more seriously. After many of his friends headed home for the summer at the end of his first academic year, he decided to make extra cash by busking and clowning at the Old Port of Montreal.

“I had to muster up all of my courage just to get out there that first time, but I’m so glad I did,” he says. “It opened a door to a whole new world and allowed me to meet incredible performers who pushed me to explore new opportunities in the arts.”

After completing his bachelor’s degree in biology, Achtem set aside his plans for medical school and studied at l’École de Mime Omnibus in Montreal and with veteran Cirque de Soleil clown René Bazinet. He then attended Le Hangar des Mines clown training program in France and worked with Australian shadow puppeteer Richard Bradshaw.

Now based in Melbourne, Australia, Achtem divides his time between performing locally and taking his show on the road. He sometimes feels like pinching himself when he thinks about his good fortune.

“It started as a side job and it wasn’t supposed to take over my life like it has,” he says. “But I love what I do and I’m proud of the fact I’ve made a career doing something that I didn’t even know existed when I was growing up.”