Squallis Puppeteers turns 20 this year. | Courtesy of Squallis Puppeteers

On Saturday, Squallis Puppeteers celebrates Halloween and an impressive birthday with The Boo Ball 20th Anniversary Celebration.

The evening will be filled with the kind of fun for kids and adults Squallis has perfected, offering an all-ages dance party complete with big puppets, guest DJs including Sam Sneed, kids and adult costume contests, finger puppets and plenty of funky fun.

The event also serves as a fundraiser for Squallis’ general fund and will contribute to its 20th anniversary fundraising goal of raising $20,000.

Insider spoke with the masters of the puppets, Executive Director Nora Christensen and Director of Development Shawn Hennessey, about the company’s genesis 20 years ago, some of their evolution in the ensuing decades and their plans not only for Saturday’s party, but for the future.

Shawn Hennessey and Nora Christensen | Courtesy of Squallis Puppeteers

Squallis began as a more rough-and-ready, adult-centric punk rock venture. Christensen was one of the founding members.

“In 1997, Squallis started with my friend Jess Myers, my sister Carrie Christensen and some other friends,” she said. “We made a show called ‘The Chicken Show.'”

At the time, the group was working in the service industry and playing music in local bands. They decided they were interested in trying out puppets, in part to accompany their musical compositions.

That first show featured a variety of musical styles and a revolution theme.

“The chickens were getting injected with hormones until they busted out of their confinement to have a revolution,” explained Christensen. “It was ridiculous and very fun, and we did it on Halloween in 1997.”

The crowd embraced the weird show, and the city embraced the puppeteers. The group decided to keep it going, and Squallis was born.

The early years involved opening for bands, partnering with performance artists and crafting other shows that broke from the traditional theatrical scene. For Christensen, the big change in Squallis started when she became pregnant.

“It was the moment, is this going to be your job? I had to decide (if this) this something I was gonna let go to be a mom,” she said. “And I was, like, I don’t wanna let go of this, I want it all.”

Abe and the Col. | Courtesy of Squallis Puppeteers

The period that followed had Squallis staying true to its ethos and aesthetic, but searching for paying gigs and trying new things. Among other opportunities, Squallis began to evolve into educational programming.

“We started doing touring puppet shows that had quirky lessons, social justice messages, nutrition, or how to get along,” said Christensen.

Despite looking for gigs and working on education, Squallis still did interesting and even challenging work. One such production was “The Crowning,” a puppet exploration of live birth.

“We had a live puppet birth, there was a rapping placenta, once again the music was original and interwoven,” explained Christensen.

Around 2003, Squallis officially formed a board and became a nonprofit, and the company grew even more.

“We really love the nonprofit model, we really loved working for a mission and the greater good, so we formed a board and started writing all these ideas we had into our mission, which is the same mission we have today, 17 years later,” said Christensen.

She worked on juggling, metaphorically, Squallis and being a single mom until another important collaborator joined Squallis — and Christensen’s family.

Enter Shawn Hennessey.

“I had come from a fine art background and was coming down to visit,” he said. “I met Nora and we started dating and fell for each other.”

Behind the scenes | Courtesy of Squallis Puppeteers

Hennessey’s time in the art world left him dissatisfied, both in academia and in his creative work.

“I did not like being a solitary artist, I wasn’t making enough work, I wasn’t good at it,” he said.

After meeting the Squallis crew and seeing them in action, Hennessey had a revelation.

“I thought, this is something I can do artistically,” he said.

The artist had never performed before or worked with kids, but he learned fast. Ever since, he has been performing with Squallis as well as making puppets using his skills.

After starting in one of the founder’s basements, Squallis has had several homes while the company evolved into its current state, eventually settling into its home at the Highland Community Center at the corner of Breckinridge and Barret.

The center is run by Highland Community Ministries, and Squallis moved in just as HCM took over the space.

Squallis shows can be educational. | Courtesy of Squallis Puppeteers

“They had just been given this building and needed to fill it with cool community programming,” said Christensen.

The space includes storage rooms, a workshop area and access to a great gymnasium, which allows Squallis to host monthly puppet shows, teach classes, run summer camps and throw great parties.

After it throws one of those parties on Saturday, almost 20 years to the day after Squallis debuted with angry chickens, Squallis already is looking to the future.

This year, the members are hoping to begin renovating a space in the Compassion Building and finally start offering programming in the Portland area.

The Boo Ball 20th Anniversary Celebration takes place from 6 p.m.-midnight on Saturday, Oct. 28, at the Highland Community Center, 1228 E. Breckinridge St. Tickets are $10 for adults and $5 for kids. There will be a cash bar provided by the Highlands Fall Flea, which will be held this weekend at the same location.

Eli Keel is “pretty much” a Louisville native. You may have seen him around town reading poetry, short stories, dancing or acting. He’s a passionate locavore, so you may have also seen him stuffing his face at one of Louisville’s amazing restaurants. When he isn’t too busy writing short stories, he blogs at amanwalksintoablog.wordpress.com.


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