My journey creating and producing puppetry... trials, tribulations, inspiration and contemplation.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Beyond the Sock 2016

I had 5 performances in 3 days with one of my toughest shows, Monster Intelligence. I was aching to get home to my own bed to recover and knew I had a downtime of just two days before I would be on a flight to Dallas/ Fort Worth via Philadelphia from my local airport in suburban New York. I was almost cursing my lack of rest but, somehow knew, my time at Beyond the Sock in Denton, TX would be worth it.
Beyond the Sock (BTS) Puppetry Workshop for Television and Film is in its fourth year, having begun in 2013. It was a concept developed by University of North Texas (UNT) Department of Media Arts Assistant Professor James Martin. James had the foresight to reach out to Dallas, TX resident and creator of Project Puppet, Pasha Romanowski. Pasha would lead the build part of the workshop with new mouth/rod-style characters developed exclusively for the workshop which take a departure from his usual offerings on Project Puppet. This encourages more experienced builders who would be able to increase their skills. Year one, participants built rats, year two, penguins, year three, a monkey and, in 2016, we tackled chickens. On the performance side, BTS enlists Muppet performers Noel MacNeal and Peter Linz to guide participants through the nuances and intricacies of Muppet-style TV puppetry. This year, Marty Robinson (Telly Monster/ Snuffleupagus) filled in for Peter.  
The workshop takes place on the UNT campus at the Radio, TV, Film & Performing Arts building. Day one, we arrived for a half day, 12:30 - 5pm. We checked in and collected our name-tag lanyards and a copy of the schedule. We gathered in the theatre for introductions and outlined what our 5-days would look like. There were 28 participants that would be split into 2 groups (A & B). We filed into a classroom where we briefly introduced ourselves. Students came from Australia, Belgium, Canada and from all over the U. S. Pasha presented the basic principles of designing a puppet character and introduced the prototype chicken for this year’s build. A sketch outline of the chicken was distributed with tracing paper so we could begin designing the character we would build over the 5 days. Some students came armed with ideas they had been working on prior to the class. The puppet and theme are announced prior to the workshop. The theme of the set that was built in the television studio can inspire your character if you so choose. This year’s set was the interior of a space ship so, there were Star Trek themed chickens and, at least one alien among the planned puppets. Of course, you could create your puppet without the suggested theme as well. I wished I had planned mine prior to the workshop since I’m not as adept at creating off the cuff. 
Days two through four split the time between constructing puppets from 8:30am to 12:45pm in the scene shop and performance technique from 1:45pm to 6pm in the media arts studio. Group B had their day in reverse. Pasha makes the puppet building accessible to all level learners, explaining each step in detail. Pasha’s wife Maryanne, along with Pam Groom and Dustin Yahnke act as shop assistants and are available to help each participant along the build process. One of the nicer luxuries of BTS is the UNT staff of sewers taking care of the machine sewing duties which speed along the build process. There was an air of creativity and camaraderie which encouraged us all to help one another, whether it was catching up a neighbor on their hand sewing, explaining a technique or, donating a pair of puppet eyeglasses or chicken wattle to another’s build. 
Noel and Marty were a high-energy teaching tag team that kept us all on our toes. If you’re familiar with the basics of TV puppetry technique, you’ll recognize some of the exercises in the earlier part of the class. Still, Marty and Noel offered tips and helped us see where our technique could improve. Each skill was built on the last. The frustration of the first day of TV performance gave way to a better sense of being present and understanding in the following days. The two master puppeteers took turns putting us through our paces while impressing on us to let go, stop limiting ourselves and move out of our comfort zones. Their depth of knowledge is priceless and a definite value-added benefit of BTS.
On the final day, a shorter time in the shop and studio enable participants to finish their puppet character and do some last minute tweaking to an improv skit or a new skit developed for the evening performance. At the end of the day, we break for dinner and return for pictures with our individual creations before the 7:30 pm performance in the studio with a small invited audience. Noel and Marty were prime-time worthy hosts with their puppet characters emceeing the proceedings. A run order was posted on either side of the studio. Students bounced on and off the live studio floor, getting in place for each number. A surprise ‘Pasha puppet’, crafted by Dustin Yahnke, made an appearance, performed by Noel. It was a hilarious highlight that stole the show. My fellow students all impressed with their individual performances which I performed along with two of them. Each year at BTS, a group number wraps up the final performance. This year’s group performance was Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious from Broadway’s Mary Poppins lead by Noel as a Goose puppet with the student chickens. The evening wrapped with students and instructors reconvening in the theatre for a final group photo and individual instructor/ student photos, all high on creative energy and puppets. 
What to expect: There was a meet and greet on day one with dinner and a more informal gathering of participants and teachers later in the week. A shuttle is provided from the host hotel back and forth to campus. There are enough participants who drive in or are locals that are happy to help with rides should you need to stop at a store during your stay. We did a grocery run prior to our first half day. There are plenty of food choices within walking distance of campus for lunch. A handful of restaurants are also within walking distance of the hotel. Participants are known to make trips to the craft store for supplies if you’re looking for a shopping buddy. 

For artists, like me, who work in isolation for the bulk of our creative process, BTS gives you the opportunity to draw inspiration from fellow builders and performers and recharge your muse.  For an idea on pricing for Beyond the Sock, this year’s participants paid $1400 for the 5-day workshop while students pay slightly less at $850. The group deal at the upscale host hotel was $99/ night while minimal campus housing could be had for $45/ night.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Considering a Puppeteers of America National Festival? Read on...

In January of 2015, I eagerly anticipated signing-up for the Puppeteers of America National Festival, taking place August 10-15 at University of Connecticut in Storrs, CT, home of the UConn puppet arts program. Most of my puppetry business travel doubles as my vacation because, what does this working puppeteer love most but, more puppetry. If the 2013 festival was any indication, I was in for a week of amazing artistry and becoming entrenched in my community of puppeteers which I rarely get to do while I’m sequestered in my basement building and fixing puppet shows and sitting in front of my computer in attempts to book new gigs. 

So, what can you expect to pay? As with any vacation, expect to pay some decent cash but, you do this all up front and spend little during the actual festival if you can watch your budget in the festival store. My up front costs… $950.40 for the week. I liked the thought of the professional day for teaching artists and therapists so, paid the additional $40 making my festival registration $361.75. Housing had 4 tiers of pricing from $23.75-$50.75 per person/ per night. Differences ranged from AC to no AC and from a residence hall to private room. I chose the private air conditioned room totaling $355.25 for the week. Not bad, considering what housing can run you on vacation. Meals were $183.40 for the week plus $22 for breakfast and lunch for the teaching day. Get the meal ticket. It takes the guess work out of eating and is cheap. The campus stipulated an additional $4 parking, per day if you drove and needed to park your car so, $28 later, I was choking on close to $1000. I also brought $60 in cash which purchased a few small things in the puppetry store as well as snacks and water from the local grocery store. If you carry your water bottle around like me, taste test the tap water first and get to a store if you need to and avoid $1.50 vending machine water. 

If you have to be up early for the teaching day, you can arrive the night before the festival and check in. I was selling Up In Arms logo shirts in the store so, had a merchandise check-in appointment early in the evening. I met Stacey Gordon of Puppet Pie fame (an absolute joy), friend from the 2013 fest Gordon Smuder of The Puppet Forge and, an online puppet/Facebook friend that I was eager to meet, Kelvin Kao of Puppet Kaos. It felt like I was already home, meeting these wonderful people and fellow puppeteers. Settling in my room later, I saw my buddy Ceris from London, Ontario had checked in on Facebook and found she was right down the hall from me. We visited and caught up before heading off to bed for the early teaching day.

Kelvin, Me, Gordon and Stacey

The teaching day was good and probably best if you are really into the teaching artist aspect of puppetry. I heard some great speakers and learned a few things but, it’s not something I personally feel the need to repeat in the future. But, again, if this is your gig, it’s totally worth it. In the early evening, I caught the first Reel Puppetry Film Festival featuring Toby Froud’s Lessons Learned, a charming short about a dancing knight titled Sir Dancealot, a dark and beautiful piece titled Last Door South by Sacha Feiner and, the adorable Adventures of Liverwurst Girl among others.

Tuesday was the start of workshops and the 2nd time I’ve taken a workshop run by the folks at Puppet Kitchen. Emily DeCola lead a 2-day workshop about the business of puppetry - budgets, contracts, etc. The workshops were 75 minutes so, there wasn’t enough time to cover everything in one session. Emily was naturally engaging and turned what could be a dry subject into “I wish this could have been three days!” Another workshop I took was not what I thought it would be but, fear not, there was plenty going on so, when I skipped the final day, I had time to do other things. The afternoon performance of Once There Were Six Seasons by Glass Half Full Theatre told the story of the wide ranging effects of climate change. It was a wonderfully crafted and engaging story without being preachy. Tuesday evening, Cheryl Henson opened the showing of I Am Big Bird with a talk about the Henson Foundation and Jim Henson Company. If you’re a Puppeteers of America member, the article in the recent Puppetry Journal about what the Henson’s support has meant to puppetry over the last 50 years is a wonderful piece. A barbershop chorus sang a montage of Sesame and Muppet songs while clever shadow puppets of familiar Muppet characters played overhead. It was a delight. I Am Big Bird was screened and those of us who enjoy a few sentimental tears, indulged once more. It was even better a 2nd time for me, watching while surrounded by my big puppet family. The week was such a blur so, I can only say, Caroll and Debbie Spinney took the stage for some Q&A after and continued to charm and delight us with their stories. Late night was the National Puppetry Slam and there were an array of delightfully clever pieces. They were all great but, you always find a performer that you connect with and the dry humor and wit of Jacob Graham with his simple mouth/rod puppet was a wonderful discovery. 

Tuesday was my first volunteer session for the store when I got a high-five by Chuck McCann. Admittedly, it wasn’t until he left that I found out who he was. Far Out Space Nuts was a show I watched in the 70s with Chuck and Bob Denver but, I never knew the extent of his involvement with puppetry. The Wednesday evening program started with a talk with Chuck and a few of the puppets he used. His stories of Ed Sullivan and his early show business career were captivating. I could have listened to him all night. 

Thursday afternoon performances included the Japanese folk tale The Crane Wife by Margarita Blush and Mulan by Chinese Theatre Works. Both had qualities that were visually beautiful and stories that kept you engaged. I was performing in the Thursday evening potpourri so, was in tech while the evening performance of Icarus was going on. If you have a chance to perform in potpourri, there’s no better way to feel like you’re an honest-to-goodness performing member of your community. I always love watching others perform for me because I do it so much so, it felt good to give back to my fellow performers. Being on the same bill as 101 year old Queen of Potpourri, Bernice Silver, was an honor as well. Our 5 minutes of Grandmonster and Melvin singing “It’s The Time” from Monster Intelligence was well received and felt great. For the 5 minutes I was up on stage, I felt like I was in a tunnel and after I exited, I thought “what just happened? Did it work? Was it ok?” The compliments that came in the days after assured me we did a good job (thankfully). Harry LaCoste was my performing partner in crime who I had met in a puppet building class in NYC a couple years ago. When I found out he was going to the festival, I asked if he would perform the piece with me and he agreed. I sent him files online and we were able to rehearse a few times at the festival before the performance. It was great to be back in the audience to catch some of my fellow performers. Jacob Graham returned with another of his characters and I, along with everyone else, was equally charmed. I went backstage to congratulate him. He needs his own show or a stand-up routine or something. Great instincts, great, unique energy. Refuse the Rat and Garbagebag were a singing duo full of charm and beautiful harmonies with Jeffrey Zwartjes performing the Refuse puppet and Seth Langer playing ukulele.

Harry LaCoste and I
with 101 year old Queen of Potpourri Bernice Silver

Friday morning I skipped a workshop and sat in the cafeteria talking with friends. Community is a big part of the Festival for me and something you should take time to enjoy. If your ‘friends’ aren’t around when you arrive for a meal, joining someone new and making friends is a lesson in serendipity. Most of the time, you find you met them for a reason. Later, I enjoyed my friend Jeff Bragg’s Sound Effects 101 workshop. After lunch, I made a last minute decision to take in the Orphan Circus by Les Sages Fous with my friend Ceris. It was mesmerizing, fantastical, magical, dark and just stunning. It was a theatrical puppet experience like no other. When the crowd erupted in applause and an extended standing ovation at the end, the actors were visibly moved. It was THE hot ticket of the festival. 

On Saturday, I had a final shift volunteering with my friends at the Puppetry Store. I failed to mention, there were MINT copies of the Art of The Muppets for $7 which didn’t last past the first day. I also stumbled on the souvenir sheet of Jim Henson/ Muppet postage stamps for only $6. I think they'll look great in a frame. I also picked up a few “puppets for the masses” pins for some of my puppet friends. After my shift, I headed over to line up for the puppet parade into town where I met my friends Cabot and Mel who had come in for some puppety goodness for the day. We went through the Ballard Museum and all the amazing puppets they had on display. We had lunch and then found that Milo The Magnificent, one of the stellar acts of the National Slam, would be presented in the museum performance space. Cabot and Mel were equally rapt with Milo’s charm and artistry and I was all too happy to see him again and share this delightful performance with my friends. As my time at the fest was nearing its end, I couldn’t help but reflect how I started the week thinking “maybe I shouldn’t have spent the money, it’s ok to not come to every festival” and ended the week thinking “I CAN”T MISS ANY FESTIVAL EVER!” The discovery of new talent is so inspiring. You meet at least half a dozen people that have a profound effect on you. Conversations with people like Steve Abrams, Jeff Cornett, puppetry heroes like Jen Barnhart, Leslie Carrara-Rudolph AND Lolly (HELLO!) and discovering talent like Jacob GrahamRefuse the Rat and GarbagebagMilo the Magnificent and Les Sages Fous are all worth the price of admission.

Lolly, Leslie Carrara-Rudolph, Allelu Kurten, Ceris and Me (photo courtesy Ceris)

If you’re already scheming to save your puppetry pennies, the next National Festival is in 2017, July 17th to the 22nd at Concordia University in St. Paul, MN. For folks like me, that means the additional cost of airfare but, I’ve got new friends to meet and new, inspiring acts to discover! See you in 2017!

Friday, July 31, 2015

Minding Your Puppet Business

This post is for those of us who are running a puppet business where the main focus is performing shows. If this is a future goal, this post is especially for you.

I have a friend who has been in show business for many many years. When imparting her wisdom on young performers, she is quick to point out “it is called ‘show business’ for a reason … it’s not ‘show rainbows and unicorns’, it’s not ‘show friendship’ … it’s a business” and one should be determined to learn this as quickly as possible.

Mind your budgets. I was never so proud when I was awarded my first arts grant. It was for a sizable sum and I had to budget exactly how my money was to be spent as I produced our last show, “Monster Intelligence”. It was great to have conceived exactly where every dollar should be spent and only adjusting those funds when I knew I could alter other items in the budget. If I knew I had to over-spend on one item, I had to cut back on expenses for another item. The same care needs to go into every booking and every occasion to travel with my puppet company as well. I’m very lucky to travel pretty simply with our shows. I pay for one other puppeteer and I pay a percentage royalty to my writer. When I had a recent travel engagement come through my booking agent, we worked up a budget that we could be happy with and that the client could finance. I incurred some shipping charges that I didn’t expect on merchandise I sent out ahead of time. Then, I really overspent, deciding that we would take in a show (at my expense) and, something I swear I will no longer do, I mindlessly paid for all meals for myself as well as my fellow puppeteer. I’m a nice guy, I like picking up tabs, to the detriment of my wallet. A while back, another career puppeteer told me NOT to pay for food on trips. "Everyone has food as an expense" he said, whether they're at home or on the road, this is to be expected. What he suggested was, when he wants to eat at a fancy restaurant or anything out of the ordinary, then he would treat. This money is your company’s money, not a frivolous amount of money you have for a spending spree. When I bemoaned my mismanagement of funds to my writer, he graciously said I could deduct the food costs from my billable expenses before I paid him. He was going to allow me to deduct our food expense from the amount that I base his percentage on. I wouldn’t do it. Like I mentioned before, everyone has to buy food and he should not be penalized for my overspending. Always work with integrity. Integrity is my mantra. Treat travel budgets very carefully and don’t treat business travel like a vacation unless you have vacation funds saved up to take with you. When traveling, if you can stay cheaper in an Airbnb that has a kitchen, shop frugally at the local grocery store and (note to self) stop treating yourself like you eat at better places while away from home. 

Mind your contracts. It’s nice to work with a booking agent who fends for a proper contract rate and makes sure that your comfort needs are met in most situations. Still, this is not always the case and I have a good relationship with my agent where I can solicit some contracts that don’t overstep their relationships they have with their own clients. While I would prefer my agent take care of all contracts, sometimes there are situations that call for personal treatment that only I can give. When writing contracts, be sure to always spell out specifically who is responsible for what. If you are just starting out and you have a situation where a venue wants to do a door split of the ticket cost, are you splitting the GROSS ticket sales? Are they deducting any advertising or other expenditures on your potential profit? We all have costs associated with performing and producing shows. It’s easy to make verbal contracts with friends but, be a smart business person and write EVERY expectation and have a written contract with every venue, including friends. You are running a business. Protect your potential income by having a well-worded contract so there is no guess work as to what, how and when you will be paid. Through some of our school assembly contracts, payment will sometimes come via a separate arts in education fund that can take up to 30 days to process. I simply let the client know that if payment isn't received in 30 days, I have the right to contact them to request a simple follow up. Sometimes paperwork will get lost on someone’s desk and not submitted but, it has always worked out, thankfully. Always handle situations with a friendly, business-minded attitude. Most people are just concerned that everything is taken care of correctly and honestly. Still, you must advocate for what's fair. Just because you might love what you do as an entertainer, doesn’t mean you can survive on less. Bills still need to be paid and bodies need to be fed.

One of the things that I also value from my dealings with my agent is the technical rider. It outlines all expectations for the venue such as access to clean drinking water, access to restrooms and, a swept playing area. Have you ever mistakenly dragged a backdrop or one of your stage curtains on a dirty playing area and decorated your clean curtain/ backdrop with dirt? It’s not fun. You quickly learn the meaning behind all those small rider details. Is your stage apt to collapse in a strong wind? It might be a good idea to specify that you only play indoor venues. This is something you can ask up front. Have you ever played in a freezing-cold or sweating-hot venue and wished you had specified a climate controlled venue? These are some of the things we may take for granted and just forget to ask. Depending on the type of performing you do, maybe you don’t mind but, for rigorous performances, it can be an issue. One of the basic needs for us that some clients aren't use to is the amount of time we take into consideration for load-in and set-up. If they’re not a theatre, this might be new to them. If you have a particularly early show, be sure someone will be at the venue to let you in when you arrive. I always call a day or two prior to a show to confirm all arrival details. Check their address for your GPS, confirm your check-in and load-in location and, if it’s going to be a walk from your performance space, ask if they may have a flat-bed cart that can aid in a speedy load-in. Incidental considerations like access to a 3-pronged electrical outlet and a 6-foot table for back stage properties are all things that should be written out and confirmed. Payment due the day of the performance? Put that in the contract as well.

Mind yourself - mind your sanity. Above all, these things and more are ways to ensure that you're taking care of you. Along with proper hydration and not sweating the small stuff, these are ways to guarantee your mental well-being. I’ve had venues confirm our arrival time only to find our space was not ready when we arrived. Kids were playing and we had to wait 15 minutes before they were dismissed, an actual morning yoga class was happening on our play area and they had no idea we were coming. During these times, I relax. We do what we can and if we’re not ready (which is rare) I can gently remind the venue that their mix-up caused the delay. Most venues will graciously ask if and when you’re ready anyway. 

Lastly, be mindful of your personal needs. Access to drinking water doesn’t mean venues have to have bottled water or even a water fountain right by the stage so, my water bottle is always with me. Bringing along some fruit and a nutrition bar always gets me through shows calmly as well. Be gracious, be happy. I know from experience, there’s nothing worse than working with an unhappy performer. You’re a puppeteer… a performer! Your job is to make people happy and what could be better than that? Now, be smart and mind the business of your business!

Saturday, May 09, 2015

Let Go and Grow

Growing as artists, certain milestones are apt to occur but, there are greater ones than the achievements we may initially have in mind. When I first began, I had a wide-eyed, child-like ambition to achieve the success of my contemporaries. I wanted the bookings, the travel and the success. Naturally, I thought, this should happen immediately! It’s a fine, healthy ambition to have. What wasn’t healthy was comparing myself to other artists. In our darkest moments, we may wonder why we can’t have what another artist has, whether in skill, opportunity or popularity. What had finally occurred to me was - what I offer as an artist is unique and there is more success in expressing all that is me. It’s easy to see an amazing puppet show and admire all they do, wishing you could have a similar show. If we’re all making similar shows, there is less opportunity for bookings with the increased competition. So, again, expressing our unique talent is key.
Another milestone I was happy to find was not being happy with my art. That’s right - NOT being happy. When our first show “Helping Drew” was being performed, the script was solid and it sold the show. I was so sure that my performance was fine. When I began to work with professional puppeteers, it took my performance to another level and I was finding places to improve that I never considered. Thank you Andy and Amy. I was so caught up in the nervousness of putting on a show and getting it done in a serviceable way that I was lax on the actual performance. I began to grow as an artist and remembered it was ok not to be right. It’s a wonderful attribute to achieve. If you are stuck in being right, you keep yourself from learning. With our first show so solid, I was ready to be happy with the additional scripts that my writer Alex and I collaborated on. On our third outing, we started to listen to trusted creative friends and the old writing adage of “kill your darlings” - not being so precious about your creativity and being able to edit out what doesn't serve the show. With this, “Monster Intelligence” continues to grow and we’re falling in love with new opportunities instead of cursing where we may have gone wrong or being stuck with something we don’t like. Don’t compromise with something that may not best represent you as an artist. Letting go allows yourself to grow. When we began with “Monster Intelligence”, we also had a very limited budget and resources to tell our story visually. We had a beautiful backdrop painted by my friend John but, the rest of the set was looking bare and elementary. I had an idea for rocks made from foam adorning the sides of the stage and asked my creative friend Cabot to paint them. They were everything I imagined and added that certain ‘touch’ I had hoped for. The original doors we used were a unique element to the story and were perfectly serviceable in the time we had to make them. The original designer did a wonderful job in something like two days. I always wanted them to be more eye-catching and maybe a little more fantastical. A year after our debut, I’m able to budget a professional set designer who will make the new doors as I imagine they could be.

I resisted another change where we had voices in the ethers for two of the characters. Some of our original feedback focused on this obvious wiggle-moment for younger viewers and that the voices should be physical puppets. Two more puppets to make?! With just two performers already manipulating a puppet each, how would we even make this happen? Well, two more puppets have been added to the show and we are making it work. What a world of difference it makes too! Not wanting to be left to our own self-directing devices, I hired Joshua Holden to workshop a couple of weaker moments in the show and help us best present these new moments with the additional puppets. His ability to see everything from a directors perspective (not to mention being an accomplished puppeteer) was key in helping us see and feel things for the first time. The improvements are just taking root but are making us feel more confident and experiencing a new show we didn’t have before. All of these changes coincide with two local (NY) performances of “Monster Intelligence” June and July 2015, culminating with bringing the show to Las Vegas, NV for their Children’s Summer Concert Series on July 22 and 23.
Improving my puppet building has been a task I’ve been happy to pursue. I wear so many hats with the limited budget I’m able to invest in each new show. It makes sense to build as many of my own puppets as I can but, again, it’s easy to see the incredible works of other puppet builders and wish to have the funds to pay these artists to build my shows. I was looking through a container of puppets and came across Helga, a puppet I made in 2012. I used a pattern but, I thought I had a better way of making the mouth-plate and she became a bit of a test puppet. She looked fine for the time but, her mouth-plate was a bit wonky inside and wasn’t so great for the students in the theatre academy where I taught my puppetry 101 workshop. I had recently taken an online puppet building course and employed my new skills on this puppet. I built an entirely new head for Helga with a solid mouth plate. I salvaged her old wig, earrings and mole. I had planned on using her old eyes but, when I matched them up to the new head, they just didn’t look right. I went about making new but similar eyes and, again, they didn’t match up. I decided to start with a new pair of eyes all together and played until something felt right. Helga looks completely different than when she started but, in my opinion, so much better. It’s just another reminder of throwing out everything and being open to learn and grow.

Monday, September 08, 2014

Puppet Homecoming 2014

This past weekend was the NE Regional Puppet Festival, “Puppet Homecoming”, and it went by in a blink of an eye. The event took place on the camp grounds of Ramapo for Children in beautiful Rhinebeck, NY. I commuted with my puppet comrade Emily Dykeman and we both had a wonderful time.

Arriving Friday evening, I checked in a couple puppets from my show Monster Intelligence to be used in the exhibit and met Facebook friend Jeff Bragg. Jeff has been a friend in the online world for some time and these festivals are always a great place to put faces to the online names and make lasting friendships. After dinner, we were treated to shows by fellow puppeteers and were wowed by The Tanglewood Marionettes and their presentation of The Dragon King. Theirs was a lesson in the beauty in the details. Gorgeous marionettes were paired with a beautifully painted scrolling background, set pieces that flew in and out and numerous pieces of eye candy that created a delightful experience. If you ever get the chance to see a Tanglewood show, do yourself a favor and go!

On Saturday, I took two morning workshops dealing with tips and tricks of the trade. The first was with Tom Tucker, a puppeteer from Philadelphia. Tom has a great, infectious passion for all the tools and tricks that make puppet building a breeze. From the best super glue (gorilla glue brand) to micro tools and the best materials for shadow puppets, Tom covered the gamut with a great enthusiasm. No matter how many years you spend in this business, you can always glean a new tip or trick from other builders. My second workshop was with Lex Rudd from Jim Henson’s Creature Shop Challenge which aired on the SyFy channel. If you haven’t seen the show, you can watch episodes online. Lex was a fan favorite and a PGOGNY member. She was the only contestant who actually worked in the ‘puppet world’. Lex shared her process and some of her wonderful puppet designs. Toward the end of the workshop, she gave insights into the Creature Shop Challenge from auditions through the show itself. It was great to find out that she has done some freelance work for the Creature Shop since wrapping up the show.

Saturday’s shows had their gems as well with Bonnie Duncan’s Squirrel Stole My Underpants. Along with her puppetry skills, Bonnie is a trained dancer and it shows. She is lively on her feet as she bounds with energy through the pacing of this show. Without any dialog, her expressions and movement spin a wonderful tale with the puppet protagonist. Bonnie’s show was a master class in story telling. Lines of clothes become a dark forest that comes to life, an ocean she must cross and a large tree made of laundry as she tracks down her prized panties. The tale is equal parts silly and triumphant.

The late night puppet slam is always an interesting collection of talent. Ideas are presented from the sublime to the ridiculous. A favorite included the telling of a Jewish joke with puppets. The husband and wife team of Anna Sobel and Brian Bender invoked vaudeville with Brian on melodica and trombone and Anna acting out the tale with colorful hand puppets. It’s wonderful seeing stories of all faiths and backgrounds being represented in puppetry.

I may never be a marionette artist but, I wanted to see how the pros string and manipulate their puppets in the Sunday morning workshops. Lead by National Marionette Theatre’s David Syrotiak Jr., it was a master class in marionette movement. What looks like simple movement, rocking and swaying, turns out to be quite the skill. David went through a cast of half a dozen or more marionettes showing how specific stringing on certain marionettes created movements that are specific to that character; whether it be a soldier attacking with his sword, a ballerina going up on pointe or a dog’s legs alternating as he walks. When us students had a chance to hold a puppet, creating movement was like flailing in the water for a first swim lesson.

Sunday afternoon, we were treated to a toy theatre performance titled “Emma’s Parlor”, a wonderfully passionate story of anarchist and women’s rights activist Emma Goldman. Lorna Howley and Martina Plag created this moving piece with an elaborate toy theatre stage with scenes moving in and out. Toy cardboard binoculars were provided for the audience so we could examine the tiny set from our seats. It was a brilliant touch. The stage was decorated with old luggage, a victrola and bird cage which were all incorporated in the story. Howley embodied the character of Emma and emoted brilliantly. When the show ended, the audience erupted with wild applause and a well-deserved standing ovation.

Each piece of puppet theatre is a class where we have the opportunity to better ourselves. To the strong story tellers mentioned here, I thank you from every felty fiber of my puppet being. I look forward to every puppet festival to continue my education and help me be a better puppeteer.

See Up In Arms on Instagram for additional photos from the puppet homecoming exhibit.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Monster Wrap-Up

Back stage before the May 10 premiere of Monster Intelligence

We performed our three shows of Monster Intelligence for our Orange County (NY) Tourism Arts Grant. While it's nice to be able to offer a free show and promote it on your own, our free reservations had a problem with not showing up and we ended up turning away people who tried to reserve after the first two shows were sold out. Still, we played to near-sell-out audiences in our first two venues and the audiences were wonderful. In our area, with park lands and various destinations vying for the attention of families with children, it seems a beautiful, warm day can be difficult to entice families with children inside for a puppet show. Because of these reasons, it feels a better fit when a puppet company is hosted by a venue that has a following as many of my puppet performing brothers and sisters enjoy regular bookings in libraries during the summer months.


Sports Monster with Melvin at the May 10 premiere of Monster Intelligence

Our final show was a 'no-reservation' show in a large community center. Even though we had a similar turn-out as our low-capacity venues, I was satisfied with the marketing. We had the ability of placing our color flyers with an elementary school where I had performed our anti-bullying show Helping Drew. The children's retailers in a local mall were also very accommodating in placing our flyers at their cash registers to help promote the show. It didn't hurt to mention that "Orange County Tourism was sponsoring a FREE puppet show" in their town. Thanks, also, to Puppeteers Unite Blog for hosting my story on the team of community members behind the show.

Grandmonster with Emily and Jenny after the June 14
performance of Monster Intelligence

The grant specifically asked how we would measure the success of our program which sparked an idea to survey our audiences. This helped us gather information about the reception and impact of our show. Audiences were overwhelmingly happy with the program. Since we have an educational component to our shows as well, we surveyed what the kids may have learned and the answers reflected many of the lessons that were covered in the show. Of course, we wanted to know what families might pay for this type of entertainment and it fell in line with what we expected. Our theatre audience would pay between $10-$25, our library audience was a little more conservative at $10-$15 and our family audience at the final show preferred a lower $5-$10 which is what we had expected all along. While most of the children attending were in the 3-10 year range, we had some infants, teens and, our oldest audience member was 97. It was great to share our art with such a range of the population.

Monster Intelligence is tentatively scheduled to play the Center for Performing Arts in Rhinebeck, NY on November 22, 2014 and we hope to continue bookings through the year for family audiences. The final performance was filmed for promotional purposes and we hope to have a promotional video online soon.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Puppeteering Test of Stamina and Strength


Monster Intelligence has finally premiered. The baby is born and I feel like I may finally get my head above water. What a process! I wrote about the community surrounding this project in a recent post on Puppeteers Unite!  

When I first began with Helping Drew, our half-hour anti-bullying show, there were moments in the show that fatigued me quick. The principal, Mrs. Tector, is a heavier puppet and enjoys a substantial amount of stage time. In the beginning, puppeteering her was a test of stamina. Each show, you feel that moment arrive but, over the years, I've been able to adjust and get through the show with relative ease. Helping Drew seems to be the perfect combination of performing and rests while the other puppeteer performs. It's my favorite show to perform. When we premiered Welcome Park last year, my hand went numb by the end of the first performance. The lead character was heavy and he stayed out on stage for something like 15 minutes in the beginning and 17 minutes in the end with a brief rest in the middle. We ended up splitting the lead character for future performances with the 2nd puppeteer on the lead in the opening and me on the lead in the final stretch. Splitting up the duties helped a lot.

With Monster Intelligence, there are regular breaks with the lead character being light and easy to operate but, the show runs about an hour which ends up being a test regardless of the breaks and weight of puppets. During one particularly arduous rehearsal, I was struck with panic that maybe this show was not meant to be performed by two puppeteers. It was then, I recalled a performance by David Stephens at the 2013 POA National Festival, where he held aloft two characters at a time in a multiple-character show making entrances and exits while performing all the voices for a 45 minute stretch. I can not fathom where he musters that strength or skill. He must have 4 extra arms hidden under his shirt. After a decent dress rehearsal, Monster Intelligence felt more attainable as a performer. It can be accomplished! The muscle memory seemed to kick in as it did for Helping Drew. On our premiere performance this past weekend, it was tiring but not impossible. Charlie Kanev performed the lead, Melvin (the purple guy above), while I performed the rest of the cast and shared performing one other character. Charlie's characterizations and reactions belied any fatigue he may have been feeling. It's always an inspiration to work with performers like that who elevate your own work. 

I want to encourage other aspiring performers by saying that my puppet skills are always improving and the stamina you need will be there if you keep rehearsing. 

Grab life by the puppet!