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

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Winter's Children

Photo above is from my latest project which bowed yesterday. I was asked by my friends at Just Off Broadway, Inc. to include a short puppet piece for their Dinner with Santa event. My good friend and fellow puppeteer Rich Hotaling suggested using the Winter's Children poem for a performance by the puppets. My friendly monster Russell, in the foreground, played the part of Wind. With a faux branch of brown leaves, he swayed the branch back and forth as he delivered his poetry with command and character. Drew and Sheila, the humanoid puppets, stepped into the roles of Jack Frost and Ice respectively. Both are from my show Helping Drew. Costumes were made by my very talented friend Hannah Butler. I fashioned pointy ears for Drew made to slip on his original ears. Ice crown and snow crown were made by myself. The friendly white monster Snow was specially built by myself for this production.

We had four days to record and rehearse but, all told, only about a ten minute piece. New dialogue was written in between the verses of the poem for banter between the characters. The 'Old Man Winter' part of the poem was replaced by Mother Nature who was played by a live human actor, Cat Capolupo. Cat is one of those actors who understands immediately the direction given to her and flawlessly creates magic with her performance. Her interaction with the puppets was reminiscent of The Magic Garden and early Sesame Street. She inspires me to want to create more puppet/human interactive pieces.

At the conclusion of Winter's Children, Mother Nature sang a beautiful rendition of Winter Wonderland, naturally, joined by the puppets as they swayed and broke out in various ad-libs. As the evening wound up, puppeteers came out front to join the elves and our young guests in a Christmas carol sing-along. Naturally, we stuck around for pictures with our guests and a couple kids had hugs for the puppets as well. It's safe to say, the puppets were the hit of the evening. I'm already looking forward to creating a yearly tradition with our friends at Just Off Broadway, Inc. and thinking up new, creative ideas for each show.

Puppeteers David Manley as Jack Frost, John Marro as Wind and Rich Hotaling as Snow

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Pondering Master Puppeteer and Puppet Performance

I have some puppet build and latest project news I thought would be my next post but, I don't have all the images just yet. Instead, my mind was wrapped around what it means to be a master puppeteer and the idea of realistic hand/rod puppet performance.

My promotional video for Helping Drew was shot at the end of a long day and just after a showcase which was just filmed. I knew the producer would need my interview and I can still see how bleary-eyed I was in that clip. I was asked about my goals and blurted out what I thought was the ultimate goal as a child. I had always heard the term "Jim Henson, Master Puppeteer" and that's what I aspired to. What I didn't realize when I was 10 was "Master Puppeteer" is a term that you don't just achieve, it is a title that is bestowed upon you by others, not something you can easily 'claim' unless you are Jim Henson, Bill Baird or even Basil Twist. A college journalism major interviewed me for a paper she was doing on someone following their passion. She had prepared by looking over my website and watched the promotional video for Helping Drew. She asked me to expand on the idea of being a master puppeteer and I laughed. I mentioned how I could not claim that title and was certainly no master but it's still something I attempt to strive for. I offered her that a master is obviously someone who has mastered the craft and can also indicate teacher. What the O'Neill Puppetry Conference stresses are the three disciplines that comprise puppetry: creating a narrative; building the puppet and training the performer. Those are, certainly, all things that Jim Henson encompassed as a master puppeteer. Creating a narrative can be something as simple as the puppet's character. It creates a relatable back-story that enables the audience to relate to the character. It goes hand in hand with bringing that inanimate object to life... not just flopping a puppet around but, really breathing life into it as only a true puppeteer - an artist - can.

I use hand/rod puppets in the 'Henson' style. Whether I'm working with students at the theatrical academy or working with a new puppeteer for Helping Drew, I want them to get the subtlety of the mouth movement and how to create the reality of bringing that inanimate object to life. These thoughts kept me up last night as I jotted the following into my notebook.

When you make the mouth of a puppet move, you are not just simulating the syllables of its speech escaping its mouth. You are simulating SUBTLE jaw movement to give the appearance of life-like speech. This is more subtle than trying to get the mouth open on every syllable. A good puppeteer will not have to open the puppet mouth on every syllable but still give a very realistic appearance that the puppet is actually talking. Getting syllables out does not equate believability. Gesture and nuance and being subtle makes the performance believable.

For example, if a puppet says "Hi, I'm Dave, how are you?" You do not need to open the puppet mouth 6 times. The words "how are" flow together and require only one movement. The words "how are you" require only 2 pulses of the hand. In the Helping Drew script, Lee sings "Jokes make people laugh". Although 5 syllables, they require only 3 pulses. Gentle pushes and turn of the hand will color the performance to make it look as if the puppet is speaking every syllable. Also, when we learn the basics of theatre, emphasis is put on the actor being IN the scene. Just as you would act and react to what is happening around you, so must a puppet in whatever scene they are in.

There was a great piece, I think, in the book "Of Muppets and Men" where the discussion regarded the proper lip-sync being central to the performance. That needed to come naturally before the rest of the performance for the puppeteer to be on their game. One of my favorite videos on puppet speech is a short clip of Frank Oz in this compilation [below]. His explanation of puppet lip-sync starts around the 4:03 mark.

Monday, October 29, 2012

The power in DOING

I had come home the day prior from the gig in the Bronx presenting Helping Drew to about 500 pre-K through 4th grade students. I was mounting some of the puppets on stands to be sure they properly aired out. After two shows back to back, they get plenty of hand sweat inside. Drew had a loose arm rod that had originally been hot-glued into place and it was time to epoxy the rod into the dowel properly. I took him into my room where I have my make-shift workshop table set up, made a slit in the duct-taped dowel to remove the rod, cleaned it off and snipped the bend at the end in preparation of inserting it into the top of the dowel after I got it drilled. Drew looked back at me with his puppet grin and I couldn't help but smile.

In March of 2010, I created a couple of random puppet characters inspired by a friend's suggestion. One, King Victor, resembled my late grandfather, the other, Prince Skip, was an alternative thinker who preferred wearing a pink polo with a bejeweled fleur de lis. Prince Skip would later become Drew. Today, I was struck by this journey. One of Drew's fellow students, Victoria, started her life as Geraldine Allison Flamowitz and was originally created in January of 2009. When Prince Skip was originally created, I was working the last few months of my graphic design job in advertising. We were already informed that our jobs had been cut as part of corporate down-sizing and we were patiently waiting our exit date as to be eligible for a severance package and unemployment benefits. I had a couple of ideas in the back of my head as this chapter would end. I had worked several years with a local non-profit theatre group and they were just purchasing their own building. There was much work to be done in graphic design and production that would keep me plenty busy with the thought that it might, one day, be a full-time paying job. I had previously recorded a CD in 2005 that had decent reviews but, ultimately, did not satisfy my creative yearnings, as well as a brief stint in photography and digital art that only satisfied for a brief time as well. A puppet company was definitely a thought in the back of my head but, how?

I spent time learning my craft at puppet school with Michael Earl and learning from fellow puppeteers and builders in the business like Pasha at Project Puppet, Matt Ficner of Creepy Puppet Project and Tom Stewart at Puppeteers Unite. I combed through puppet blogs extracting all the information I could. I remember reading all the content that Swazzle wrote in their early blogs and interviews with people like James Wojtal. The internet can be such a valuable classroom. In January 2009, I had taken a puppet foam carving class at Lone Wolf Tribe in Brooklyn and saw this wonderful Goethe quote that Kevin had posted in the workshop and it quickly became my mantra. “Whatever you do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius and power and magic in it.” I dared to dream again, as I had as a child, that I could be a puppeteer and, in 2006, the way I began was to start to build puppets. The act of creation and the creativity of others, all that online research, continues to stoke the fires of my creative process. So desperate to find a way to perform, I sent an email off to the guys at Swazzle to see if any of their shows could be done on a royalty basis. They were very nice in turning me down and it was an important lesson to learn. If you want to be a legitimate puppet company, you should express who YOU are through scripts that you find or that you write or adapt. A signature show becomes the 'soul' of that puppet company. Later, I did find a local performer, Alex Ishkanian, who was doing a live, one-man show on bullying. He would embody all the characters with song and monologues to express how the characters felt. I saw the opportunity for puppets where dialogue needed to be created in between the characters and Alex liked the idea and got on board with my project. As mentioned earlier, Prince Skip and Geraldine would fall into the lead rolls of Drew and Victoria respectively. While new puppets were made specifically for Principal Tector and Lee, other earlier puppet creations filled out the background, student body.

When you're doing what your 'soul' knows deep-down you should not be doing, you ultimately will not be satisfied. As Helping Drew was being developed, I became less and less satisfied with the negative politics at the non-profit theatre group and realized how much of my own time I was not dedicating to my own project. I resigned and, in between the job search, I was able to spend more time developing the puppet company. As previously documented on this blog, we opened Helping Drew to a showcase of friends and family earlier this year and began booking in area schools. I signed on with Theatreworks USA as a National booking agent and they had me flying out to an arts in education showcase last week in Ohio. Prior to my trip, I was reading Grey Seal Puppets Drew Allison's blog. He wrote in one of his entries "Sometimes the places those little hunks of polyfoam take me are just too cool." Back to my workshop table at the beginning of this entry, that's exactly how I was feeling. Not only had my puppets taken me to Ohio and a school in the Bronx that I would never imagine going to, this entire journey from 2006 to the end of my graphic design career and the start of this new chapter, all of these incredible people I've met online and in person in this wacky and wild puppet community… there is no other place I'd rather be right now.
Helping Drew slide projected on the big screen at the Ohio conference

I was reminded of an online chat with Puppetsmith members when someone was asking where you begin on a certain project and Pasha mentioned my favorite Goethe quote. The simple message was "BEGIN IT!" It's very easy to get caught up in lists and what needs to be in place for you to have the perfect situation to start but, one can easily get caught in a rut of stagnation if you don't at least DO something. Watch videos, read blogs, see puppet shows and FEED your creative brain. Learn from others and STAY OPEN when people talk about how they do things. We video taped my original showcase and SO many mistakes were made but, that was the wonderful part. That video was invaluable at improving the show. Down the line, I hired a wonderful puppeteer who brought NEW creativity to the show and he even improved MY way of puppeteering. I'm a member of Puppeteers of America and love to read their quarterly Puppetry Journal from cover to cover when it arrives. I'm filled with inspiration from one page to the next. I think any artist will agree that staying open and connecting to this flow is paramount to their growth. WELCOME when people show you a new way of doing things. If it doesn't work for you, you don't have to use it but, many times, there is always something new to learn when you remain open.

New shows are beginning to line up to be produced and my journey has really just begun. I've often told the story of a dream I once had where I proudly proclaimed "I'm an artist" and began to levitate in an expression of freedom. It was an awakening of sorts, realizing that my professional path would not be a traditional one like my peers. As a puppeteer, I'm even more certain of who I am and what amazing direction my life is going in because I'm finally creating my journey as I have always imagined it.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Workshop Round-up and New Creations

The past couple of weeks have been a welcome creative boom. After the success of the puppet manipulation workshop with the younger students, my friends at Just Off Broadway, Inc. asked me back to repeat the 2-hour workshop for their teen students. They end their 2-week intensive with a showcase of their class-work and the creative director, my friend Joyce, asked me to make the puppets available for the evening showcase to perform one of the group numbers that we practiced in class. Since it was only the first verse and chorus, I suggested adding a couple of the solo pieces to the beginning and crafted a short, almost two-and-a-half minute montage for their puppetry performance. The students made me so proud and the energy at the showcase definitely reached a high for the performers and the audience when the stage filled with puppets. It was a wonderful testament to the magic of puppetry. I absolutely adore this photo Joyce took of me and the students.
While doing the workshop for the younger class, I had cleared 8 of my puppets for the 13 students to use. Some had to share, obviously. For the older kids, I was more trusting and went about readying more puppets so that each student could have one in class. I got 13 ready in my stock and had 2 more to build. I had new build ideas brewing for a while and started some basic forms. One was a tentative rebuild of my first puppet Benny. In the process, I wanted to give him different eyes and when the ideas started to take shape, I was building a whole new puppet all together who turned out to be Helga. Complete with real wig, crazy eyes, wonderful blue nail polish and matching earrings and, of course, her crowning glory, a hairy mole on her face. She was truly an inspired creation. The dress is size 2T from JC Penney clearance rack and the bolero-style sweater was an ebay find, size 3T. Double sided tape is a great fix to keep sweaters clinging to puppet shoulders. Helga is the Project Puppet Rotondo Pattern with the Rotondo Fleece Covering Pattern.
My second puppet I wanted to finish for the students was a simple, Glorified Sock Puppet Pattern. I started out with this shaggy turquoise fur aka Punky Muppet from Mendel's. I first started with the nose and thought I would do a hedgehog style character. After trimming the fur and getting the larger eyes in place, I thought I might have a nondescript monster puppet but, I already had a similar one in darker blue. If I could find a good turquoise fleece, I would do ears and hands in that color but, knew my selection at the fabric store might be limited. I liked the idea of using a terry cloth towel so, headed to my local Target instead. As I made my way through bedding, I found a fantastic twin-size fleece blanket in turquoise for only $12.99. The color-match was almost perfect and Douglas the Demented Bunny was born.
Lastly - yes, another puppet! Some friends in the puppet community were conducting a 'top secret' puppet building workshop over the weekend. I really hope it rolls-out soon so I can shout it from the roof-tops. I had a fantastic time building with a group of passionate builders and puppet peeps. We spent two days diving into all of the puppet building basics - character development, proper stitching, working with fur and trimming, contact cement, hot glue, arm rods, and all the details that create the final product. It was 2 solid days of creative work, 9-5. Whatever they charge for this class will be well worth it. The class instructors are there for every question and guidance needed, not to mention, a lot of fun. The final product was a monster and, oddly enough, the next script my writer is working on for Up In Arms is about monsters so, this guy may actually make his debut in one of my shows. For inspiration and creativity, this is one of my best works to date. Tentatively named Russel [or Rusty for his fur.] Yes, that's a mohawk.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Moving Right Along...

Helping Drew, my anti-bullying puppet musical has secured a national booking agent, Theatreworks USA, which will begin to secure bookings in their over 2500 outlets this coming school year. Good friends of mine arranged the introduction and we met at their studios in Manhattan to showcase the show. Our first show has been booked for October and I already have a couple shows booked for local schools as well.

Recently, I've just been updating some puppets. I've added arm rods and articulated hands to older puppets that didn't have them. I'd also like to build a couple extra small puppets to use in situations like the kids classes. I've purchased a new backdrop system that will be easier to set up and transport. I'm testing the ability to have my backdrops printed on fabric and Velcro it to a frame that will make transporting that much easier as well.

This past Thursday, my friends at Just Off Broadway, Inc. asked me to come by their theatrical academy [camp] to teach some puppetry 101 to their students [photo above]. I was happy to oblige since these are the friends who made the introduction with Theatreworks and have worked so tirelessly to help get my puppet productions off the ground. Working with kids is always an unexpected pleasure. It's fun to hear what they're curious about. "You made these??" Well, all except one. Other curiosities included: what's inside the mouth? [material], how do you work both arms?, and... you play with these?? Kids bring their own delight and playfulness when working with the puppets. It inspires my own sense of play and creativity so, it's a welcome time of inspiration. It was a joy to see them so engaged and reluctant to have our time together end. I get to repeat it in a few weeks with the older students as well. Can't wait.

Saturday, March 03, 2012

Easy Puppet Fixes

One thing I have come to love about puppet building is the ease in which you can fix or update most puppets. In the beginning, I built puppets by sewing as well as using a generous amount of hot glue. My early puppets had head and arms with a body 'sleeve' that the arms were glued to. When I learned a simple, foam body to add to my puppets for better form, I used a hair dryer to melt the glue to remove the arms. The body sleeve became a neck sleeve that went into the new body and the arms were fixed with doll joint to the new foam body. Most parts can be re-used if they are still in good shape. I also learned to either Velcro or safety pin the neck sleeve to the bottom inside the body. If a head needs to be re-built or replaced, the old one just detaches and slides right out. No need to rebuild an entirely new puppet.

I also started my puppet building with hands that were stuffed with poly-fill and used a very primitive technique to insert removable arm rods. When I learned a better method to create puppet fingers that were posable and a technique for permanent arms rods, I could easily unstitch the hands, replace the appropriate pieces and sew them back shut. Similarly, with mouth-plates, if they needed a repair or a better grip, you can cut along the back of the puppet hairline with about 1/8th - 1/4 inch fabric from the edge of the hair to sew back together after you access the repair area. This fix is virtually unseen when done properly.

I built this puppet Harvey Furstein back in May of 2009 in a puppet building workshop. I only wanted a basic black pupil and the building method taught was simple yet, with the goal of getting the best results. The hands were just two pieces of fabric glued together with the wire sandwiched in between for posable fingers and the arm rods. The whole hand was then hot-glued to the end of the arms at the 'wrists'. The eyes were also 'lined' with a pipe cleaner. This original incarnation had larger fangs which were replaced soon after the build with smaller ones. Just last month, I decided to update the guy. The eyes were done first by removing the glued-on pipe cleaner and painting over the pupil and eye with acrylic paint. I've been happy with the results of the craft eyes and used those instead with a better placement of the pupil. The eye-lining was replaced with a strip of craft foam. I used the hair dryer again to remove the hands and had extra of the original fabric to build 3-dimensional hands and new arm rods. Any of the old arm fabric that was gunked up with glue at the end, was simply cut away. Harvey looks better than ever now with his bright blue eyes and pro-looking hands.

I made a little blue monster and he was only the 2nd puppet I ever built. He was my first try at the Project Puppet Glorified Sock Puppet pattern. I didn't even take pictures of his original form because I felt he was just a trial 'flop'. The ping pong eyes were glued to the top of his head with flat, black pupils that never had any real personality or focus because the eyes would shift atop the flimsy head. Recently, I decided to at least give him the 3-D craft eyes. When drilling holes in the balls, the dremel slipped and gorged a nice line into one of them. That was it, time to get the hair-dryer to remove the ping pongs. When considering a larger dome eye, I thought I should firm up the head with a foam skull modeled after the top half of the head pattern for the puppet itself. With a firmer 'skull', the posts of the new dome eyes were secured inside and the eyes now have great personality and focus. Another successful, easy fix.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Helping Drew Promo Video is LIVE!

The 2nd showcase we had back in January was filmed by a camera crew and the wonderful, promotional video they made was just delivered and uploaded yesterday.

Our first elementary school show was February 15, 2012 for pre-K to 2nd grade [4-7 year olds] and they were just the perfect audience. We had a blast.

Our Facebook page is up with regular updates for the current shows. Most updates will appear here in the blog but the blog will also carry the regular builds and other puppet happenings.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Showcasing the show

SO much has happened in the past week and a half! The showcase for Helping Drew was a smashing success with wonderful feedback given and lessons learned. If you can rehearse your show in a space that will accomodate all your set-up, it is invaluable.

The initial scenery for the show was printed on a 5-foot wide banner [3-feet tall]. It was wrapped around the stands with Velcro and did not look as neat as I wanted. Above the 6-foot tall stage, it also looked rather dwarfed and the shiny fabric used for the stage looked like a black abyss though, the show stood on its own and was still pitch-perfect [if I must say so myself]. Doing a showcase like this allows one to solicit feedback and see how it works in order to make the necessary changes. A friend of mine informed me about black masking fabric which absorbs the light instead on reflecting like the shiny fabric. It's also called duvetyn and has been ordered to replace the shiny stuff. One note suggested that the top half of the stage should look like a part of the scenery - perhaps a side of the building. We had a 2nd showcase set up for filming on Thursday where I was able to have a new backdrop of 7 feet and mounted it flat on 2 pieces of foam core. It looked great. The side of the school building will be added prior to public performances.

We made another change for lockers that we had mounted in the foreground on either side and made them more 3-dimensional by adding sides and a top. Anything to add more depth, I think, really helps to make it come more alive.

Just as I was making all these changes and getting everything organized for when we finally go out with the show, I received my first phone call from a school that wants to book Helping Drew for February 15. It has begun! After all this time. What an amazing journey.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Anti-bullying puppet musical launches!

I'm too excited as I approach the launch of my anti-bullying puppet musical Helping Drew. We're 'launching' this weekend, January 14, with a private showcase for our creative crew and starting to accept bookings for K-5 school assembly programs.

A 5 minute audio sample is available on our website at

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