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

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

A first-timer at Puppet Festival (r)Evolution August 2013

Monday morning, August 5th, the voice of Ms. Piggy singing "Cuanto le Gusta" was echoing in my head as I packed my car for my trip to the Puppeteers of America National Festival in Swarthmore, PA.

We're on our way
Pack up your pack
And if we stay
We won't come back
How can we go, we haven't got a dime?
But we're going and we're gonna have a happy time

Before I get into the day to day schedule of events, I want to mention how important this week was to me as an artist and human being. As puppeteers, we often work in a bubble. As an artist, I crave outside stimulation and a sense of community to keep me afloat and keep the inspiration flowing. I was completely unprepared for how incredibly transformative this week would be. I recommend it for any puppeteer out there. There were puppeteers from as far away as Australia …hello Murray and Heather! Each dining experience presented an opportunity to meet a new friend from all over the map. I was charged and inspired by the stories and experiences of fellow puppeteers and excitedly exchanging business cards. I was touched by those who would take time to make friends with complete strangers and engaging with young performers who just buzzed with excitement for their craft. It was a special group of very loving people. I made fast friends with Terrence, Jenny, Charlie, Ceris, Linda and Anatar, to name a few and, these are people I suspect will be in my life for a long time to come. With over 500 puppeteers in attendance, I barely scratched the surface of the wonderful people I had the potential of meeting. I was so touched by the special parent or guardian who would chaperone their under-age puppeteer for an entire week so they could find their purpose and develop their art. I was beside myself with the magic and synchronicity that unfolded effortlessly around every corner.

Happy faces of puppeteers greeted me as I met friends from Facebook for the first time. At the Monday evening convocation David Stephens and Tyler Bunch wowed the audience with a performance of Yancy Woodchuck from "Emmet Otter the Musical", complete with live banjo. The tone of this high-caliber week of puppetry is set. David's talents and even his looks are the near embodiment of a young Jim Henson.

The structure of our weekdays ahead was basically breakfast and then our morning workshop from 9 to Noon followed by lunch and an afternoon speaker series or performance at 1:30. Free time was from 3 til dinner or you could choose one of the meet-ups. After dinner was an evening performance with a late night event following.

Tuesday began with a great, thoughtful primer on Directing for Puppetry with Colette Searls, MFA, Directing from UMBC. Colette's focus was having a well-defined vision for your piece and creating moments. The talk was stimulating and thought provoking on ways our shows could either be totally riveting or having audiences looking for the exit. It certainly helped me view some of the presentations during the week a bit differently but, overall, the quality of the work presented was inspiring. I took in the afternoon speaker series with Joe Therrien of Occupy Wall Street. Joe was an engaging speaker. I wished I made more one on one time with Joe during the week. He touched on some of the Occupy stories but focused on the parade puppets that were made. It was all very fascinating. In the evening, we had a double header of shadow puppetry with the riveting ADA/AVA by Manual Cinema. The late night Potpourri added the very engaging panel of "judges" Marty Robinson with Telly, Pam Arciero with Grundgetta and Tyler Bunch with a 'very disgusted' Republican puppet. The hodgepodge of acts ranged from the sublime to the ridiculous with the highlight being 99 year old queen of potpourri Bernice Silver.

My Wednesday workshop was a wonderful talk by Roxie Myhrum on being a puppet coach for theatrical productions. Roxie is the Artistic Director of Puppet Showplace Theatre in Brookline, MA and is one of those speakers with infectious excitement. She invites everyone to enrich the conversation and her knowledge and probing for answers is thoroughly engaging. Jumping ahead to our evening performance which was the Wayne White documentary "Beauty Is Embarrassing". For those of us who already saw the film, this presentation included extended behind-the-scenes antics at Pee Wee's Playhouse and a wonderful Q&A with Wayne following the feature. As in the film, Wayne's message was to be who you are and not to listen to the people who would deny you being an artist. There were cheers throughout the film at this message and Wayne received a well-deserved standing ovation when he appeared for his Q&A. Wednesday evening was also the highly anticipated National Puppetry Slam. Favorites included a shadow puppet improv by The Shadow Puppet Conspiracy, the funny and charming "The Bread Death", a black-light puppet show by Gavin Cummins with pre-recorded narration by 5 year old Gavin, "The Adventures of Wonder Toast", an insanely creative and entertaining piece by Amy Rush and my favorite character of the festival, Margarine, as performed by Honey Goodenough.

Thursday's workshop was a vacuum-forming tutorial with my online friend Gordon Smuder. It was fun to learn from a pro like Gordon who has worked in prop and puppet design for years. I can't say enough about my afternoon show of "Lunatic Cunning" by James Godwin. It's a solo show built from his personal experiences. From the program guide: "Godwin leads his audience ever further on a voyage of synchronicity, silly magic and mythological awakening. Humorous and haunting." Indeed. The show verged on Twilight Zone one moment and hysterical the next. If you get off on an "experience" for entertainment, James provides it. I have to note, his stand-up comedian plant puppet had us all laughing hysterically as well. Standing ovation for Mr. Godwin. If you ever get a chance to see it - GO! During Thursday's reconnect time, I headed to the puppet exhibit with my friend Terrence and saw some fantastic puppets by some of the amazing festival artists.
 Flexitoon Puppets

Yamasong by Sam Koji Hale

Thursday's late-night fringe performances included about a dozen acts spread around campus for an hour which would repeat on Saturday for other pieces you may like to see. Some were half hour so you could see two in one night while others were the full hour. I chose the toy theatre pieces which included Charlie Kanev's "The Curious Adventures of Morbid Melvin." As a "young performer" Charlie already embodies the pedigree of an established artist. Morbid Melvin had clarity, vision and artistry on par with the other acts. I'm already looking forward to Charlie's puppet adaptation of "The Little Mermaid."

Friday morning, Michael Schupbach and his Puppet Kitchen cohorts lead a Foam Head Patterning workshop. It's great to add new patterns and skills to your puppet building arsenal and the PK gang was engaging and entertaining throughout. Thank you Michael, Emily and Eric! In the afternoon, I attended the talk with Avenue Q puppet builder and performer Rick Lyon. Rick spoke of his puppet past from college all the way through Avenue Q. It's great to hear the story from struggling artist through success and the common struggles that he still experiences from time to time. Rick brought along a video tour of his massive 5000 square foot workshop in New Jersey. When the talk was done, the screen raised to reveal a table of Avenue Q characters which elicited gasps of excitement from the audience. Rick also treated us to a peek at his original Trekkie Monster puppet which looked more Cookie-Monster-esque with Spock-like ears and Trek shirt. Rick was just wonderful and delightful. During the reconnect time on Friday, Charlie, Jenny, Terrence and myself happened upon the Puppeteers Tea. It ran for a few days during the reconnect time and I had more interest in a nap the first couple of days since my late nights were leaving me sleep deprived. I was delighted to experience this talk moderated by the esteemed veterans of our profession. The talk would bounce around the room with input from the participants. A sense of continuity was created that made us 'younger' performers feel like we were part of a 'blood-line' of traditional folk artists/ storytellers and we will carry the torch to the next generation of artists and audiences. I felt my emotions welling up in my throat a few times through this talk. Such love and admiration for all involved. Friday evening, Seth Shaffer presented Dick Myers' Cinderella with Myers' original sets and rod puppets. The shows were originally presented in the 60s but the wit and humor were still fun and captivating. The fact that the show was performed by just one puppeteer was a testament to the virtuosity and magic that Seth conveys as an artist.

Shows on Saturday were mostly held in the town of Swarthmore at various spaces and businesses. My first show of the day was David Stephens' Reluctant Dragon. It was another virtuoso performance with beautiful mouth/rod puppets evoking the Muppet-style. David was the one performer for a cast of half-a-dozen characters, providing voices LIVE for the entire one-hour show. I don't know how the man does it! I'm exhausted with a 2nd performer helping me for an hour in a pre-recorded show! David's script was highly entertaining and hysterical for the kids and adults in attendance. Performing live, he was able to include a couple inside jokes from the week at the festival. Another well-deserved standing ovation. See an All Hands Productions show if you get the chance. David is based out of Atlanta but, travels as well. My second show on Saturday was "The Joshua Show." Think Mr. Rogers meets Pee Wee's Playhouse and let your heart sing for an hour at a pitch-perfect production executed simply, creatively which was absolutely delightful. The perfectly charming host Joshua Holden with his musical sidekick Alex Knapp playing his ukelele, sang and interacted with Joshua's cast of puppet characters including the grumpy sock puppet Mr. Nicholas, the Snail Male and the wonderfully inventive book puppet, all performed by Joshua as well. I bolted to my feet for a well-deserved standing ovation and didn't want the show to end. It was such a gift. Connect with Joshua on Facebook and see his show when it will, no doubt, tour. Make a CD Joshua! We want merch to remember this show forever! "Oh, oh my goshua!"
The Joshua Show

Lunch and then the puppet parade in town led us all back on campus for an outdoor arena presentation of Heather Henson's "Celebration of Flight." Some audience members were provided with paper puppet versions of the catfish, crane, sea turtle and earth (rattle) to interact along with the show which added to the experience. The show was a "story of harmony and hope" which focused on the message of living in harmony with the earth and our fellow creatures. The kite-styled puppetry and beautiful 'world-music' kept my spirits soaring through the presentation. I was in the moment with hundreds of puppeteers and new family in a celebration of love. This is another show that should not be missed if you get a chance to experience it.
Celebration of Flight

Jenny and I helped Charlie set up for his Saturday fringe performance. I checked out some of the other performers and we all met for dinner before the Festival awards and films on the main lawn. Jenny provided her Muppet blanket for comfort with Terrence, Charlie and myself settling in for our last evening together. A late-night dance and get together was held at the hall where we had gathered for the slam and potpourri. We tried to hang on to those last moments as long as we could, not wanting to leave our new families behind. I was happy to run in to a couple other people to chat with in the final hours. Honey Goodenough entertained us, granting our request to hear Margarine one last time. We walked across campus, some heading to dorms, myself, leaving for my room in town. Big hugs ensued with lumps in throats, love emanating and friendships solidified. I'm addicted, looking forward to the regional fest to see my local puppet family in 2014 and back to the National in 2015. In the mean time, I will certainly see some of my local friends at puppet events in NYC.

If you plan on attending a future Festival, here are some pointers I'd like to mention and to remind myself. Have those business cards or postcards ready from day one. Register as early as possible to be sure to get the workshops and talks you want. I registered in January for this August event. READ all those descriptions before you sign up as well. Some workshops end up appealing to you more after the workshop deadline closes in June. Camera phones are fine but, nothing beats a real camera for spontaneous photos. The lag time on my iPhone caused me to miss a few shots. Don't be shy to ask for pics and ask others to take your group shots with you and all your new, amazing friends. If you have a smart phone, there really is no need to bring a computer unless it's essential to a performance piece. I checked my computer the first day but, left it in my room the rest of the week. There are too many people to talk to and things to do. We regularly lingered in the dining hall for close to two hours just talking.  Additionally, if you're a heavy smart-phone user, bring your charger or charging wands to plug in as the phones were straining for signals at times and draining battery. If you buy books at the puppetry store, don't bother packing them in your day bag the rest of the week. They only add extra weight and, again, you have much more to do in the present than read a book, I promise. Push yourself to have conversations with people you wish you could talk to. Chances are, there's some magic or purpose to you meeting that person. It certainly seemed that way to me the entire week. Special mentions to Brittany's Aunt Sally (what a gem) and Julian, an absolute delight of a young artist and all-around, wonderful human being.

As I posted on Facebook my final day of the Festival "Leaving the Puppeteers of America festival, I have been awed and inspired by the amazing artistry I've seen and on the verge of happy tears at the love and new friendships I've been fortunate enough to experience. Complete strangers have become fast friends and the 'magic' and synchronicity has touched us all to the depths of our creative souls. I leave here changed and humbled, filled with love."
Puppet family - Terrence, Charlie, Jenny and Me