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

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.