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!


Jeff Bragg said...

I loved my first national festival and getting to hang out with you. Here's to Minneapolis in 2017!

David said...

Jeff - Always great to catch up with you. Hope to see you soon!