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.