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

Monday, September 08, 2014

Puppet Homecoming 2014

This past weekend was the NE Regional Puppet Festival, “Puppet Homecoming”, and it went by in a blink of an eye. The event took place on the camp grounds of Ramapo for Children in beautiful Rhinebeck, NY. I commuted with my puppet comrade Emily Dykeman and we both had a wonderful time.

Arriving Friday evening, I checked in a couple puppets from my show Monster Intelligence to be used in the exhibit and met Facebook friend Jeff Bragg. Jeff has been a friend in the online world for some time and these festivals are always a great place to put faces to the online names and make lasting friendships. After dinner, we were treated to shows by fellow puppeteers and were wowed by The Tanglewood Marionettes and their presentation of The Dragon King. Theirs was a lesson in the beauty in the details. Gorgeous marionettes were paired with a beautifully painted scrolling background, set pieces that flew in and out and numerous pieces of eye candy that created a delightful experience. If you ever get the chance to see a Tanglewood show, do yourself a favor and go!

On Saturday, I took two morning workshops dealing with tips and tricks of the trade. The first was with Tom Tucker, a puppeteer from Philadelphia. Tom has a great, infectious passion for all the tools and tricks that make puppet building a breeze. From the best super glue (gorilla glue brand) to micro tools and the best materials for shadow puppets, Tom covered the gamut with a great enthusiasm. No matter how many years you spend in this business, you can always glean a new tip or trick from other builders. My second workshop was with Lex Rudd from Jim Henson’s Creature Shop Challenge which aired on the SyFy channel. If you haven’t seen the show, you can watch episodes online. Lex was a fan favorite and a PGOGNY member. She was the only contestant who actually worked in the ‘puppet world’. Lex shared her process and some of her wonderful puppet designs. Toward the end of the workshop, she gave insights into the Creature Shop Challenge from auditions through the show itself. It was great to find out that she has done some freelance work for the Creature Shop since wrapping up the show.

Saturday’s shows had their gems as well with Bonnie Duncan’s Squirrel Stole My Underpants. Along with her puppetry skills, Bonnie is a trained dancer and it shows. She is lively on her feet as she bounds with energy through the pacing of this show. Without any dialog, her expressions and movement spin a wonderful tale with the puppet protagonist. Bonnie’s show was a master class in story telling. Lines of clothes become a dark forest that comes to life, an ocean she must cross and a large tree made of laundry as she tracks down her prized panties. The tale is equal parts silly and triumphant.

The late night puppet slam is always an interesting collection of talent. Ideas are presented from the sublime to the ridiculous. A favorite included the telling of a Jewish joke with puppets. The husband and wife team of Anna Sobel and Brian Bender invoked vaudeville with Brian on melodica and trombone and Anna acting out the tale with colorful hand puppets. It’s wonderful seeing stories of all faiths and backgrounds being represented in puppetry.

I may never be a marionette artist but, I wanted to see how the pros string and manipulate their puppets in the Sunday morning workshops. Lead by National Marionette Theatre’s David Syrotiak Jr., it was a master class in marionette movement. What looks like simple movement, rocking and swaying, turns out to be quite the skill. David went through a cast of half a dozen or more marionettes showing how specific stringing on certain marionettes created movements that are specific to that character; whether it be a soldier attacking with his sword, a ballerina going up on pointe or a dog’s legs alternating as he walks. When us students had a chance to hold a puppet, creating movement was like flailing in the water for a first swim lesson.

Sunday afternoon, we were treated to a toy theatre performance titled “Emma’s Parlor”, a wonderfully passionate story of anarchist and women’s rights activist Emma Goldman. Lorna Howley and Martina Plag created this moving piece with an elaborate toy theatre stage with scenes moving in and out. Toy cardboard binoculars were provided for the audience so we could examine the tiny set from our seats. It was a brilliant touch. The stage was decorated with old luggage, a victrola and bird cage which were all incorporated in the story. Howley embodied the character of Emma and emoted brilliantly. When the show ended, the audience erupted with wild applause and a well-deserved standing ovation.

Each piece of puppet theatre is a class where we have the opportunity to better ourselves. To the strong story tellers mentioned here, I thank you from every felty fiber of my puppet being. I look forward to every puppet festival to continue my education and help me be a better puppeteer.

See Up In Arms on Instagram for additional photos from the puppet homecoming exhibit.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Monster Wrap-Up

Back stage before the May 10 premiere of Monster Intelligence

We performed our three shows of Monster Intelligence for our Orange County (NY) Tourism Arts Grant. While it's nice to be able to offer a free show and promote it on your own, our free reservations had a problem with not showing up and we ended up turning away people who tried to reserve after the first two shows were sold out. Still, we played to near-sell-out audiences in our first two venues and the audiences were wonderful. In our area, with park lands and various destinations vying for the attention of families with children, it seems a beautiful, warm day can be difficult to entice families with children inside for a puppet show. Because of these reasons, it feels a better fit when a puppet company is hosted by a venue that has a following as many of my puppet performing brothers and sisters enjoy regular bookings in libraries during the summer months.

Sports Monster with Melvin at the May 10 premiere of Monster Intelligence

Our final show was a 'no-reservation' show in a large community center. Even though we had a similar turn-out as our low-capacity venues, I was satisfied with the marketing. We had the ability of placing our color flyers with an elementary school where I had performed our anti-bullying show Helping Drew. The children's retailers in a local mall were also very accommodating in placing our flyers at their cash registers to help promote the show. It didn't hurt to mention that "Orange County Tourism was sponsoring a FREE puppet show" in their town. Thanks, also, to Puppeteers Unite Blog for hosting my story on the team of community members behind the show.

Grandmonster with Emily and Jenny after the June 14
performance of Monster Intelligence

The grant specifically asked how we would measure the success of our program which sparked an idea to survey our audiences. This helped us gather information about the reception and impact of our show. Audiences were overwhelmingly happy with the program. Since we have an educational component to our shows as well, we surveyed what the kids may have learned and the answers reflected many of the lessons that were covered in the show. Of course, we wanted to know what families might pay for this type of entertainment and it fell in line with what we expected. Our theatre audience would pay between $10-$25, our library audience was a little more conservative at $10-$15 and our family audience at the final show preferred a lower $5-$10 which is what we had expected all along. While most of the children attending were in the 3-10 year range, we had some infants, teens and, our oldest audience member was 97. It was great to share our art with such a range of the population.

Monster Intelligence is tentatively scheduled to play the Center for Performing Arts in Rhinebeck, NY on November 22, 2014 and we hope to continue bookings through the year for family audiences. The final performance was filmed for promotional purposes and we hope to have a promotional video online soon.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Puppeteering Test of Stamina and Strength

Monster Intelligence has finally premiered. The baby is born and I feel like I may finally get my head above water. What a process! I wrote about the community surrounding this project in a recent post on Puppeteers Unite!  

When I first began with Helping Drew, our half-hour anti-bullying show, there were moments in the show that fatigued me quick. The principal, Mrs. Tector, is a heavier puppet and enjoys a substantial amount of stage time. In the beginning, puppeteering her was a test of stamina. Each show, you feel that moment arrive but, over the years, I've been able to adjust and get through the show with relative ease. Helping Drew seems to be the perfect combination of performing and rests while the other puppeteer performs. It's my favorite show to perform. When we premiered Welcome Park last year, my hand went numb by the end of the first performance. The lead character was heavy and he stayed out on stage for something like 15 minutes in the beginning and 17 minutes in the end with a brief rest in the middle. We ended up splitting the lead character for future performances with the 2nd puppeteer on the lead in the opening and me on the lead in the final stretch. Splitting up the duties helped a lot.

With Monster Intelligence, there are regular breaks with the lead character being light and easy to operate but, the show runs about an hour which ends up being a test regardless of the breaks and weight of puppets. During one particularly arduous rehearsal, I was struck with panic that maybe this show was not meant to be performed by two puppeteers. It was then, I recalled a performance by David Stephens at the 2013 POA National Festival, where he held aloft two characters at a time in a multiple-character show making entrances and exits while performing all the voices for a 45 minute stretch. I can not fathom where he musters that strength or skill. He must have 4 extra arms hidden under his shirt. After a decent dress rehearsal, Monster Intelligence felt more attainable as a performer. It can be accomplished! The muscle memory seemed to kick in as it did for Helping Drew. On our premiere performance this past weekend, it was tiring but not impossible. Charlie Kanev performed the lead, Melvin (the purple guy above), while I performed the rest of the cast and shared performing one other character. Charlie's characterizations and reactions belied any fatigue he may have been feeling. It's always an inspiration to work with performers like that who elevate your own work. 

I want to encourage other aspiring performers by saying that my puppet skills are always improving and the stamina you need will be there if you keep rehearsing. 

Grab life by the puppet! 

Wednesday, January 01, 2014

A Monster New Year

About a year ago, finishing the Up In Arms show Welcome Park as we were about to record, writer Alex and I were discussing the plans for the next show. I had an idea about a young monster finding his way in life and Alex, with his knack for storytelling, went to work crafting an amazing, new musical, Monster Intelligence. As my creative life has played out in the past, the right partners to enable this new venture seemed to manifest from this force of serendipity. The first couple of music arrangers that we approached were tied up in other projects and could not give us the time the project required. My friends Joyce and Ed, who have provided vocal talent in both of our previous shows, had worked with Scott Test who is both a music educator and an amazing music arranger. Scott's music arrangements have raised the bar on this show that I'm so excited to share with the world. Monster Intelligence has an energy surrounding it that feels full of positivity and promise. I applied for and was granted an Orange County (NY) Arts Grant that will help with the initial production costs and will allow the show to be presented for free at three venues in Orange County in May/June of 2014. Puppet concepts were provided by my good friend Pasha Romanowski at Project Puppet and I'm thrilled to be working with Derek Lux of DLUX Puppets who will be building four of the puppets while I build the other five. What I love most about the puppet community is working with people that you admire who have the same passion and love for the art that you do.
Math Monster waiting for his costume

Each day is a new beginning, a new chance for collaboration, much like the energy that this new year brings. Up In Arms has our first show in Staten Island on the horizon which adds the final borough of NYC to our list of places we've played. On January 25th, we have a public performance of Helping Drew at the Calhoun School on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Within the first couple of months of 2014, we'll be recording Monster Intelligence and finalizing all of our production details in preparation for the May/June launch. March 18-20, Helping Drew will play the Circle Theatre in Grand Rapids, Michigan and March 26 at the Publick Playhouse in Cheverly, Maryland. Other school performances continue to book through this school year. 

While I continue to work on the Up In Arms programming with all of my amazing, creative partners, I received a phone call from a friend toward the end of 2013 requesting my assistance for a project they're working on to create a puppet series to bring joy to young cancer patients in children's hospitals all over. Everyone involved has such passion and heart so, I'm hoping to lend some production and performance help while acting as a liaison to the puppet world to help get their cast of characters created. I can't wait until there's more to report. It's shaping up to be a year filled with love and passion.