How I got started in puppetry

Elizabeth Barrette asked, “How did you get into your cool practice of acquiring bizarre props and building puppets?”

This is one that comes up a lot and, strangely, I don’t think I’ve posted on it, so I’ll give the long answer.

I was one of those kids who wanted to do everything. My parents indulged me and so I took violin, art, theater classes, writing workshops and then, in high school, discovered puppetry. A friend of mine went to a church that had a puppet ministry program, which was the coolest thing ever. I started going to the church so I could be involved — maybe not the best reason to join a church. Anyway, I got very lucky because the leaders of the puppetry program worked very hard on teaching us good skills. A lot of puppet ministry programs have truly dreadful puppetry.

I loved the puppetry. When our high school did Little Shop of Horrors, I was the plant.

I did puppetry as a hobby until I went to college. I majored in art education with a minor in theater, which was the closest I could come to combining everything that I loved to do. ((Later I learned about colleges, like the University of Connecticut, that had puppetry programs.)) My sophomore year, the college did Little Shop and I was the plant again.

Then a professional puppeteer came to see the show. Until that moment, it had never occurred to me that someone would actually get paid to do puppetry. I mean, sure, I’d seen Sesame Street, but that was on PBS and everyone knew that PBS was run by volunteers, right? Yeah… But this puppeteer, Dee Braxton, owned a house, only worked a couple of days a week and most importantly, was willing to train me. By the end of the first summer, she was handing me the gigs she couldn’t take. People were giving me money. To do puppets. I was making more money doing that than my part-time job.

Later, I realized that we lived in an area of the country with a very low cost of living and that we were the only puppeteers in a three county radius. It helps.

From there I went to the Center for Puppetry Arts in Atlanta, GA for an internship. This shaped me as a puppeteer more than anything else. George Latshaw (like unto a god, in puppetry) was directing, and the cast was a dream team of puppeteers, Jon Ludwig, Jane Catherine Shaw, Bobby Box, and Peter Hart. Pete was in charge of the internship program and my mentor. If I tried to say enough good things about that program, I would bore you, so suffice to say that I can trace everything back to there.

After the internship, I just kept working. I’ve been at it for nineteen years now and, with the exception of a two-year break due to a wrist injury, have made my living as a puppeteer.

Until I came to NYC.

Now the irony here is that, before Iceland, I’d had several years where I worked three to five months out of the year here, as a puppeteer. I always felt as if I would work constantly if I lived here. And behold, that’s true. The odd thing is that almost all the work has been in the props department.

That’s something I stumbled into and I’m not quite sure how I feel about it. On the one hand, I enjoy it and it’s honest work. On the other hand, it’s not why we came to NYC and is taking up so much time that I haven’t had a chance to really pursue puppetry and it’s cutting into my writing time.

Rob and I are talking about how to balance that, going forward. I’ll keep you posted on how that goes.

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11 Responses

  1. Michele

    I understand about not knowing that you can have a real job doing something you enjoy. When I was in university, I had part-time jobs in computer support (which I really enjoyed). Yet the only career in computers that I could think of was being a programmer. I was pleasantly surprised when I got a full-time job in computer support…. I had always thought of those as part-time student jobs.

    Hope you can find your way back to puppetry…. or at least something you enjoy as much.

  2. Jeff

    Oh believe me when I say I had absolutely no clue about professional puppeteers prior to ‘meeting’ you. What a neat world to catch a glimpse of!

    1. Mary Robinette Kowal

      Most people don’t, which is why I have to tag my career choice with the word “professional.” I think puppetry is becoming more mainstream.

      The first comment people used to make was, “but what do you really do?” Now it tends to be, “Have you seen Being John Malkovich?”

  3. Mike F

    That is great when you can do something for a living that you really enjoy. It’s too bad your not doing as much puppetry as you’d like. I hope you find the balance you like.

  4. Joy Marchand

    Hi Mary,

    It was an absolute delight to see you perform in Peter and the Wolf when we came to visit. I returned from the trip to New York filled with enthusiasm for the arts, and for pursuing a job I’ll enjoy even half as much as you seem to enjoy yours. You’ve also been an inspiration to Kayleigh. She came back from our trip filled with admiration for your theater activities.

    We <3 lots of people, but we <3 arts nerds the bestest.

    Joy

    1. Mary Robinette Kowal

      Art nerds really are the best. It was lovely to have both you and Kayleigh here. I hope that timing works out for her to come back and do a week of interning with me sometime.

  5. David Loftus

    Is it all “learn by doing/on-the-job training” from here on out, or are there any further formal avenues for professional education/being mentored, for you?

    1. Mary Robinette Kowal

      That’s a good question, David. There are still definitely opportunites for formal training. Puppetry festivals (like cons for writers) always offer a workshop track, usually with a couple of master classes taught by extremely experienced puppeteers. I usually look for ones in areas that I’m less familiar, for instance, Jim Gamble taught one on trick marionette controls that was pretty interesting.

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