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.