Monday, July 18, 2011

Humbled at Puppetfest Midwest

I recently returned from an amazing week of puppetry in the middle of nowhere; Trenton, Missouri. Once again I was honored to be on the staff of Puppetfest Midwest, an intense puppetry conference that features week-long workshops and nightly performances.

I taught 8 students about our polyfoam puppet techniques and their results were just fantastic. We had a wide range of skill levels and age levels in our class. As the week progressed the bond that grew between the students was really neat to watch. Just look at the amazing characters that these folks created. Awesome!

A true highlight of the week for me was performing our production called "A Show of Virtues." One of the many triumphs that has been cultivated at Puppetfest Midwest is public attendance at festival performances. This is no easy task and yet over the years the public has come to not only look forward to this week of puppeteers overrunning their town, they embrace it! I dare say that over the 9-year history of this festival, the Trenton townsfolk might very well have seen more puppetry than a lot of us puppeteers!

This year, it was one of these local Trentonites who paid me perhaps the highest compliment that I have ever received and I will never forget it.

"A Show of Virtues" begins and ends with this simple line, "This could be your lucky day." I first performed "A Show of Virtues" at Puppetfest Midwest back in 2006. Following that performance, Festival Artistic Director Peter Allen led an audience member backstage to meet me. It was obvious that she had been crying and I came to learn that the final story in the performance, "Why Frog and Snake Don't Play Together" had uncovered some childhood intolerance that she had experienced and that emotional recall had brought her to tears. Oh the power of puppetry! As Peter Allen succinctly put it to me, "it's amazing that your crappy hunks of foam on sticks, telling the simplest of stories, are a powerful enough catalyst to open some door she had shut long ago." Amazing indeed.

Fast forward to this year's performance of the same show. Peter Allen again brought this same special person backstage. Again she had been crying. She told me more about the circumstances of the intolerance from her childhood. I was so glad to see her again. It was amazing and humbling to hear how the stories in my performance had affected her. She explained that seeing the performance this time had been very healing for her and that she was so glad that she had come to the theatre again. Then she said the words that rocked me. She said simply and plainly as our conversation drew to a close, "do you know what? This really was my lucky day, and I thank you."

It meant so much to me that she would take away that small essence of what I was trying to convey with that simple opening and closing line. As a performer it is so necessary to keep a clear conduit between performance and audience and I'm always cognizant of this. It was a triumph for me that these words stuck with her! I was so humbled by her sincerity. I packed up my show feeling the warmth of that compliment and realized yet again how powerfully our theatre form can stir so many emotions within people.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Doug Swink

When I think about the people who helped shape my career in puppetry, a lot of folks come to mind. But three really stand out.

The inimitable Daniel Llords, "one man, two hands," really inspired me as a boy when I saw him perform at Davidson College. His virtuoso performance; his stage crammed with over a hundred marionettes; his cigar-smoking French guy in a sidewalk cafe; are you kidding me? It was completely mind-blowing and set me on this course for life.

Donald Devet, who I worked with for years and years at Grey Seal Puppets, probably did more to influence my current approach to puppetry and puppet theatre philosophy than anyone else.

But the man who to this day puts a tear in my eye when I think about how he helped me so very much wasn't a puppeteer at all. But he did more for me as a person and a puppeteer than I could ever imagine at the time. It's now, in hindsight, that I see the enormity of his investment in me.

His name was Doug Swink, Theatre Professor and amazing Renaissance Man at my Alma Mater, The University of North Carolina at Wilmington.

When I arrived at UNC-Wilmington, full of innocent stupidity and stupid innocence, I went to the Theatre Department and announced to no one in particular that I was a puppeteer and I needed a space to work. The details are a little fuzzy, but I don't believe that the secretary even looked up from her papers; she simply said "go see Doug Swink over at Kenan Auditorium."

So, I did. I made the same announcement to Doug, right there in the lobby of Kenan Auditorium, his preferred place to do his administrating. He stared at me for what seemed an eternity. He twiddled his moustache toy. His blue eyes twinkled. Finally he said, "come with me." I followed him to the second floor where he showed me a vacant faculty office. "Will this do?" he asked.

For the rest of my time at UNC-W I was given this space to use as my own. To this day I find this just so incredible. But it didn't stop there. Doug Swink took me under his wing and tutored me on everything theatre. He critiqued my puppets, he coached my puppeteering and he taught me what constituted a good story.

While at UNC-W I produced two original performances; "A Show of Emotions," and "The Aged Puppeteer." In hindsight these works were pivotal and crucial to my career as a professional puppeteer. Doug Swink guided me through every stage of these pieces with patience, humor and brutal honesty.

Doug Swink was just fantastic. I will never forget him. He made me a better puppeteer. He gave me countless hours of his life and asked only that I do the best work that I was capable of. All the while twiddling his moustache toy, all the while with a twinkle in his eye.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Off to Cayo Hueso

I had a fantastic trip to south Florida last week for performances in Key West and Coral Gables. Sometimes the places those little hunks of polyfoam take me are just too cool.

The first leg of the trip took me to Coconut Creek, Fla, near Ft. Lauderdale. On the way, I stopped for an unbelievable lunch at The Ga. Pig at the Jekyll Island exit on I-95. I don't eat a lot of meat, but I'm a sucker for some slow-cooked beef and their chopped beef sandwich was unbelievable. This place is classic. It was kind of hard to see inside because of all the smoke, so most folks ate outside at picnic tables strewn under the pine trees. The sandwich was perfect for eating in the truck as I continued on my way, it wasn't too sloppy and stayed within the perimeter of the cornmeal-dusted roll really nicely.

Then it was on to my puppeteer buddy Bob Nathanson's house to spend the night. We headed into Fort Lauderdale proper for dinner and to chat with fellow puppeteers Shana Zingman and Dave Goboff. Fun times!

The next day I took off for a leisurely drive down the Keys. Amazing! Not only the flora and the fauna, but the humans were fun to look at too. I slung it into The Wreck and Galley in Marathon for a pretty amazing Grouper BLT and watched the locals swilling beers at the bar, toasting one another on their days off.

I eased on down the Lower Keys into Key West. The vibe was awesome. I cruised Duval just to get a barometer reading. Folks in sleeveless shirts tottered down the strip, swilling from tall plastic cups while they fried in the relentless, equatorial sun. Bars were jammed, bicycle cabs whizzed by and the ubiquitous Conch Trains slunk here and there.

I headed to Glynn Archer School to meet my contact and sponsor, the super cool Phyllis Pope. She led me to the classic old school auditorium and I set up for an evening performance of "Salsa Cinderella."

With my set up complete, I follwed Phyllis to her home and she showed me their Guest House where I would spend the next two nights. It was awesome; outdoor shower, cistern turned swimming pool, giant banyan trees, perfect! I showered up and headed back to the school for the performance. It was a fine audience and we had a fine time!

I reset up for a performance of "Tangle of Tales" the next morning and then headed to Louie's Backyard to unwind. Jim the Bartender out at Louie's Afterdeck handed me a very cold Red Stripe, neatly tucked in a Louie's koozie. I relished the beer as I stared out at a choppy Hawk's Channel. Great way to end the night!

The next day before the show, I stopped at a little window counter on the street next to the school. A nice Cuban woman there made me an absolutely wonderful egg sandwich, pressed on super fresh Cuban bread. A double shot of Cuban Coffee completed the meal and got me all jacked up for the performance. It was a blast performing for the students! After the show, I reset "Salsa Cinderella" for an afternoon performance. A day of puppetry for these students, how cool is that!

After everything was ready, I walked down to El Siboney, which should be a "must do" on any one's trip to Key West. Really fantastic Cuban food at this place. Keeping the afternoon performance in mind, I decided to have a light lunch. A bowl of conch chowder and an order of crispy "tostones" were just perfect.

The afternoon performance was just as much fun as the morning show. I was amazed at how passionate both the students and faculty at Glynn Archer were. This school has a great energy to it!

After the show, I packed up and returned my truck to the Popes' house. I showered up and was free to roam Bone Island once again. My plan was to head to Blue Heaven for an obligatory beer but alas, they were closed for vacation. I changed course and headed towards Virgilio's and ran into the same problem there! What's going on? I changed course yet again and was headed to The Green Parrot when I decided to stop at Caroline's and re=energize myself. It was fine and my stool at the outdoor bar allowed for great people-watching. One last night cap at Louie's Afterdeck and I was done.

I ended my stay in Key West the next morning by joining Phyllis and her husband Tom for breakfast. It was Tom's birthday and they were heading to The Banana Cafe for crepes. Wow, it was super good.

By midday I was heading back north, on my way to Coral Gables and a performance at the really cool Lowe Art Museum on the campus of "The U," The University of Miami.

I missed my guest house accomodations as I checked into a really normal Holiday Inn. But it was fine. The next morning I arrived to set up for the performance of Salsa Cinderella at The Lowe. It was great! The Museum's Jodi Sypher did a fantastic job with the "family day" and packed the house. Too fun!

In the blink of an eye I was once again heading north, on my way back to Charlotte. It was a great trip; fun performances and obviously some fantastic food!

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Bliss in Chapel Hill, NC

It's summertime and for puppeteers like me that means library performances as part of their Summer Reading Programs.

So, there I was in Chapel Hill, North Carolina performing our "Bathtub Pirates" twice for super audiences. Karin Michael has us perform there every year and it is always such a pleasure!

The performances were spaced just far enough apart to dash out for some lunch. Every time I read about some cool spot in some town I might find myself in, I put its name and address in my phone so that a quick search often yields an off-the-beaten track spot for a meal. Voila! Such was the case this day. I entered "Chapel Hill" and up popped "Merritt's Store and Grill." I had made a note: "Order the BLT. "

Now let me back up here a minute. I don't consider myself a vegetarian, I like to think of myself more as a "meat minimalist." More often than not I'll go meatless when given a choice. Bacon is often a source of conversation around our studio because I often refer to it as "the sidemeat of the devil." This is because some 20 years ago my wife Peggy said that we were to swear off bacon forever and ever. She had read some article about the horrors of eating bacon and what it does to us and promptly laid down the aforementioned edict.

However, she did not and does not adhere to her own proclamation. In fact, she may as well be known as the bacon queen nowadays. Her eyes have been known to roll back in her head like a shark in frenzy as she chomps down on some thick-slabbed applewood-smoked pork belly.

I have adhered for the most part. I understand that bacon makes everything better, but as a rule I steer away from it. But, I do have a little rule in my head that says if it is a component of something larger, it's OK every now and again. I'm not as bad as my quasi-vegetarian friend who utter this classic one time: "I'm a vegetarian unless there's meat for free somewhere." But, a BLT sometimes has my number.

Back to Merritt's Store and Grill. Unless you were a Chapel Hill native, or in the know about this place, I think you would definitely drive right on by it. Boy am I glad I had made the note in my phone. You enter the joint and head towards the back where two guys are serving up hot dogs, hamburgers and ta-da, BLTs. You can get a single decker, double decker or triple decker BLT. I opted to go middle of the road and went with the double decker.

Any good Southerner knows that a BLT has to be on white bread. Toasting is allowed, but not necessary. Duke's Mayonnaise. That shouldn't even have to be said or written. Salt and pepper.

In a short flash my double decker was ready. It was wrapped up neatly in waxed paper and handed over to the counter. I headed back up front for a large sweet tea, a bag of Miss Vicki's Jalapeno Chips and a USA Today. Perfect. I paid the exceptionally nice gentleman behind the counter and stepped out into the rising midday Carolina heat. There was an wire-mesh table open in the front yard and I spread the newspaper out and dug in. Four guys sat at the table next to me and ate hamburgers and BLTs and talked about the landscaping job they were currently working on.

I unwrapped the sandwich. It was a work of art. Vibrantly green romaine lettuce, crispy thick bacon and the star of the show, bright red heirloom tomato slices, streaked with pale yellow and tinged with salt and pepper perfectly. It was Heaven. I don't think I even read the paper. I just ate silently, in complete awe of this BLT's perfection. It was the best.

I wadded up my wax paper, gave the obligatory, silent guy nod to the landscapers, refilled my tea glass and headed back for round two at the Chapel Hill Public Library.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Shootin' The Lights Out in Plymouth

Plymouth is a cool little village in Eastern North Carolina, just upstream of the Inner Banks region. Clustered around the southern bank of the Roanoke River, it has the feel of a water town.

After a pleasant drive from Charlotte, I pulled in to town at dinnertime for two school performances the following day.

My taste buds were set on a fish sandwich and a cold beer. I envisioned dining at some riverside dive with my newspaper and the view to accompany me. However, it looked like the sidewalks in downtown Plymouth were rolled up pretty tight. I did have a peek inside the super cool Maritime Museum and while I stood gawking at a beautiful handmade 12’ Bateau that was being raffled off at the Community Art Center; I heard a pickup pull up behind me. A nice guy jumped out and asked me if I wanted to buy some raffle tickets. Ahhh, you have to love the small towns. He explained the boat was donated by its maker in an effort to raise money for the guy down at the Bike Shop who had to go in the hospital and had one hell of a bill to pay. I was “all in” to help out and gave him my address so that he could mail the raffle tickets. I should have asked him where to eat.

The fish sandwich wasn’t happening, but I vowed to seek out some local place, rather than succumbing (shudder) to the fast food chains back out on the big road. I saw a sponsor’s banner, “Mama’s Pizza” on the school ball field fence as I drove out of Plymouth proper. It sounded sort of promising. Mama’s Pizza wasn’t hard to find, it was nestled in a small strip center that was anchored by the Piggly Wiggly.

The place had a good vibe. A hearty mix of locals filled the joint; farmers, fisherman and golfers. They all talked across their tables about their children’s baseball games earlier that night. Cool.

It turned out to be a fine meal; a one trip salad bar followed up by a really great grilled vegetable ravioli. Fantastic. They even had that cold beer I was after. Plymouth you rock.

The next morning found me up and out of the hotel and standing in the office at Pines Elementary School promptly at 7:45am for a 9:00am performance. Things did not start out spectacularly. It went something like this:

Me: Good morning, I’m Drew Allison with Grey Seal Puppets. I’m here to set up for the puppet performance this morning.

School Secretary: (blank look of confusion.)

Me: (Stare back with expectation)

School Secretary: OoooooKayyyy. Where was it supposed to be, in the gym?

Me: I’m not sure.

School Secretary: Which grades were supposed to see it?

Me: I’m not sure.

School Secretary: (whips out walkie talkie) Mrs. Pendergast? Mrs. Pendergast?

Other School Secretary: She isn’t here. She’s gone to a meeting.

School Secretary: (with the slightest of tones) I’m going to have to go out to the Bus Ramp and ask the Assistant Principal where you’re supposed to be.

Suffice it to say that 20 minutes of my set up time was spent waiting in the office to be told where to go. Nobody’s fault really, but still kind of exasperating. Leave it to the students to save the day. They were a great audience and it was a blast performing for them.

I struck the show and grabbed a perfect veggie patty sub at the ubiquitous Subway, resplendent with pepper jack cheese, jalapenos and banana peppers. A great sandwich artist put that baby together. Then it was on to Creswell, NC for the afternoon performance.

Creswell Elementary had the thing that all school-bound troubadours are looking for; a custodian who runs the show. This guy was great. He got me primo parking inside the cones, turned on the stage lights and showed me the only outlet that I never would have found without him. Awesome.

So, you’re probably wondering about the title to this little piece. Well, there’s a scene in the show I was doing, A Show of Virtues, where a tiny bit of water is shot through a plastic syringe and sprinkles the audience. It has to do with the story of the Little Hero of Holland, the finger in the dyke, all that. The little plastic syringe is pretty amazing. I can hit the 8th or 9th row with this thing. Except for this time. Something went wrong with the trajectory and the water went straight up into the aforementioned stage lights. These were ancient scoop-like fixtures for you lighting techie-types. At any rate, the water shot up and in an instant one of the bulbs burst and along with the water a shower of glass clattered down all around me. It was pretty cool and rock star-like. I heard a 1st grader instantly assess the situation: “He blowed the bulb out.” Indeed I did.

We all regrouped and the rest of performance went just fine. The Creswell students were as amazing as the Pines students that morning. As I packed up, the custodian returned. I heard a student say, “He’s coming with the vacuum to get that bulb up.”

Hilarious. Many thanks to the Washington County Schools and sweet Victoria Fields for a great day of puppeteering along the Roanoke River.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Classic Audience Comments

There's a special time at our studio when we all sit around the conference room table eating lunch. It's here that we take time to read aloud the amazing letters and drawings that children send us after watching a show. If you're ever feeling low, read some of these. Nothing makes you feel better. We also rehash some of the simply classic statements that are overhead during a performance. Little jewels that emanate up from the mouths of the innocent.

It's true. Children say the most wonderful things. We love to revel in the comments heard during our performances. Children seem to have a profound sense of succinctness that is delivered with perfect comedic timing.

Following our recent run of "The Emperor's New Clothes" at The Children's Theatre, I believe we have added another classic to our list. The show opens with the puppeteer creating a palace set piece; an abstract looking set of draperies fashioned from three pieces of fabric. It's a quick, non-verbal scene set to a jaunty piece of music. Following the scene, with a perfect delivery, a voice in the front row chimed, "you make an awfully good-looking window." How do you continue a performance after that hilarity?

Here's another classic from that same production, this one uttered years ago. Upon seeing the non-existent outfit in "The Emperor's New Clothes," our Counselor character stammers that the Emperor will be so, will be so . . . . and here was inserted perfectly by a 5th grader in the audience, "cold?"

Another time, pre-schoolers were enjoying, maybe, a performance of "Tangle of Tales. " It's a collection of short stories, perfect for the younger ones. As the first story finished and the lights came up for the second story, I distinctly heard an exasperated voice from the stage right side of the house peep, "Oh no, not another one. We're tired for Pete's sake!

Here's a random sampling of some things students said before, during and after my two performances of "A Show of Virtues" last month at Hawk Ridge Elementary School in Charlotte.

  • At one point in the show the character I play, a salesman, rolls up his sleeves. After this, a small voice said, "he's got hair on his arms."

  • After the Salesman wonders aloud, "how long will her courage last?" a voice from the audience confidently said, "6 minutes."

  • As the audience left the multi-purpose room following the 2nd performance, a 3rd grader turned around and said to me, "so long, young man."

It kind of makes you wonder what's waiting around the corner at the next performance. I can't wait to find out.