Monday, June 13, 2016

On With the Show!!

I received some wonderful news from The Jim Henson Foundation over the weekend: "The Pied Picker" has been accepted for a full grant submission. This means, the project has made it through the first round and now I must create and submit a full proposal. 

Stay tuned, in the coming weeks, for updates on this process in creating a new show!

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Remembering Allelu Kurten

My friend and fellow musician, Mark Rubin posted a Facebook status update this past week which has hit very close to home. It read: “Confused? Upset? Maybe start talking to old people more often. You'd be surprised what you'll learn and how much better you'll feel generally.” There was definitely one “old” person whom I relished seeking counsel from and that was Allelu Kurten. I say “old” with quotation marks because if you knew or even met Allelu, you knew that despite her biological age, the word “old” did not apply to her. She was exuberance incarnate, even until the last.

Whenever I faced a big decision or transition in my life, she was always there with her light and wisdom and gave me perspective and a listening ear. She was there when I had to make big decisions regarding some work with the Muppets. She saw me through a number of heartbreaks. And she sat next to me at Jane Henson's memorial service. But she was also there to delight in all the good things in life, too: playing music, making albums, creative projects and, of course, puppet shows! She taught me the value of having a “chosen” family: the family that you may not necessarily be born into, but those you choose to surround yourself with.

I had a lovely last visit with her when I was in Brookline, MA last month. She revealed to me that her time was short and so I took advantage of having as much time with her as I could. She came to see “Billy Goats Gruff and Other Stuff” at the Puppet Showplace and I offered to give her a ride back up to her apartment in Concord. She showed me around her place, her lovely flower boxes on her deck, but it was soon time for me to go. We looked at each other and I said “I don't want to do this. I had to say goodbye to Jane and now I have to say goodbye to you.” We hugged each other and I made my way out. She waved to me from her balcony as I walked to my car, a gesture she made to anyone who came to visit her.

I will miss her human presence here, but know that her light is shinning all around us now, anytime we need. She left behind a legacy of love, hope, encouragement and enthusiasm. All of which are our inheritance. Truly, we are wealthier in those respects for knowing her. 

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

From the Archives! Building Puppets for Aqua Teen Hunger Force!

While digging through some old photo files, I came across these and thought I'd post them. I got hired by the good folks at Cartoon Network to construct two puppets for Aqua Teen Hunger Force. The two characters, Zuccotti Manicotti and his Minion, were both animated characters on a TV show watched by Meatwad, one of ATHF's main characters. The show's producers wanted actual puppets of the characters to appear on an episode. They sent me the designs and I set about creating these two in three-dimensions out of foam and fleece. 

With series producer, Nick Ingkatanuwat

With series creator, Jay Wade Edwards

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

"The Pied Picker" Process: Creating a New Show. Part 1. STORY

Initial artwork for "The Pied Picker."

It all begins with a story.

Since I began creating puppet shows as a teenager, I have always enjoyed tinkering with classic fairy tales in much the same way that Rocky and Bullwinkle and the Muppets treated these time-tested stories. With each story, I try to find it's core: the central idea and then take extreme liberties to tell my own version of that story in a humorous fashion.

One story that I have always wanted to adapt but which seemed to present perplexing challenges was that of “The Pied Piper of Hamlin.” In this tale, the town of Hamlin is riddled with rats. At his wits end, the town's mayor accepts the offer and price of a wandering Pied Pier to rid the town of its vermin. Following the trail of music stemming from the Piper's pipe, all but one of the rats is drowned a nearby river. When he returns for his payment, the Piper is unceremoniously dismissed by the mayor. The Piper then seeks his vengeance on the mayor and the town by playing his pipe and leading all the town's children up and into a tall mountain on the edge of town. Once the last child is inside, the mountain seals shut. Only one frail, crippled boy is left behind.

Part of what draws me to this story, especially in my role as a family entertainer, is the idea of “paying the piper his due.” I think all freelancers have experienced having a contract altered or having payment withheld after fulfilling their part of the agreement. Quite often we'd like to seek retribution but realize doing so might jeopardize our reputations. Therefore we tend to stew about it and hope to be all the wiser on the next project. In this story, the artist takes matters into his own hands.

Certainly one of the big problems with telling this story is it's ending. When I first attempted to tackle “The Pied Piper” while a Puppet Arts graduate student at the University of Connecticut, my professor, Bart Roccoberton asked how I planned to deal with the overtones of pedophilia. Modern interpretations and literary critics have proposed that leading the children out of town into a mountainside insinuates that the Piper is a child molester. It was as if a blemish had been pointed out on a perfectly white shirt: suddenly I couldn't see anything else. While I did develop the story into a finished script along with puppet designs, I filed all that work away and worked on other ideas. But the Piper always lingered.

Years passed. Then one day in the spring of 2015, it hit me. I figured out how I wanted to tell this story.

One of my favorite springboards for starting work on a new show is utilizing a Stanislavsky idea I learned as an undergraduate theater student at Troy University: the “magic if.” This theatrical principle asks the all important question of “what if...” in the course of a scene as it relates to story, action and character. Suddenly the world opens up when you can ask, “What if the big, bad wolf is allergic to blueberries?” “What if instead of trying to eat the three billy goats gruff, the greedy troll tries to charge them a dollar to cross his bridge?” “What if the Gingerbread Man gets combined with Pinocchio?” All at once the possibilities for imaginative storytelling are endless.

In that vein of fractured fairy tale mash-ups, I found my answer for “The Pied Piper.” Basically, I realized that it's the mayor, the crooked authority figure, who is the bad guy in this story. HE'S the one who should get what's coming to him! The original story does seem like the Piper punishes the whole town when the town residents had nothing to do with the mayor's decision not to pay the Piper. So, the “what if” became “What if I combined 'The Pied Piper' with 'The Emperor's New Clothes?” This was soon followed with “What if, instead of rats, the town is plagued by roaches?” Then, “What if, instead of a pipe, the Pied Piper plays the banjo?!” Suddenly, “The Pied Picker was hatched and I gave myself the gold star for genius.

While the town of Hamlin, Georgia prepares for it's centennial celebration, a convention of roaches has simultaneously chosen the town for it's annual meeting. Members of the city council insist the town mayor do something about the rampant roaches reeking havoc. Just when all ideas had been exhausted, a wandering banjo player comes into town and takes note of the town's bug problem. He tells the mayor he can get rid of the roaches for a fee. Desperate for any solution at this point, the mayor agrees. The Pied Picker begins to play some hot banjo licks and, as if possessed, all the roaches, in mass exodus, leave the town in a hurry. With one exception, who happens to be a banjo lover. The mayor discovers he is in a budgetary fix: all of the town's funds had been blown on the decorations for the centennial celebration, leaving noting with which to pay the Picker. However, instead of explaining this to him, the Mayor dismisses the Picker and goes about his business writing a speech which he will present to the town during the celebration. The Picker then gets an idea. Claiming no hard feelings, he offers to make the mayor a fine new suit of clothes in the latest fashion which he can wear when he address the town later that afternoon. The mayor eagerly agrees. The Picker takes measurements and begins working on the suit of clothes, except the mayor claims he cannot see the Picker using any fabric. It is explained that only those who are important enough can see the fine fabric being sewn. Of course, there is no fabric, but the mayor claims that he, of course, can see it. Later that afternoon when he takes the stage to give his speech, the Mayor, thinking he is sporting the latest fashion in men's apparel, it is made clear that he is wearing not much at all save his underwear. And the Picker, as mysteriously as he arrived, is nowhere to be found.

Next up, CHARACTERS! Stay tuned!
Original synopsis notes for "The Pied Picker."

Plot notes for "The Pied Picker."

Story ideas for "The Pied Picker."

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

"An Emmet Otter (the Musical) Reunion in NYC" or "How Yancey Woodchuck Showed Me the True Meaning of Christmas"

It's that time of year again when woodchucks bring out their banjos, tune up the strings and pray to the good Lord above they will win the Waterville talent contest. 

In 2008 and 2009, I had the privilege to participate in a musical stage adaptation of "Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas," co-produced by the Jim Henson Company and Goodspeed Musicals. I puppeteered Yancey Woodchuck, who played the banjo live for every performance (no small feat for the puppeteers!); Skippy Squirrel, one of a quartet of squirrels created for the musical version; and Pa Otter, who appears to Ma as a ghost. Paul Williams wrote some wonderful new songs for the musical in addition to the original songs he wrote for the 1979 television adaptation, produced by Jim Henson.

The story of Emmet and Ma started as a children's book by Russell and Lillian Hobban and was a retelling of O.Henry's "The Gift of the Magi." Jim Henson and his talented team of builders and performers lifted the world of woodland creatures out of their watercolored illustrations and realized them in three-dimensions for television. Christopher Gatelli, noted Broadway director and choreographer, had in his mind the possibility of bringing that world to life on the stage. 

The colorful cast combined actors in elaborate animal costumes alongside puppets, all masterfully and meticulously created by the Henson Workshop in NY (shout out to Jason Webber, Rollie Krewson, Connie Peterson, Matt Brooks, Anney Fresh, Heather Asch and Tom Newby!) Audinces loved the show and it ran for two Christmas seasons at the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, CT, a theater that seemed to be designed specifically for Emmet and the gang. 

After it's second year, it was uncertain if I'd get to revisit that wonderful world we all created. There was an intense amount of joy and love poured into every aspect of that show. Such attention to detail and dedication to remaining faithful to the visions of both the Hobbans and Jim Henson. It was a wonderful experience to have been a part of that project but I'd assumed it's time had come and gone.

Then in November of this year, I received an email from a fellow Emmet puppeteer, James Silson, informing me that Christopher was attempting to stage a reunion concert with the cast at 54 Below in Manhattan in December. I did a little research into flights and prepared to clinch my teeth at what would surely be an impossible ticket price. I was amazed to find a cheap flight on American Airlines: a Christmas miracle! I booked the flight faster than you could say "ain't no hole in the washtub."

Honestly, I wasn't looking forward to Christmas. I've started referring to 2015 as my "3-D" year: Divorce from a very brief marriage; the Death of one of my best friends and mentor of 20 years, Terry Snyder; and Depression from a general feeling of powerlessness over these and some other circumstances that presented themselves this year. I was bracing myself to just get through the holidays, hopefully unscathed, and pray for a better year in 2016. 

But because of  this overnight adventure in New York and reuniting with my "Emmet Otter" family, I experienced a Christmas miracle. This is the true power of any good Muppet Christmas special. I know it sounds hokey, but being around those exceptionally talented people, those characters and puppets and their heartwarming story and songs were exactly what I needed. 

For the musical, Paul Williams wrote a beautiful ballad for Pa Otter, appearing as a ghost, to sing to Ma when she is experiencing a moment of self-doubt and defeat. In the song, "Alice, Keep Dreaming," he tells her, "There's hope in the power of love." As I sang them, those lyrics felt like Paul's words to me. The song developed such a tremendously deeper meaning for me. I needed those words and that encouragement. 

Paul also wrote a song for a quartet of squirrel puppets that also contained a special message for me. "Trust the Branch" has a chorus that goes:

Ya gotta trust the branch you land on
trust it to bend but not break. 
Sometimes in life you gotta just jump in 
that's the chance that you take 
There's no way of knowing how your story will end
but it's gotta be told from the start.
Trust that you'll find some peace of mind 
and you'll be home when you follow your heart.

It was also a joy to reconnect with a few friends that I had a short time to see. It made me realize that I'm overdue for a longer visit to NYC. 

Thank you, Emmet Otter gang for the best Christmas gift I could have ever asked for. 

Yancey Woodchuck. I never knew what he was going to say..
UConn Puppet Arts mini-reunion with Deb Hertzberg and Cathy McCullough. Love these two so much!

Skippy Squirrel! Brother to Jiffy, Nutella and Tiny. 

Always my best man, regardless of the occasion, Tyler Bunch.

My wonderful and talented puppet-mates, James Silson and Anney Fresh Ozar. 
Bluegrass buddy Rick Snell! 

The ever lovely, Heather Henson.

The Cast on stage at 54 Below. The audience was oversold.

Squirrel Family! James, Matt Roberts and Anney!

With Paul Williams and Marilyn Sokol, the original voice of Ma Otter.
When I returned to Atlanta, I received a message from my friend Rebecca, who is a children's librarian. On a recent trip to Asheville, NC, she saw a gingerbread house contest and just had to share the second place winner's entry with me. It's pretty incredible. I'm glad whomever made it fared better than Ma and Emmet at the Waterville talent contest!

Thanks, Christopher, Paul, Jim, Jerry (Nelson & Juhl!), Heather, Jane, and the whole Emmet Family.Until next we meet where "the river meets the sea.."