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.."

Friday, October 23, 2015

"Saying Goodbye."

Terry Snyder, my friend and mentor for over 20 years would have been 67 today. Recently, I delivered his eulogy at a memorial celebration in Richmond, Virginia, where he lived and worked for most of his life. What follows is that eulogy. 

Photo by Stephanie Richardson

What is REAL?” asked the Rabbit one day, when they were lying side by side near the nursery fender, before Nana came to tidy the room. “Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?”
Real isn't how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It's a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”
Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.
Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real you don't mind being hurt.”
Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” he asked, “or bit by bit?”
It doesn't happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That's why it doesn't often happen to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don't matter at all, because once you are Real you can't be ugly, except to people who don't understand.”
I suppose you are Real?” said the Rabbit. And then he wished he had not said it, for he thought the Skin Horse might be sensitive. But the Skin Horse only smiled.
The Boy's Uncle made me Real,” he said. “That was a great many years ago; but once you are Real you can't become unreal again. It lasts for always.”
      - (excerpt from "The Velveteen Rabbit" by Margery Williams)

In 1991, my parents and I traveled to Atlanta from Alabama to visit the Center for Puppetry Arts, mostly so I could see the Muppets in their museum collection up close. I was 14 and the Muppets held a place of reverence for me, to the point of obsession. When asked by the box office staff person if we'd like to also see a performance, we looked at each other and thought “why not?”

As the show began, a tall, lanky, bearded man came out on stage. At first, I thought Jim Henson, who had died only the year before, had been reincarnated. We saw Terry's “Velveteen Rabbit” that day.

A year later, after joining the Puppeteers of America, I saw Terry perform “The Tales of Beatrix Potter.” While he was being rushed by puppeteers from the audience after his show, I meekly asked him for his autograph. He thought I was being silly, but obliged me and posed for a photo. He flippantly said, “If you're ever in Richmond, you should come by the studio!”

Two years later, he and Christopher Hudert were performing “Peter and the Wolf” at a Puppeteers of America Regional festival in Ashville, NC. Terry was generous enough to allow me to watch their rehearsal. After the show, I approached Terry. “You said I should come visit your studio in Richmond. Would that still be ok?”

Two weeks later, I boarded a plane on my first solo flight to spend a week in Richmond that would change my life.

Years later, Terry and I would talk about that trip. He was amazed that my parents, who knew nothing about him would allow me to just go stay with him for a week. But my parents and I knew all we needed to know about Terry that first time we saw him perform in Atlanta, four years earlier. I'll never forget that experience, mostly because of how Terry's performance affected all three of us, for by the end of the show, my father, mother and I were all wiping back tears. Truly, if you saw one of Terry's shows, you became aware instantly of the kind of human being he was and the magic he possessed.

William Terry Snyder discovered a love of puppetry at a very early age and, once he made that discovery, he set a course that would span the rest of his life. At age 10, he saw his first puppet show performed by the Suzari Marionettes. Between shows, Terry inquisitively went backstage to find out how everything worked. For the second show, he was allowed to open and close the curtain, but his fascination often caused him to miss his cue. A book by Les and Mabel Beaton called Marionettes: A Hobby for Everyone, and Marjorie Batcheldor's Puppet Theater Handbook were his early guides for creating his own puppets and shows. Proceeds from his early performances fueled his interest in raising pigeons.

As an adolescent, he discovered a passion for music and played the flute throughout high school. Then as a student at Virginia Commonweath University, he discovered visual art. At this time in his life Terry began to understand that his love of puppetry, music and visual art could work in a unified fashion, though he was hard pressed to convince those around him of this. He took a job with the Baptist Foreign Mission Board as a graphic artist to satisfy pressures to make a living. But the repetitive themes and the work environment drove Terry crazy. He wanted to be a puppeteer and set about to be just that.

And what a puppeteer he became. Over the course of his career, he was awarded a grant from the Jim Henson Foundation, was the only American performer selected for the 5th annual Festival of Puppet Theater in Jerusalem, received 3 Citations of Excellence from UNIMA-USA and was presented the Presidents Award from the Puppeteers of America. He was one of the best.

Promotional headshot for PuppetFest Productions. 

It wasn't long after Terry left the graphic arts world behind that he met Linda Radabaugh while they were working at Adventure Theatre in Maryland. From that meeting, a bond was formed that would last the next 33 years. A friendship that became a partnership which became a marriage and a life together.

Linda and Terry performing Punch and Judy.

Just as Terry wondered about my parents' attitudes regarding my first trip to visit him, so have I wondered what Linda must have thought when he told her that a teenage kid would be invading their house for a week. But because of that visit and subsequent visits throughout the years, I was able to witness first hand what anyone who knew Terry and Linda knew: they loved each other wholeheartedly. Their home and their lives fascinated me because all were filled with whimsy, wonder, humor, color, art, conversation, politics, books, puppets, music, and adventure. Theirs was a kind of love, and a kind of life, you wanted to be around as much as possible.

During the same 20 years we were friends, Terry battled numerous and seemingly insurmountable health problems. Multiple organ transplants, dialysis, cancer, countless doctor visits and an incredible amount of medications that had to constantly be monitored and tinkered with to find the right balance. But it did not stop Terry's desire or ability to create. He knew this compulsion was also his salvation. As long as he was able to do what he loved and be with the woman he loved, he could get through another round of doctors.

Knowing that Terry's conditions would never be cured, and one condition would systematically cause another, we always sort of understood that Terry was on borrowed time. But he would constantly surprise us all by bouncing back. I started thinking of him as Teflon Terry. He was truly a walking miracle. But because he'd spent 20 years bouncing back from one malady after another, it made it all the more difficult to accept that his last battle would, indeed, be his last.

But even at the end of his life, he was remarkably blessed to die as he had lived: in the home that he loved with the woman he loved, surrounded the friends and family he loved and who loved him so much.

It is his spirit we celebrate today. A gentle giant of man who could achieve such strength and power by being so quiet and who gave us all so much with his talent and ability to infuse his humor, love and life into everything he created.

My friendship with Terry was very much like that of the Velveteen Rabbit and the Skin Horse. I had lots of questions about the world and Terry had a lot of answers. And, as his fictitious counterpart foretold, by the end, Terry had become “loose in the joints and very shabby.” He also didn't have very many of his original parts left. But what made him real to me and to all of us here, was the love that we had for him and the love he had for each and every one of us. 

Photo by Stephanie Richardson

Friday, May 1, 2015

Puppet Making at the John C. Campbell Folk School 2015 Edition!

2015 marks my third year teaching puppet making at the John C. Campbell Folk School in Brasstown, NC. I love teaching at the Folk School because it gives me an opportunity to share the knowledge and techniques that I have been using and developing as a puppet builder with people who may have never tried to create a puppet character. This year, 6 exceedingly talented students, covering a broad age range, created 6 very dynamic characters. Over the course of 5 days, my class worked very hard learning the fundamentals of foam rubber and fleece puppet construction. Gradually, as the week went on, these wonderful characters began to emerge. 

"Susie Mae" in progress by Mary Jo Campbell
Lacey working on "Aunt Flo."
Zachary and his dinosaur expert!
Pam working on Carey the hockey player.
Jeff working on "Bad Ass"

My alien creation!
Details mean lots of hand stitching.

He didn't get the message about running with scissors.

Jan Davidson with son, Sam, who's inside this lovely parade puppet for the May Day Parade

Nannette Davidson with her parade puppet creation.

Looking forward to teaching this class again in 2016! For more information, visit: