Having read the promotional materials for the Center for Puppetry Arts' newest show, Stellaluna, I decided to go down to the Center and check it out. The promise of a show making more use of the available stage space than ever before combined with the use of overt puppetry and a cast of rod puppets intrigued me to say the least.
Arriving at the Center's main stage theater for the show, I was greeted with a lush forest scene that immediately drew me into the world of the story. Bushes and trees had been carefully placed to provide places for the characters to sit and act out their parts, yet there was plenty of open space, all carpeted in a pleasant green that gives the feel grass. A pale blue backdrop across the entire back of the stage creates the appearance of a clear blue sky beyond the trees.
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The last day of the convention was a short one for me, as the morning had been set aside for visits to the Vent Haven museum. However, since I got to Erlanger early and I'm not crazy about large crowds in small spaces, I'd opted to visit the museum on Wednesday morning. So, I took the opportunity to stay up late Friday night for the open mic event, and slept in on Saturday morning. Thus, my day started with lunch, and then the discussion panel session on International Ventriloquism, which featured the performers from the previous night. That offered some great insights into their perspectives, including how they got started and the challenges they faced.
The last panel session was with the major puppet builders at the convention who make soft/fabric sculpture puppets. This included Jet of The Dummy Shoppe, Mary Ann and Melissa Taylor (mother and daughter) of MAT puppets, Barry Gordemer of Handemonium, and Steve Petrella representing Axtell Expressions, with insights from Ingrid Crepeau, an accomplished builder and performer whose primary work was back in the 1980s and includes full-body costume puppets (one of my own specializations). The history portion brought out interesting details about soft sculpture puppets in the ventriloquism world, including a little about one of the early soft sculpture builders in the vent world, Vera Finley. I particularly liked the insights from the builders about the highlights of their processes, crazy stories of designs gone wrong, and tips for people looking to have a puppet built by a professional builder.
The second full day of the convention featured workshops in two blocks, each block offering back-to-back presentations of three different workshops. Effectively this meant that six workshops in total were offered and you could see four of the six (two from each block).
In the morning block, I tried "Working the Fair and Festival Market" and "Strolling Ventriloquism". The former focused mostly on the fair market (think state fairs, county fairs, etc. that have rides, livestock, etc.) and in spite of the presenter's comment to the contrary, did seem to do a good job of scaring you away from working those kinds of events. Now, I know from sixteen years experience that all events have the potential to go sour just because of the number of moving parts, fickle event managers, and dealing with the unpredictable public (especially children). However, there could have been a little more emphasis on the positive side, though there were a few useful points on pitching yourself through agencies that work regularly with fairs.
Thursday began early at 9 AM with a lecture on "The Professional Touch". Unfortunately, I'm not an early bird, so I got in about half-way through while a recording of an early Paul Winchell performance was being played. The recording was interesting due to it showing the difference in comedy in the 1940s and today, but I'm afraid I didn't get much else out of the session.
The second lecture of the day was about marketing yourself, presented by Nancy Berk, who does celebrity podcasts and has written a popular book on getting your kids through college without breaking the bank or your sanity. I was amused that she wasn't very gung-ho about Facebook, mainly because she'd recently changed the name of her podcast, but Facebook wouldn't let her change the name of her existing Facebook group. Thus, she'd been forced to start a whole new group, which isn't a very optimal way to maintain a connection with your fans and followers. Now she's a bit more enthusiastic about the value of just running your own website, since you can change your own website any way you want whenever you wish. (I'm a senior web developer in my non-puppetry life, so I'm a big proponent of personal websites over social media sites.)
This is the first of four posts about my trip to the Vent Haven ConVENTion in Erlanger, Kentucky (that's /ER-lan-ger/ with a hard 'g' I learned). The convention is open to anyone who wants to pay to attend, but seems to be geared towards up-and-coming and professional ventriloquists who want to improve their knowledge and/or start or expand their performance businesses.
My first day of Vent Haven started with a trip to the namesake museum that started it all. I won't try to recount the history of the museum here - you can learn all about it on the museum's website. I'll just give a quick overview of what you will find, at least for another couple of years give-or-take. After that, the collection will hopefully be moving to a brand new building much more suitable for it.
The museum is a collection of small buildings on the the former residential property of the museum's founder, W.S. Berger, situated along a nice upper middle class street surprisingly close to the main I-71/I-75 corridor. Usually the introduction of an interstate would destroy an area so close to it, but somehow this street continues to thrive with nice, large and well kept homes along it.
Three buildings hold the main collection. The first and original building has dummies and memorabilia grouped by performing artist, including a large section dedicated to one of the best known classic ventriloquists, Edgar Bergen. The second building just has a large collection of dummies lined up all along the walls, one room having four rows of dummies almost like a choir. The third building has arrangements similar to the first, but is specifically organized by builder rather than performer, and is ordered mostly from oldest to newest. Among the newest additions are copies of two of Darci Lynn Farmer's characters (the mouse and the rabbit), and a replica of Maude (from the TV show of the same name) donated by our own local Atlanta ventriloquist, Virgina Petersen.
Hard as it is for me to believe, I've been doing puppetry and building puppets for over sixteen years now, and during that time I've built nearly seventy-five puppets. Over twenty of them are fully-body costume-puppet (AKA body puppet) style characters, which I've always loved, but as one gets older it isn't as easy to climb into these giant things and bring them to life like you can in your twenties and early thirties.
That's not to say that I don't do costume character performances at all any more - I certainly do. Just not as many, and about half of my characters of this style are now retired for various reasons. A few got worn out from being popular, and some others just didn't quite work out in terms of designs. For example, I once made a giant tree-frog costume where I got down on all fours and hopped like a frog. I'd found I could do that pretty well at home, but didn't realize what my body would feel like after three thirty-minute sets of hopping in one day! That was the first and last time I used the tree frog in public.
Another retired costume character that got a little more time in the limelight was Triton the Triceratops. Inspired from seeing the triceratops in the Dinosaurs! show at the Center for Puppetry Arts, I'd been wanting to make a similar quadruped triceratops since 2003, but didn't get to the point of having the right opportunity and skill set until 2009, when I developed Triton to use at a local natural history museum.
Triton was definitely a hit, but he was a pain in the neck for me - literally! Try as I might to lighten his head, I just couldn't get the weight down to a comfortable level, and ultimately I started having neck muscle pain that still haunts me to this day. It's not chronic in the sense of hurting every day, but it doesn't take much now to irritate those muscles and get them hurting. Thus, Triton was retired after just one year of roughly every-other-month appearances. I soon disassembled him and packed most of him in a large plastic bin, but after a while I started thinking about him and wanted to do something useful with him.
After about a year-and-half of off-and-on reading, I recently finished Brian Jay Jones's "Jim Henson: The Biography". At 490 pages (not counting the hefty notes and bibliography sections), it's definitely not light reading, but it's by far the most in-depth biography I've ever read.
I cannot praise the quality of this book enough. I really felt like I was right there with Jim all the way through his life, from his early years in Mississippi to his youthful quest in Maryland to get into television; through his many years of advertising work and his attempts to popularize his Muppet characters and land them a weekly half-hour television show; from the early Sesame Street and Muppet Show years, through the amazing ups and downs of producing his masterpiece movies (Dark Crystal and Labyrinth), and on into his later years when he focused back on television and tried unsuccessfully to sell the Muppets to Disney just before his death. It's all in there, and with the level of detail that can only come from years of research into Jim's life.
This Halloween season, I debuted a new first of it's kind puppet for me that also has roots going back over ten years: Terrence Tarantula, who is a rather large marionette.
Back in 2005, I created a large costume puppet tarantula that walks on all eights. I performed this character walking on hands and feet using hand stilts to balance myself, much the same as with my triceratops, billy goat, and arctic fox. The costume tarantula was very popular, but after four years of working with him, I had grown tired of lugging the rather large fourteen pound costume around to do performances. So, I retired him and built a flying fox fruit bat to take his place for Halloween events.
This year through fate and circumstance, I decided to try attending the regional festival for the mid-western region of the Puppeteers of America: the Great Regional Puppet Festival (GRPF) in Saint Louis, Missouri. This was my first regional outside of the southeast region, and I thought it would be a nice change of pace to meet puppeteers from outside of my region in a casual kind of festival environment. National festivals are great for meeting a wide range of people, but I find regionals are better for actually getting to know people.
It's been a while since I debuted a brand new character, but after months of hard work I'm thrilled to introduce Roopert the Kangaroo:
Roopert represents a new direction for me, for while he's as large as many of my costume-puppet creations, but he's not a costume-puppet. He's a special style of oversized mouth-and-live-arm puppet inspired loosely by the animal characters in the Lion King Broadway show.
I'm hoping to develop a scripted performance around Roopert next year, but in the meantime he's available for general walk-around meet-and-greet. If you'd like Roopert to appear at your next event, he'd be more than happy to hop on by.
My annual spring getaway took me up to the Smoky Mountains of North Carolina this year, and Braxton Bear came along hoping to finally meet some of his cousins. Unfortunately, the weather turned rather cold this year, making my spring getaway feel more like a winter excursion -- it was so cold that it was actually snowing at Newfound Gap, which is along the crest of the mountains when you are crossing them on US 441.
With the weather so cold, the local bears were still hibernating, so Braxton still hasn't met any of his cousins (well, other than one that had been stuffed and put on display in the lobby of Unicoi Lodge). Even so, Braxton made the best of his time in the Smokies and posed for a few pictures in his natural habitat. You can find them in our photo gallery.
This past Saturday, Orville the Ornithomimus braved the freezing cold to participate in Children's Healthcare's annual Mascot Trot, part of their Strong Legs Run fundraiser event. With winds up to 22 MPH and a wind chill around 25°F, it was quite an unusual experience, but Orville made the best of it.
With the coldest weather I've ever seen for the race, many of the normal entertainment activities didn't or couldn't happen, but Orville and the other nineteen mascots did their best to make up for that. And what a bunch: everything from the KSU Owl and Freddie Falcon to Spiderman to Priscilla the Pig to the Coke Polar Bear to two (yes, two) Elmos! Oh, and I can't forget a special shout-out to Orville's good friend, Wally the Lion! All things considered, it was a great day with plenty of photo ops and lots of hugs, even if no one seemed to be able to correctly pronounce Orville's species (it sounds like this: Orn-ith-oh-meye-mus.)
Kevin Pittman and his Forest Friends hopes to participate again next year (it will be our tenth year at the event), but we're not sure yet who will be going. More to come on that in 2015 as we get a little closer to the event.
At long last, I can finally debut the official blog for Kevin Pittman and his Forest Friends. My name is Sheldon, and I will be the official spokesfox for Kevin and all of the Forest Friends here on this blog.
What can you expect to find here in the future? Well, I'll be letting you know about some of Kevin's adventures in the magical world of puppetry, reporting on some of his big performances, sharing tips and tricks about puppeteering and puppet building, and relaying puppetry news of interest to anyone living in metro Atlanta or anywhere in the southeastern United States for that matter.
Please feel free to share links to these posts (there's a "permalink" for every post listed at the bottom of the post to make sharing easy). However, please be respectful of our copyright in our posts and don't copy them to other places without Kevin's explicit permission. If you'd like to request permission to re-post something, just use our handy Contact Form to get in touch with him. No permission is needed to re-post general puppetry event announcements, BTW - feel free to copy and re-post them anywhere you'd like!