Friday, July 29, 2011

FableVision Summer Open House

Do you know about FableVision? You should! Their home page states, "FableVision is a company dedicated to helping all learners discover their true potential." They live up to that mission. In addition to FableVision, which produces mobile applications, web sites, software, and books (among other things), FableVision Learning provides resources that help teach 21st century kids. The company also owns an idependent bookstore in Dedham, MA.

The company hosts seasonal open houses in the Boston studio, right above the Children's Museum. These are fantastic opportunities to meet the people behind the magic. Whether you're interested in having a book signed by Peter Reynolds, trying out their Animation-ish software, or networking, the event is always lively and fun.

This week Dan and Jackie from my program joined me. It reminded me how much I'll miss my graduate school experience, especially now that we have really started to form our own media lab structure at Tufts! I know those two are going to do amazing things next year, and I'm excited to see who joins them!

Perhaps my favorite part of the studio is the center of the office, what seems to be an animation/illustration pit. Pit in a good way! How awesome it must be to be surrounded by so much creative energy each day! If I ever open that beautiful studio in Red Hook, BK, I will definitely have a "pit" of my own.

The parting gifts? Old-fashioned treasures that teachers would hand out to students: temporary tattoos, compasses, stickers, etc. The perfect end to a perfect evening!

Many thanks, FableVision!

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Threadless Muppet Tee!

I recommend you purchase this shirt and purchase it now. Threadless hosted a design contest with Disney for a Muppet shirt. The result? Together Again. Check. It. Out.

iRead: 10-Minute Puppets

I recently had the pleasure of meeting Noel MacNeal earlier this summer. I had heard about his puppetry work and new book from a comedic puppeteer and was excited to see his artistry in action! Meeting him reminded me that I had to check out his book 10-Minute Puppets. The book reads like the perfect guide for a boring, summer day or stuffy snow day. I could picture my mother using it with my sister and me on one of those occasions and helping us build a puppet theater and cast of characters for an after-dinner family performance.

I appreciate that the book opens with a section on which materials are needed. MacNeal repeats this practice for each puppet. It's always helpful for children (and adults) to have a clear idea of what will happen before starting the project. A novice cook would not make a recipe without the ingredients!

The book is organized into six chapters. Chapters 1 through 4 provide specific kinds of puppets (fingers, shadows, etc.), while 5 and 6 provide information on how to build a puppet theater and create your own puppet show. It's truly a one-stop shop! My favorite was Chapter 3: Cutouts and Shadows. Each example in this section could easily be imitated by a child. Overall, I think most of these projects require adult supervision and assistance. The shadow puppets, however, could be done by a child alone or with a friend.

Other favorite parts of the book include: the "Peekaboo Present" puppet (page 69), the large "Dinosaur" puppet (page 58), each project's "If You've Got More Time" section, and the "Puppet Parts and Templates" appendix, which will allow you to either trace, photocopy or color and cut right out of the book and onto your puppet! Brilliant! This book would be oodles of fun for kids of all ages. Under 6 may need adult assistance!

MacNeal is great fun to follow on Twitter @NoelMacNeal. You can buy the book here.

Thank you note from a camper...

I love you so much. I just want to see you next time when I'm five in my next class. Goodbye. See you later.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

The Voice 4 Vision Puppet Festival

The Voice 4 Vision Puppet Festival is happening in New York this December 8th through the 18th! The festival considers itself grassroots and artist-driven. It hopes to support continued innovation in the art form.

I'm most excited about their call for video submissions and hoping to prepare something for the festival. I'll definitely be there and may be volunteering. I hope you'll join me!

Find out more about the festival on their website.

Friday, July 22, 2011

iRead "My Life as a Furry Red Monster"

Earlier this summer, I had the pleasure of catching a screening of the documentary Being Elmo at the Independent Film Festival Boston. The film tells the tale of Kevin Clash, the talented Muppeteer and the man who has made Elmo famous. Fortunately, Clash, Elmo, and the team behind the film were there for a question and answer session after the film. What started as a brief few minutes with Kevin and a few minutes with Elmo, turned into over an hour of interaction between Elmo and the audience. It was truly a once in a lifetime experience! The screening inspired me to read Clash's book My Life as a Furry Red Monster: What Being Elmo Has Taught Me About Life, Love, and Laughing Out Loud.

I found the book to be extremely similar to the film. This is refreshing, though. Clash's story and rise to fame are clear and inspiring. My favorite part of both the book and the film is his relationship with puppet-builder Kermit Love. Love mentored Clash, assisting him in refining his puppet-building techniques and his networking within the business.

Moments such as Clash's experience as a substitute puppeteer on the Sesame Street float in the Macy's Thanksgiving Parade are vivid and detailed. As a reader, you can feel Clash's enthusiasm and youthful awe.

The book is organized by Elmo's well-known, pro-social characteristics: Love, Joy, Creativity, Tolerance, Courage, Friendship, Cooperation, Learning, Optimism. The reader learns how important Elmo and Sesame Street have been in Clash's development and acquisition of these qualities.

The central themes of both the book and the film are to dream big and work hard. Again, the book and film are incredibly similar. If you had to pick one, I would recommend the film. In it are home videos of Clash and his family, footage of his early performances and television programs as well as an exclusive look at an early encounter with Kermit Love.

You can find the book here.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Where have all the puppets gone?

I'm a huge advocate of quality, live-action television. I love me some animation, but there's something about the human connection made between characters on-screen and young viewers at home. I briefly discussed this issue in my Master's thesis and considered a research study conducted by Longo and Bertenthal (2009). They measured children's imitations to a human hand and a non-human (computer generated) hand. They found that "the amount of mirroring is reduced-but is not eliminated-for non-human actors" (2009, p. 742). When considering imitation, it seems as if children are more likely to imitate a human on-screen rather than an animated character.

I wonder if Longo and Bertenthal would consider live puppets as "non-human" or "human?" This would be a study in and of itself, and learning how children respond to animation vs. live-action would take a great deal of research.

For now, I ask, "Where have all the puppets gone?" I could rattle off a list of programs with puppets that I watched as a child. Below is my brainstormed list of current puppetry programs broadcast for children in the US. Please feel free to add on in the comments section!

1-Sesame Street

That's all I got, people. So where are the puppets? It's possible that the expense of making puppets is discouraging for producers and broadcasters. Happily, it seems like puppeteer Noel MacNeal is working on a new program for PBS. This gossip is straight from some vague details on his Twitter feed. Let's hope this new program brings more puppetry back to television.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

iRead "The Wisdom of Big Bird (and the Dark Genius of Oscar the Grouch)"

About two years ago, I saw Caroll Spinney and a slew of other Sesame Street stars as part of a panel discussion to celebrate their 40th season. An audience member asked him to do the voices of both Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch, the characters he had been playing since the pilot episode of the program. On the spot, he transitioned from one Muppet into the other. It was astounding! I remember being shocked at how different each character voice was, yet you could hear Spinney in both of them.

I finally had a chance to read The Wisdom of Big Bird (and the Dark Genius of Oscar the Grouch. In the book, Spinney reflects on both characters and how they have impacted his career and personal life. The book reads like a fast and fun autobiography. Spinney's life truly does run parellel to the program he has been with for so many years. He shares stories about his wife (who he met while working on the "Street"), working with Jim Henson, and the experiences that he has been afforded because of his roles on television.

Each chapter begins with some words of wisdom from either Big Bird or Oscar the Grouch. My favorite was a Big Bird quote, "Don't be afraid to lay an egg." I think that is really about transition and the fear of change when you choose to do or create something. I can't leave Oscar out, though. In his ultimate wisdom, Oscar shares, "Always start the day with a smile-that way you get it over with." Hilarious. I can just hear him saying that. It's a beautiful example of good writing and brilliant character portrayal.

I enjoyed reading about Spinney's puppeteering experience, how he met Jim Henson, his reluctance to join the cast of Sesame Street at first and the ultimate decision to do so, which changed the course of life. It was refreshing to hear about the moments in his career before and during Sesame Street that didn't go so well. The book is a testament to sticking it out and taking the job you love over the job that pays better.

What I found interesting and unique about Spinney is his mostly singular Muppeteer role. He's pretty much a Sesame Street guy, rarely working on other Henson projects. Big Bird's popularity must have made it really difficult to do much other work. What a wonderful burden to have had! Spinney's "About the Author" says it all, "He has traveled the world as Big Bird, won Grammys and Emmys, and has been named a Living Legend by the Library of Congress."

This the perfect short and fun read for creatives and lovers of Sesame Street or The Muppets. The book is no longer in print, but you can snag an inexpensive, used copy here. I got mine for $.01 plus shipping!

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Another Pair of Eyes

One day Josh Selig had an idea. I'm pretty sure this happens a lot. Selig is the President of one of my favorite production companies, Little Airplane Productions, with a bundle of Emmy-awards for his writing on Sesame Street. In addition, he's created a bunch of children's programs including The Wonder Pets and 3rd and Bird.

In 2004, Selig's show Oobi debuted on Noggin (Nick Jr.). The show's characters are all bare-hand puppets. The origin of these puppets is the set of practice eyes that Muppeteers use to rehearse scenes. Those darn Muppets are way too heavy to practice with for hours on end, so simple eyes were created to be placed on one's hand. I can almost see Selig come up with the idea for Oobi as he watched performers rehearse scenes on Sesame Street.

I've seen these eyes created in three different ways:
1- Two ping pong balls with holes punched through for a piece of elastic to slide through and be wrapped around the palm. Eye pupils are drawn on with marker. I've been told this is the authentic Muppeteer way of doing it.
2- Two small styrofoam balls held together with a toothpick, which has a rubber band on either end so you can slide your hand through. Eye pupils for these are dark dot stickers. These are a Spica Wobbe classic!
3- Plastic eyes just like the ones on Oobi. These are worn like a ring on your middle finger.

Pupil placement is super important because it can impact the rehearsal of puppet focus in the camera. You have to make sure the placement is just right or intentionally off!

I was introduced to the plastic Oobi eyes by one of my favorite people, Sabrina. Through her I discovered where you can purchase many different eyes and accessories. I have spent hours practicing with the eyes and keep them on my desk as inspiration and to fill "in-between" moments. I have several pairs and love giving them as gifts!

There's something so simplistically beautiful about Oobi as a television show and the process of using the eyes to practice and play. I encourage you to look up clips of the program if you're not familiar with it!

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Frank the Ladybug

This June, I received an adorable, knit ladybug finger puppet as a gift from my head teacher. I knew there was a character in that little puppet, and I hoped to put together a short video piece for this month on the blog. However, I realized I wanted to do a little testing with the puppet first. I had to do some ladybug research, see what educators were already doing with ladybugs, and try the puppet out in my summer camp classroom. We spent last week investigating bugs, and it was the perfect time.

I learned that ladybugs are beetles who are called ladybirds in England. For whatever reason, I found it surprising that there are male ladybugs as well as females. I'm 26...I should have thought about that before. The name is really deceiving, and I didn't want my students to go through life thinking ladybugs were cute, girly bugs. They are kick-ass flying beetles who sometimes create infestations...that's big stuff!

I named my ladybug Frank and gave him a gruff, cab driver voice. This surprised the children and made them giggle. Though Frank was on my finger the whole time, the children maintained strong eye contact with the character and seemed to differentiate when I was talking as Christina and when Frank was talking.

Frank introduced a new song to the group. I found this tune on YouTube, and I promise it sounds much cuter when Frank and I sing it. I found it was successful with the children because the "repeat after me" style helps them sing and recall the lyrics.

Oh, ladybug! Oh, ladybug! Oh won't you be my friend?

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Muppets Movie Trailers

I couldn't help myself. With all the spoofs and teasers of The Muppets floating around, I wanted to try to get all of them in one place. Below are the trailers in order of release, from oldest to most recent.


I have to admit, I'm a little sad to see the original title of the film, The Cheapest Muppet Movie Ever Made, go to the wayside. It seems like Disney wants to reintroduce the newly-acquired characters (relatively speaking) to audiences. Jason Segal, though? I was re-watching The Great Muppet Caper this weekend in addition to a few episodes of How I Met Your Mother. I have full confidence in Segal and am so interested to see how someone who grew up with the Muppets creates for them as an adult. This is a prime example of how the media children watch can impact their lives long-term.

Disney's participation can guarantee us a few things:
1- High production value.
2- Some spectacular cameos.
3- Awesome merchandise.

Included in the Muppet movie madness is the soon-to-be-released album of Muppet covers The Green Album. This was supposed to be released a year and a half ago under the title Muppets Revisited. It seems like it will be worth the wait, though!

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Spica Wobbe: Artist, Educator, International Imaginator

I first met Spica Wobbe, a New York-based puppetry artist and educator, while observing a workshop hosted by The New Victory Theater at an arts education conference in 2004. I was amazed at her creativity and enthusiasm for working with young people. I was very fortunate to work with and learn from Spica throughout my time in New York. I hope her ideas about puppetry and art are as inspiring to you as they are to me!

When did you first work with puppets and how did you start working as a puppeteer?
My first job as a puppeteer was when I worked with a children's theater in Taiwan called “Shiny Shoes Children’s Theater”. My job was supposed to be the producer of their children TV show. However, since it's a small company, everyone had kind of doing everything. Therefore‚ I got the chance to become a puppeteer, and this is how it started….
My first show was "Karius und Batus". I learned the how from a German puppeteer Peter Stelly when he was invited to Taiwan by Shiny Shoes and we had a tour together in 1991. He did the whole show all by himself and I had the privilege to watch him at the back of the puppet stage for every show. I also got the chance to participate his workshop about “Hohnsteiner Puppetry”, which is a special technique of hand puppets.
Shiny Shoes acquired the copyright of the show and kept performing it in Taiwan with their own puppeteers, and I was one of them.

There are so many different styles of puppetry. What is your favorite?
I have worked with many types of puppets but at this point in my puppeteer life‚ I focus on shadow puppetry.
I didn’t start doing the shadow theater until I moved to New York and had the chance to work with “Chinese Theater Works” ( in 2003. The more I play with the shadow theater the more I love it. It always makes people want to see more‚ think more and do more…like a mystery.

Tell us a little bit about your favorite puppetry experience.
The best part of being a performer is to be able to travel. I love puppet festivals. They bring people together. It is also very empowering if you are able to make your audience enjoy your show even they speak different languages and come from different culture backgrounds.
Last year (2010), my partner Margot and I performed at the International Puppet festival in Dordrecht, Holland. We were part of their special program---the Living Room Tour. Since Dordrecht is the oldest city in Holland, it has many beautiful old houses along the canals. With one ticket, the audience was able to visit three chosen living rooms that have special features. We were in an amazing old living room that looks almost like a museum. We performed for a group of twenty five people at a time. They literally sat right in front of me. The show went very well and we got tremendous response. Next morning while I was wondering around the cobblestone streets of Dordrecht, a women on a bicycle with her two children stopped in front of me and asked, “You are the performer of the show in the living room, the show about the Chinese poet, right?” I answered yes. Then she went, “Oh, what a beautiful show, I want to let you know that I will remember that show for the rest of my life.” I thanked her and I said to myself on the way back, “I will remember what you just said to me for the rest of my life too.”
When the audiences are able to understand and appreciate your work, it means you can communicate your ideas though the language you create in the show, in this case, the language of shadow, light and music. That was really awesome!!!

How is international puppetry different compared to puppetry in the US? Do you feel that your work changes depending on where in the world you're doing it?
Puppetry is no different from other performing arts. Every region has its own unique signature. However, puppetry around the world has the same fundamental element which is “imagination”. The performers use their imagination to manipulate the lifeless objects and bring them to life. The audiences invest their imagination and make themselves believe that the objects are living creatures.
However, in terms of the creating environment, I will say there is no place like U.S., especially New York City. The American audience’s open-mindedness provides artists a lot of freedom to explore different subjects and the art form. That is why you see so many puppet slam events or cabarets everywhere. You will see something sweet and silly, but you will also see something that is queer and quirky. The supportive environment encourages everyone to join the puppetry circle. It doesn’t matter if you are a photographer, a painter, or even a biologist. You can be a student, an unemployed clown, or a stay home mom. Everyone is welcomed as long you like to “play” with objects.
On the other hand, I think because of the different cultures, the Asian and European audiences can understand and appreciate something that is more abstract which happens to be a very important element of my work. Also, I think most of Europeans consider puppetry as an art more then an entertainment. Therefore, there are more professional puppeteers then amateurs. It means that they have higher standard for their puppetry work.
A good show should be appreciated universally and that is my primary goal of my work. Therefore, for me, it’s very important that I know what I want to say to my audience and be able to translate my ideas into the show with a language that everyone can understand. That’s why most of my shows are non-verbal. The audiences have to come up with the story themselves in their heads when they watch the show. In this case, I really don’t have to change the show just because the different location or the different audience.

You're also a teaching artist. Why did you decide to become a teaching artist in addition to being a puppeteer?
The first time I visited NY in 1997, thanks to Arts Connection’s arrangement, I had the chance to observe some teaching artists’ workshops in schools. It was an eye-opening experience. At that time, Taiwan didn’t have this kind of art education residency program. I witnessed how children can learn the curriculum though art. That totally inspired me. I guess the seed was planted at that time.

Does your teaching artist work impact your puppetry at all?
In a way, I think. When I make my lesson plan, I always have to think it over and over again and try to experience the lesson myself form the student’s point of view. Will the activities excite, challenge, inspire or support their mind and body? The thinking process and the communication with the students in the class some how provide a good ingredient for my work, an ingredient of creating a common language with them.

Tell us about what you're working on now!
I just established a new company with my partner Margot Fitzsimmons, called “Double Image Theater Lab”. I am so glad that Margot and I share the same vision and enjoy the collaboration together. We are creating 2 shows for the Voice 4 Vision Festival in NYC at the end of this year. We are going to perform in a puppet festival in Jerusalem in August… extremely exciting. We hope there are more adventures to come.
To know more of our work, please visit our Facebook.

What steps should someone take if they want to be a puppeteer?
For your mind: To be playful, to be adventurous, embrace challenges,
to be inventive (always try something new or do things otherwise).
For your body: Practice, practice, practice and do it in stead of just thinking or talking about it.
For your ideas: Look at the mirror to know yourself better and look around and learn from others.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Puppetry Month!

Welcome to Puppetry Month on iGeneration! I have been so inspired to share some of my favorite aspects of the puppetry community. Dedicating a month of posts to it is a fun and easy challenge. I started to pack up my apartment this weekend for the big move to back to New York at the end of this month. My biggest packing challenge was the bookcase, and I decided to divide my books into three categories: children's media, education and developmental psychology, and theater. As I was about to cover up my children's media box, I realized that so many of the books and videos in that box are puppetry-related. I fear for puppetry on television and live-action work, in general. I hope this month of interviews, book reviews, and videos inspire you to share and support live-action puppetry in children's media.

I look forward to your comments and can't wait to see what kind of dialogue this sparks!

(This is also my first post on the iPad? So far, so great!)