Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Puppet longevity

(Who's that infiltrator?!)

I hate to bring up a taboo subject, but here it is: puppets don't live forever.

I've had Trixie since 1994, when I found her at the Raven Bookstore, wearing a black pointy hat She's not one of THOSE, as we live in a place where some adults are afraid of witches. I cut her hat off and she took up her 111-year old personality. Trixie has been my main host puppet since then.

After a few years, her mouth began to get thin. I put in a patch. Then her fingers started to wear. Folkmanis still made the puppet, so I ordered another. I put the old Trixie in the puppet closet--how could I toss her out? Then the new one wore out so I ordered another. And another. The closet is a bit crowded now. A friend replaced the hands on one of them. I also did a bit of facial surgery, cutting a stitch that gave her a mean-looking brow. Amazing how smoothing that out made her look much more benign.

This year, I discovered that Folkmanis has discontinued this puppet. Yikes! Time for ebay! I lost a couple of auctions, then won one. The latest Trixie is quite wonderful, with even bigger hands than the other three. One more is being shipped to me to keep in reserve.

Baby's mouth is sturdier than Trixie's, but still, the first Baby got quite dirty from all those tiny hands reaching for her. I spritz them both with alcohol every now and then to try to keep the germs down. That does nothing for the gradue. I'm going to get a third one soon.

Last week I had my picture taken for the upcoming issue of Lawrence Magazine. I suggested I use a puppet, then went to the office for the newer, cleaner baby. Lately my sweetie and I have been watching episodes of Battlestar Galactica on DVD. There's a race of robots called cylons who can replicate themselves. As soon as I put the new baby on my hand, she said, "I'm a cywon!" Sheesh. Still, it would be easier and cheaper if these puppets could replicate themselves like the cylons. It might resolve some of those end-of-life puppet issues.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Fairs and festivals

For the past week, when I get into my car, I'm reminded of where I've been. There's still a little red clay from Oklahoma smudged on the door. Last week I was at the Choctaw (OK) Oktoberfest, performing on Friday and Saturday. Thank goodness the storytelling was in a tent (the Kinder Zelt) so I didn't have to perform in the rain. At that festival, I had bratwurst and red cabbage.
The week before I was at the KC Irish Festival, telling stories Friday, Saturday and Sunday evenings. I didn't have Irish food, opting instead for Scimeca's Italian sausage and a lemonade. Yum. This picture is from last year, but the fountains were dyed green this year as well.

Yesterday I was at the Kansas State Fair for a short set as part of a showcase of performers. Catfish afterwards--I don't think I've had anything quite that fried in years.

Telling stories at fairs and festivals is tricky. At some, storytelling is an add-on, something people stop to listen to for a minute or three and then move on. At some it's a small part of the children's entertainment, mixed in with crafts and bouncy houses. At some, it's well-attended and anticipated every year.

What contributes to a good festival experience,other than tasty food? Here are a few random ideas:
Advertising the storyteller specifically on the festival program.
Signs outside the venue showing the names of the storytellers and the schedule.
Scheduling at a time when there will likely be listeners.
A tent or covered stage for the performance.
Placement of the venue so that the storytelling is not competing with bands, roving performers, giant hot air balloons or petting zoos.
Good seating for the audience, close to the performer.
An effective sound system.
Bottles of water for the storyteller.
An emcee, or if there is no emcee, each performer reminding the audience to stick around for the next one.

What am I leaving out?

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Performing for children

Warning: Cranky post.

I'm disappointed when I see children's performers who deliver mediocre shows. That is, when they bore kids, when they perform for children because they think it will be easier than performing for adults (hah!), when their shows have no real substance, when they don't believe in the worth of their material.

Lately, I've seen a couple of performances for children that disappointed me. Nah, they did more, they made me mad. Kids deserve better, and so do their parents.

One show was a thinly veiled marketing ploy. Children were invited to be in a play. They were given costumes, roles and lines. The adult director told them what to say and do. There was a little bit of input from the kids, but not much. The setup took a long time and was boring. The story had almost no dramatic tension. The director made sure the parents understood that the play was being videotaped and they could buy the DVD for a nominal fee. Smart, eh? Then the company had the contact info so they could sell even more of these "participatory" shows.

Another show was a small musical band, heavy on props, costumes and audience participation, light on substance. The frontman's goal seemed to be to get the kids wild--he sprayed them with water at one point, with silly string at another. Like the other show, this one featured kids coming up on stage to put on costumes and play parts. It, too, took a long time. The frontman used a character voice, stepping out of it to reprimand the children for not following instructions. He announced several times that the band was available for other events. The musicians were good, but do I remember any of their songs? No.

Don't get me wrong, the kids had fun. They laughed and joined in, but will they remember the show in a week or a month or a year? Worse, will this be the standard by which they and their parents judge children's performances? If we don't get the kids all riled up, will they feel they haven't gotten their money's worth?

And don't get me wrong about audience participation. I include lots of it in my performances for young children, though because I was terrified of being called on when I was little, I do participation from the safety of the group. I've seen it done well: Jim Cosgrove, a.k.a. Mr. Stinky Feet, is a good example of a performer manages audience energy smoothly, bringing kids up on stage without boring anybody. His shows have real substance, too.

Hmm, mentioning Jim reminds me that there are lots of good performers out there, those who respect the audience, their material and themselves.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Joe Fish, 1992-2009, RIP

It has been a tough week. Last Wednesday, my old friend Joe Fish stopped eating. He was listless. His legs slipped out from under him as he walked. He was telling me that after 17 years, he was done. Last night, I took him to the veterinarian, where we let him go gently. I had incredible support from family and friends. My sweetie Kent was with me at the very end, as was my dear brother-in-law.

Joe wasn't always mine. My friend and housemate Liz in Connecticut brought this little kitten home from a weekend in Vermont. Her 4-year-old daughter named him Joe Fish, a strange and perfectly suitable name. When Liz and Addy moved, they let me keep Joe. He has been with me ever since. Here he is in his youth:

Notice his slightly crossed blue eyes. He looked like a small mountain lion, appropriate for a Vermont cat--the mascot of my alma mater, the University of Vermont, is Charlie Catamount.

Joe Fish traveled with me to Kansas, with the help of two friends. At any point on that cross-country road trip, one of us was holding him. He settled in nicely to our life here. A sociable cat, he visited neighbors and made friends with the horses across the road. He came when I whistled, mostly. He had a secret cat life: he'd come home smelling of cigarettes or even, gasp, perfume. He never admitted where he'd been.
When I went away, instead of having a cat sitter here, Joe usually went to my sister's, my brother's or a friend's house. He didn't mind. When I drove up to our friend Larry's house with him, he'd start purring. He loved it when we had company. He'd come out to see who was there and scout the room for comfortable laps. This cat had many fans. Lots of them came to say goodbye this past weekend.

He drank out of this bowl, ignoring the glass fish:

Joe Fish had more than nine lives. Once he was lost for days, locked in a neighbor's shed. He had a scarred paw from when he was bitten, possibly by a raccoon. My brother watched him face down a fox. He was on my lap when we were in a small car accident. He had countless abcesses from fights with other cats. A few years ago, he had breast cancer, something you don't expect in a male cat. The latest rip in his ear happened about a year and a half ago. At the end, he was deaf, arthritic, mostly blind and had kidney disease.

I loved him dearly, and he loved me. When I came home from being on the road, Mr. Fish would lie next to me at night, purring so loudly I couldn't sleep. When he stopped purring on the weekend, I knew he really was ready to go.

I miss him terribly.

P.S. My sister also wrote a blog post about Joe Fish.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Storytelling at family literacy events

Last week I sent out this postcard to about 800 schools:

I love telling stories at school Family Nights. Sometimes the kids--and even the adults--come in pajamas. Sometimes they bring sleeping bags and quilts to snuggle up on to listen to stories. Sometimes the PTA or PTO has multiple activities, including reading aloud in family groups. It's exciting for the kids to be at school for a special event, where they can show their parents their domain and they have a little more leeway for horsing around with their friends. I clearly remember running full tilt down the corridor at John Howland Elementary School in 5th grade at an evening program, something I never would have done during the school day ("corridor" is the word we used in Rhode Island--in Kansas and elsewhere, people are more likely to say "hallway").

Hmm, that sounds like it's always wild, doesn't it? It isn't. When families listen to stories together, they settle right in, participating at the appropriate times, enjoying the stories completely. As the theme is literacy, I tell my favorite stories from books, including lots of Robert Munsch stories (with his permission). I often end with the story of the Gunniwolf, a quieting tale perfect for sending everybody home peacefully.

It's a treat for us all.