Person of the Week
Some think performing is just for ego and that performers just want someone to look at them. That is NOT what performing is for me. What I’m really saying to my audience is, “I love you. I have something of value in this story to share and I want to share it with you.”
1. What led you to the mission of being a puppeteer?
When I was in college I took two drama classes because I thought they would be fun. One was oral interpretation that was really storytelling. Storytelling is a theatrical, dramatic performance. It’s not just reading a book. There is no book. It’s just a performance. I also took a puppetry class. I didn’t know I was ever going to do anything with them. (To learn more about Joy’s work and go to her URL website click here.)
Later I became a credentialed kindergarten teacher. I taught for six years. I did some performances in my children’s school classrooms and for friends at parties. But I was only doing storytelling and I only considered it like a hobby. I did it to entertain friends and family.
Then I came to St. Louis in 2006. My husband had just died. I really needed to do something. I performed for some parents at a summer camp. They said, “You know I think there are some professional storytellers in St. Louis and you ought to look into it.” So I found Gateway Storytellers in St. Louis. I got started with professional storytellers and started a business. Through them I found the Puppet Guild of the Greater St. Louis Area. There was a crossover there because there are people who tell stories through puppets. There were people who were in both groups.
I built two stages and I built eight shows and I built and bought some puppets. I got a website and started performing and running it as a business. I think of it as something to give because through storytelling and puppetry you not only can teach but you can inspire, love, and do good things for the audience.
2. What does this mission mean to you?
We all have different individualities. Some people feel inclined to perform. As a little girl I always wanted to put on little shows. I just loved doing this. Some people have commented that puppeteers are just showing off. Some think performing is just for ego and that performers just want someone to look at them. That is NOT what performing is for me.
When I am performing and doing puppet shows, I have some “out front” stuff and I don’t stay completely behind the stage all the time. I come out to see the audience. That’s because I really need to make eye contact with the audience. I need that connection. I need that intimate, emotional connection between the performer and the members of the audience – especially if there are not hundreds of people and I am able to make eye contact with everyone in the audience.
When I perform with storytelling or puppetry, I can look into the audience heart and reach their heart with my heart while I’m performing. I make that wonderful intimate connection. What I’m really saying to my audience is, “I love you. I have something here I love. I have something of value in this story to share and I want to share it with you.”
What I am sharing is really the thing that we all have in common as humans. These are the things that make us happy. Things that make us afraid. Things that make us sad. Certain things that we have all found to be truth and life through experiences. When we share that, for some reason, it is just delightful to us. It makes us feel good. Maybe it is because we are all connected through God. Our individual unity with God being our unity with each other. Maybe that is what is magical about it. It’s just such a joy to reach the audience and share it.
With children at the same time I am teaching something because they are still learning so much. That’s an extra delight. Some times I have had children who so connect to me or connect to my puppets that they think they are the only one in the audience. They want to be your friend. They want to be the puppet’s friend. It is so important for this to happen.
3. What was your best day being a puppeteer?
One of my best days was when I was doing three performances for a school. It is an early childhood center and elementary school. They have a big center there. They were having a book fair. They asked me if I would take some of the stories in the books that were in their book fair and create some puppets stories. There were two shows at night and the families of the children were invited. They also wanted me to do a whole school assembly with one of my puppet shows.
I have a little puppet named Jillian. She is a little girl with long black braids and is seven years old. She is very precocious and sassy. She was my MC (Master of Ceremonies) in all three of these shows.
There was one little girl, a kindergartener who was about five years old who was watching. Apparently her mother was in the PTO (Parent Teachers’ Organization) because this little girl had to go to all three of my performances. By the time we got to the third one when Jillian came out as MC, the little girl yelled out in the audience, “Jillian! Jillian! I have to talk to you!” Jillian ignored her and went on with the show.
I came out front of the stage during the show. This same little girl ran up to me and said, “I HAVE to talk to JILLIAN!” I said quietly, “You are interrupting my show. Wait until the show is over. Jillian will come out and talk to you for as long as you want.” She said, “OK!” She sat down and was totally content.
I did the rest of my show. After the show was over I brought Jillian out. This little girl talked to Jillian for five or ten minutes. She never once looked at me. I was talking through Jillian obviously, but the little girl never looked at me. She talked to Jillian and in her mind, Jillian was alive. Jillian was a real little girl.
She told Jillian, “I got a notebook at the book fair and I drew your picture in it. I want to write your name and you are my best friend.” It was really sweet because it was so magical that she connected with that puppet for some reason.
4. What was your worst day being a puppeteer?
Things happen that you don’t expect because you can’t control every variable in the situation when you are performing. When you are doing puppeteering, you have all sorts of variables. One time two bad things happened at the same show. I volunteered a show at an amazing huge farm where a Cindy Brenneke has singlehandedly rescued animals. There are farm animals and domestic animals too. There are all kinds of animals. She calls it, “Where Pigs Can Fly.” She is such an amazing person and I wanted to help her do some fundraising. (To learn more about Where Pigs Fly Farm and Pigs Aloft Museum Facebook, click here. You can also click here to go to the Farm and Museum URL Home Page. )
Cindy Brenneke had a fair two years ago in September and I went to do the show. It was kind of windy and a little rainy and a little cool that day. I had to be outside. She had a cement slab with a patio overhang. I was under that and it helped a lot.
For some reason my professional sound studio quality player decided to break. I had to use my back-up regular old CD player. Spot and Rex are two little dog puppets I have and they were on stage. They were doing their performance. Their story is a competition over a bone that they want. They have to compete with each other to see who is the top dog and wins the bone.
The two of these dogs were up there on stage talking to each other and had their argument over the bone. There were lots of animals at the event and some people brought their dogs because we were outside on a farm. My little audience of parents and children were sitting there on these hay bales and these two dogs up by the stage got into a dogfight. This was a scary dogfight. They were going for blood. Some of the women who were in charge were very brave and they pulled these two dogs apart.
My puppets Spot and Rex stopped fighting. They looked at the dogs and started talking about the real dogs. I had to do something with this real dogfight. That event was so taxing. There was so much to being out in the elements, my sound system breaking, and the real dogs fighting. This made it really hard! I found that the audience loves it when something happens that goes wrong.
When somebody responds to you in the audience, the puppets have to respond. I can’t ignore it. I have to address it and make it a part of the show. If I can do that spontaneously, people get a big kick out of it and they really enjoy coming.
This performance was probably one of my worst times I had. But, it wasn’t really that bad. I was able to recover.
5. How did you survive your worst day?
I love being a puppeteer. I can’t quit because it is a part of my identity to express myself in this way. Even though all of it has not been positive and it has been extremely hard work, it is so natural to me that I can’t not do it. I can’t make myself quit. I face that fact now. No matter what it takes, I know I’m going to do it because I love to do it.
6. What advice do you have for someone who would like to be a puppeteer?
I would tell them to start building their shows. You don’t have to make all of your puppets. You can buy good puppets that aren’t all that expensive. You can start finding places to do your shows even if you start out not being paid. You can find preschools especially that are open to performances even though they don’t have a lot of money. You can go to people and say, “Hey, I have this show and I’d like to do it for you.” Then you start doing it.
I had a young man who worked for me for a while. He was in the puppet guild and was a teenager in high school. He really had talent. I needed another puppeteer to work with me on a couple of my shows. I hired him to do some shows with me. He had great potential but he decided that what he is really interested in is doing the stage work in theater. He liked the interesting backgrounds and sets. He is a good performer and puppeteer. I did encourage him a lot.
What I find is that with people like this, they just have to jump in and do it. They have to get out there and do it. It isn’t really that hard to get started. Through trial and error you will find your way.