A Place For The Puppet People

Photo courtesy of Max Reide.
Photo courtesy of Max Reide.
Photo courtesy of Max Reide.

Fourth-year media production major Kyle Mahoney and second-year theater and communications major Spencer Cohen both grew up watching Sesame Street and the work of Jim Henson.

Beyond the childhood fascination, both said they knew they wanted to be part of the magic.

“Even as a small child I was fully aware there was someone under Ernie, inside big bird,” Mahoney said. “Yet, at the same time, I felt like these characters had a life of their own even when not on the TV.”

The SUNY New Paltz Puppeteering Club is a place for puppet-lovers to meet and discuss their shared interests and perform with one another, Cohen said. On Wednesdays at 4:30 p.m. in SUB 407, typically they’ll get together, along with the five or six regular members that attend meetings, and just play around. They’ll do everything from improv exercises to simply talking about their day through their puppets.

For those interested in trying puppetry, Cohen said there’s always time to try it out. At meetings, it’s not uncommon for a new person to wander in, but Cohen said there’s no pressure. People are free to try the club out no strings attached.

“Puppetry isn’t really the most common thing to see around,” Mahoney said. “So people are always interested in what we do and how we do it.”

Mahoney and Cohen each bring their arsenal of puppets to meetings to share because they love to see the way other people interpret personalities and voices for their puppets. Creating that personality and character is the key to bringing the puppets to life.

“What I do is pick up a puppet first, look at him and I try to find a trait that suits the character,” Cohen said.

Cohen’s first puppet was a small, white monster named Donut that his aunt sewed for him. When creating Donut, Cohen said he was inspired by Henson’s family-friendly characters, like Kermit the Frog.

“I wanted him to bring happiness to people,” Cohen said.

Mahoney, the only member of the club to make his own puppets from scratch, said he has a different approach.

“I usually don’t start thinking up a voice until I start building the puppet,” he said.

From there, Mahoney said they’ll play around with several voices for his characters depending on the structure, eye placement and general look of the puppet. He said his puppets each have multiple personalities that come out in different situations, mostly depending on the age of the audience.

Jeremiah, the first puppet Mahoney made, has two distinct voices. One pays homage to his “Sesame Street” and “Muppet” roots with a traditional monsterish growl; the other is a heavy Russian accent.

Jeremiah is a “live hand” puppet, similar in design to “Sesame Street’s” Cookie Monster and Ernie. As most puppets need one hand to work the mouth and another to work a single hand, some are crafted with arm rods to allow a bit of movement while others with glove-like hands are live hand.

Live hand puppets offer a bit more for mobility, Mahoney said, particularly when two puppeteers work in tandem to operate both arms. This process, called “right handing,” is one of the more complicated puppeteering skills, he said, as coordinating hand gestures can be difficult, but it’s an opportunity to bring something more to its stage presence and characterization.

“It’s a pain-in-the butt technique,” Mahoney said. “Let’s call it that.”

That’s why it’s often the entry-level position for most puppeteers when they join a company or work on a TV show, he said.

Both Cohen and Mahoney said they would love to work in puppeteering in the future. Citing film and stage influences like “Little Shop of Horrors,” “Avenue Q,” “Labyrinth,” and “Muppets Take  Manhattan.” Mahoney said he is always impressed and excited by the creative use of puppetry in different media.

The two are both admittedly puppet-obsessed, taking part in the wealth of puppet-centric internet communities. Cohen is a member of Puppeteers of America, a group that holds festivals and events for puppeteers.  He said the group, along with the internet community, is a great opportunity for aspiring puppeteers to ask questions and seek mentorship opportunities.

Mahoney said he has reached out to the performers he admires to ask advice and to learn more about the craft. That interest, paired with the mantra of “practice, practice, practice,” fuel their philosophy for their performances at local open mic nights.

Cohen said he hopes that anyone interested in puppetry or any craft should never be discouraged from pursuing them.

“Whatever you do, whatever your passion is… follow your dreams,” Cohen said. “Don’t let anyone put you down. Just go for it.”