Monday, September 27, 2010

More RYPB pics

Here are some more pictures from Saturday, courtesy of Tony's and Stef's much nicer camera.

Jessie and Corinn (one of the leaders of Trip the Dark Fantastic) helping me and the skeleton out of the green room:

Corinn helping the skeleton stand up:

The skeleton puppet in its full glory:

Stef's precious owl and Tony's lascivious cat:

Red Yarn Puppet Band & Pancake Breakfast

On Saturday the Red Yarn Puppet Band had its second legit performance, this time supporting a great Portland band called Pancake Breakfast at their album release show. I met Mike Midlo--PB's leader--through mutual musical acquaintances, and we immediately connected over our appreciation of animals in folk music. Mike saw pictures of a 15-foot puppet I made for my friend's birthday last year, and asked if I could do something similar for his album release show. We chose two PB songs that lent themselves to puppetry--"Pedro Infante," about the ghost of an old Mexican actor, and "Pea Green Boat," a play on the nursery rhyme about an owl and a cat in a little boat.

The Red Yarn Puppet Band set to work building puppets. Tony and Stef made an amazing cat and owl; Jessie built a fish and a seagull on rods; I spent the last two weeks constructing an 11 foot skeleton puppet (the bones of Pedro Infante). For the spinal cord and support piece, I mounted a PVC pipe on a backpack and bicycle helmet. The arms were made of cardboard and bicycle tubes. The fingers were small plastic tubes with a wire and rubber band trigger operation system. I made quite a mess of our sun porch.

We had our puppets and props mostly built by Saturday, the day of the show. Tony came over and we put the finishing touches on the skeleton and a backpack-mounted pea green boat (a kind of mobile puppet stage with a cutaway bottom... Tony wore it and Stef stood right in front of him so the owl and cat could sit in the boat).

We headed to the venue early, to make sure our puppets would actually fit in the door. The puppets got friendly with the band backstage. It was an amazing line-up--a great folk/soul band called On the Stairs opened, then a dance troupe called Trip the Dark Fantastic cleared the stage and performed a 30 minute dance piece. The crowd ate it up.

Finally Pancake Breakfast took the stage--all 12 of them--and launched in to a rollicking set that blended folk, rock, mariachi, truck-driving songs, even a bit of polka. At the end of Act I, Mike summoned the bones of Pedro Infante. Jessie and a few of the friendly dancers led me out of the green room and into the crowd...
It was interesting to study people's reactions to the giant puppet. I think a lot of folks go to shows to passively observe the action, and some seemed disconcerted to have to interact with the performance. It was in their best interest, considering that I might have collapsed on them at any point, or smacked their faces with Pedro's jangly finger bones.

Pancake Breakfast closed their set with "Pea Green Boat." Stef and Tony emerged from the green room in the boat, followed closely by Jessie with the bird and fish.
During a soft, spooky breakdown, the skeleton reemerged to dance with the boat. Neither Tony, Stef, Jessie or I could see what was going on from beneath our puppets. At some point the skeleton's rib cage fell off... as the song ended I collapsed on the floor in a pile of bones.
All in all, it was a great performance and a huge learning experience. Tony, Stef, and Jessie blew me away as usual with their puppet-building and operating skills. I was happy that no one, including myself, was hurt by the giant skeleton in the room. Mike and the rest of Pancake Breakfast seemed pleased with the puppets, and I hope that it added a little bit more magic to an already magical night.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Red Yarn Puppet Band!

It's been too long since my last post! Much has happened between April and September. As far as Red Yarn is concerned, the most important development is the creation of the Red Yarn Puppet Band. If you have followed this blog, you'll know that I've been dreaming up an Epic American Animal Folk Puppet Musical. But, given the scope of my visions, it's been difficult to realize them. Back in the spring, I decided that making stop motion videos would be the easiest way. Well, have you ever tried making stop motion videos?? IT'S NOT EASY!! And more importantly, it can be a pretty isolating process. I decided that rather than hole up in a dark closet for the next year, manipulating small puppets frame by frame, I wanted to take this project to the streets, to build community around creativity, puppetry, and folk music.

So, back in July, I put out an email to many of my creative friends in Portland to see if anyone would be interested in starting a musical puppet troupe. I had just enough takers--my old friend Jim would find time in his busy med school schedule to play banjo and try his hand at making puppets; my new friend Tony, who used to work at Laika (the stop motion movie studio that made Coraline), would build and operate puppets; my friend Nina, who is a master knitter, would knit and sew little creatures in her free time; finally, my fiancee Jessie got enlisted in to sing, craft, and handle puppets (a generous contribution of time and talent considering that she is starting an intense new job as a middle school teacher!). The Red Yarn Puppet Band was born!

I introduced the group to some of my favorite animal folk songs--"Mr. Rabbit," "Raccoon's Got a Bushy Tail," "Who Killed Cock Robin," "Froggie Went A'Courtin'." Everyone chose a character and we started building puppets (mostly with materials from SCRAP, an amazing craft store/educational organization that specializes in recycled art supplies). Jim worked on Uncle Rat; Tony built Mr. Raccoon; Nina worked on a snake and a nest full of baby birds; Jessie made Ms. Mousie; I finished a possum puppet and started working on Froggie. After a month of work, we had a large cast of characters to animate many of these old American animal songs. Jessie, Jim and I arranged the songs with guitar, banjo, and three-part harmonies.

We had our first show on Saturday at the Slabtown Community Festival in Northwest Portland. It was a huge success! We led a parade of costumed kids from a nearby park to the festival site. Tony and I played drums marching band style. Jessie and Tony's partner Stef worked puppets and led chants. Once at the festival site, we played a set for a great crowd of children and families.
We wove six old songs into a narrative about our hero, Bob Rabbit, traveling through the Deep Woods looking for adventure. I played guitar, sang, and narrated as Mr. Sun, looking down on all the action and interacting with the other characters. Jim played banjo and sang.
Jessie sang and operated Bob Rabbit, Mr. Mousie, and Snake.
Tony kept his hands full with Farmer John, Froggie, Uncle Rat, Mr. Raccoon, and Mr. Possum.
Stef made a rousing cameo appearance as the cat that chases Froggie's and Mousie's wedding party into the lake.

We received great feedback from the kids and parents watching. "I loved the dark Appalachian sound!" "Way to weave the theme of death into a kids' show!" "You guys are going to be as big as Raffi!" (Is that a compliment?) It was a wonderful inaugural show and got me very excited for the future of the Red Yarn Puppet Band. It feels so good to be working with a group of such creative people. They bring talents and ideas to this project that I could never achieve on my own. And they have imbued their puppets with amazing personality that brings new color to these songs and stories.

Our next project is building several puppets--one large-scale and four hand-and-rod or stick puppets--for a friend's CD release show in two weeks. If you are in Portland, come to the Pancake Breakfast CD Release at the Doug Fir on September 25. I'll post pictures after the show.

Hurray for community! Hurray for the Red Yarn Puppet Band!