Tag Archives: Michael Earl

How to be a teacher and a student at the same time…

A few weeks ago I traveled to Chicago to attend another Puppet School workshop. It was great to get to review what I’d learned in the summer and reinforce the good stuff I’d kept in my cranium and reprogram some of the errors I’d built in with flawed memory. I was also very pleased that my practicing had paid off. It was noticeable and I was proud of that.

It’s always good for teachers to be students again. In general, we like that. It is part of the reason we were drawn to teaching in the first place. We are people who like to continually grow and discover new things. But it’s also good for teachers to be students again because we can analyse our own learning and relate it to the students we have in front of us. This really only works though when the classes are based in things we have chosen to learn. If we’ve been sent, (volun-told I like to call it), to a particular session because someone else thought we’d benefit, it is often a sad disappointment – not always, but we definitely will get more out of a session we’ve chosen ourselves. And that makes sense, doesn’t it? It’s the same for our kids. They will do better and put in more effort when the class or subject area is something that piques their interest and when it isn’t, that teacher has to work all that much harder to get them engaged.

Well, there was little effort needed to engage me. I’d already traveled several hours, (and got lost in Detroit at 5 a.m.), in order to attend this workshop. I was already engaged. I merrily made my 4th puppet in 2 months and reviewed some techniques and refined some skills in that process. And during the manipulation class, I was rehearsing and practicing to keep my skills progressing and perfect what I’d started to develop over the summer. It was great. And, I made some new friends in the bargain.

So then, I pack up and get ready to fly home – just a little bit sad that I won’t get to work with Michael again for awhile, but extremely happy that I’d gone to the effort of attending this second workshop. I make it to the airport – whew! And discover that my flight is delayed. Ah well, not by much. As I’m sitting there a trio of ladies comes to sit near me. Grandma, Aunt and little girl.

I’m sitting and listening to my Muppet selections, surreptitiously practicing lip sync as I do, when I notice the little girl next to me is listening to Disney tunes. She’s adorable with her American Girl backpack and doll and her Strawberry Shortcake suitcase. So I say to her, “Disney, eh? I’m listening to Muppets.” And she replies, “I’ve got Muppets!” and to prove it she goes through her MP3 player and sure enough pulls up John Denver and the Muppets. She tells me it’s her favourite. So, I can’t resist. I say, “I’ve got something to show you…” and I pull out my new puppet – Rosie, and put her on so they can meet.

Rosie Puppet

Rosie says HI!

For the next twenty minutes or so, Rosie and Samantha talk and become friends. There is no one else in the room for Samantha and she doesn’t even seem to remember that I’m right beside her, talking and that she watched me put her on. There’s even whispers around me, and I’m sure, people pointing in the airport as we have our conversation – but I’m only focused on Samantha. At some point in our discussion, Grandma decides to “sneak” a photo of her granddaughter talking to this puppet. I am amused. I’m thinking, “Is this what it’s like for a Muppeteer? If so, I’ll take that.” And I’m thinking, why is she trying to sneak a photo? Why don’t we just pose? So I have Rosie suggest that to Grandma and we do. Rosie puts her arm around Samantha and Grandma takes the pic. It was great. We talked about movies and Muppets and music and American Girl and her vacation with Grandma, etc. etc. And when it was time to get on the plane, Samantha gave me a wave and I felt like I’d made some new friends. I didn’t get anyone else’s name though. Who cares? They were smiling and so was I and we barely noticed having to wait longer for the plane.

All that time, I was being a student and a teacher. I’m planning ahead to how I’ll use this experience with my kids at school and I’m learning as I watch Samantha react to my puppet. I’m thinking about how Samantha is at a cognitive level to have a conversation with a puppet, but completely willing to personify that puppet and ignore the manipulation that makes it come alive. I’m practicing my skills that I’ve been developing as a student and I’m wondering what my teacher would say to this whole event. It’s amazing how all of that can happen in the same instant. But it does. And it’s thrilling. So, I hope that all my teacher learning this year is that fulfilling and worthwhile.

The Puppet School, Michael Earl, San Francisco and new Friends

I have had an incredible adventure.

I went to San Francisco and made a puppet. And then I worked with that puppet, (and others) to learn some wonderful manipulation techniques. And I had fun. And I learned loads! And I felt like a kid again – a kid who got to go to summer camp. Finally.

Last weekend I attended The Puppet School weekend intensive. www.puppetschool.com

On Saturday we made a puppet. 8 hours of work, following a pattern and expert instruction and I had a puppet. She’s beautiful. You’ll meet her later. 8 hours of dreaming and scheming and gluing and stitching, (Henson stitching no less!), and the participants all had their own unique and fantastic creation. We all followed the same pattern with the same instructions, but our choices of colour and texture and eyes and hair made them so different and wonderful. I think there’s a special message in that. I’d have been happy to take any one of them home. Our instructor, multi-Emmy winner and former Mr. Snuffleupagus , Michael Earl, was there to guide us through each step. He has great suggestions, but quietly lets each individual choose the direction of their puppet. A great teacher. He was assisted by San Francisco native Andrew Montesano who would help when thread was snagged, or feathers were flying – whatever. At one point Andrew circled near me to ask how I was doing, and without thinking I replied: “I couldn’t be happier than I am right now.”

The next day was Film and Television Puppetry. Again, a full 8 hours of work with our new puppets, (and others there for us to try – thanks again Andrew!!!). Puppet choreography, improv, character, stillness, and of course, working with the fact that the camera flips your image and messes with your brain. Such challenging work – but SO much fun. I, quite honestly, have not felt challenged as a performer in some time. The work I’ve been given to do lately has been fairly straight-forward and hasn’t required me to really exercise any mental, (or physical) muscles. This did all that and more. I felt mentally, physically and emotionally challenged. People say this all the time, but: life changing.

All the participants in the two days were wonderful people. There was Katie, who had made a puppet before and she agonized over her decisions and her work – but seriously, made the most wonderful yellow “Packer-backer” puppet. He was delightful. Her friend, Karen – who she’d pressured to attend, (but is now addicted), made an amazing dark purple, 3 eyed monster. Joan – who’d made many puppets before and brought them with her had a great time learning how to bring character to her creations. Dr. Julielynn Wong, who’d like to use puppets to promote healthy living choices in patients, was a super fast learner, (clearly worthy of the “Dr.” title in that respect), and my new friend Shari who made a wonderful French monster complete with beret and beads in his fur. As of this typing, she’s already started 2 more puppets – I’m behind! There were two other wonderful artists who made puppets with us on the first day, but sadly, could not attend the second day. A small group, but the perfect size for everyone to get a turn to try things and keep progressing. The amount we all improved during this day was phenomenal! (do-doo-do-do-do!) And that day, I again felt like I couldn’t be any happier. By the end of it, I didn’t want to say goodbye and in all seriousness, I told Michael and Andrew that I could be a student of this for 6 weeks straight! No breaks necessary. My heart was SO full.

On my last day in San Francisco, I got to be a tourist – I’ll go into detail with that on another post because that was also amazing, but at the end of the day, a Muppet friend, Seanna – who I met in Montreal at The Just for Laughs Festival, picked me up, drove me around the city to show me some views, took me to her favourite Mexican restaurant and then dropped me off at the airport. How kind and wonderful is that? It was the perfect way to end my visit to the city and my adventures, (at least in San Francisco), with puppets. You see, my flight had a stopover. One that I’d decided to extend. Because my layover city was Atlanta – the home of The Center for Puppetry Arts – a location that I was determined to visit!

More on that later. Stay tuned.