You can see videos of this interview by clicking HERE
For me, puppets were a gateway drug. From age 3 til I was 12, I was never without one. I had chests filled with them and was always on the lookout for the next. I think because, at that age, It was the simplest way for me to express my imagination. That first puff on the puppet pipe led me down a path in the arts that has lasted until this moment.
When Annett Mateo, the Resident Puppet Artisan at Seattle Children’s Theatre, agreed to sit down for an interview to celebrate the premiere of SCT’s original production “Black Beauty”, I was determined that it was going to be perfect.
So of course I blew it … But also, I didn’t.
I wrote down a terrible list of questions. But Annett’s openness, honesty, proud nerdiness and wit took my terrible questions and turned them into something else entirely.
Yeah, this is an article about puppets for sure, but it’s also about Annett and her journey and life in the universe of puppetry and theatre. Turns out that once again, when it all boils down, there are common threads that run through the story of all of us who exist in the Business of Show; Stick with it, and you will win …
Cool kids be damned …
Puppet Master Annett Mateo has been an artist all her life (with a short 15 year sidetrack as a mainframe programmer.) In her career she has designed, built and performed a gamut of puppetry from intimate theaters to giant festivals and everything in between. For the last 20 years her home has been Seattle Children’s Theatre as the in-house dedicated puppet-builder.
Annett seemed nervous, which is an emotional state reserved for me during an interview. But once she started her mind seemed to go a bit faster than her mouth could form the words to describe the thought. We were seated in the cluttered conference room of the Allen Family Technical Pavilion, SCT’s sprawling Scene Shop complex adjacent to SCT’s two theatres.
“My first question is always the “softball” question,” I started, “When did you realize that puppets were your thing?”
“Pretty much the moment I discovered that puppets were a thing.” She told me, “I was extremely shy as a kid. I spent a lot of time in the Library, and I discovered a book called, “Making Puppets Come Alive”. It has a little thing on how to make puppets and how to make a little stage and it has this little script. The script is “Punch and Judy”.
And I was like “This is Stupid …”
Since she worked at the library, she checked the book out for an entire year and studied it. From that moment on Annett knew she just wanted to do it.
“I moved around a lot as a kid,” she continued, “we never really settled so I never really had a place to make things until High School. It was a brand-new school with a state of the art Theatre so they started a theatre program.”
Where was this?
“Apple Valley Minnesota”
Beautiful, isn’t it?. Aside from Annett, A.V.M. is also known for its Annual July 4th “Apple Valley Freedom Days” Parade, the Minnesota Zoo, and numerous Professional Hockey Players …
From 10th through 12th grade Annett spent every free minute in the theatre, and actually quite a lot more than just the free ones …
“In my junior year, because of a competition show we did and a one-act we toured to other schools, I spent more time in the Theatre than in actual class.”
Preaching to the choir here, Annett. In High School I was excused for theatre stuff more than the jocks were excused for games …
THE COOL KIDS OF CAROUSEL
“Then we did “Carousel”, Annett recalled.
“Which has puppets in it! And so I was like, “This is Great! I’m finally gonna get a chance to do real puppets!”
What happened next? I’ll tell you what happened next…
“And then all the “Cool Kids” did the puppets …
Yup, Cool kids happened …
“Now nobody ever believes me when I say that because puppets are such a geeky thing, you wouldn’t think the cool kids would do it.”
Uh-huh, unless the cool kids decide they wanna do it, then it’s cool …
“Yeah,” she muses, “That’s what they did. They built the puppets, took them over, got cast to do them and then, they took them and toured them around the parks during the Summer, know what I mean?”
Oh, yeah, the “Parks and Rec” tour. I was in a Madrigal choir, I know the drill …
“And I was like, “Oh well, I guess I’m not cool enough to do puppets …”
“So basically, you got into puppets for revenge?”
Why puppetry? What was it about puppets that appealed to her? Why puppets and not something else like acting, or Writing or another role behind the scenes?
“The thing that fascinates me about puppetry is the balance or the tension between the Aesthetic and the technical,” She said. “You take something that is technically great, like this cool little mechanism to make this eye or ear or wing work well, and you try to make it aesthetically pleasing.”
She turned the idea around.
“Or the opposite,” she reflected, “you take something that looks really cool and you try to make move in a really cool way.”
“The balance is something really intriguing with puppetry,” she finished.
THE THIRD HAND …
Something that has always fascinated me was the blending of puppets and technology. My friends and I grew up on a steady diet of Baker, Bottin, Winston and, of course, Henson. A glorious time when special effects were actual not virtual. Seeing how these masters incorporated wires, bladders, servos and circuitry into intricately sculpted creatures was something we couldn’t get enough of.
I wanted Annett’s take on the subject. Was it a good thing? Do “puppet purists” shun tech as blasphemy? Was it about simplicity or complexity?
“It depends,” she said. “It depends on the puppet and what it needs to do. But technology and puppetry is a personal passion of mine. One of the things I’ve been performing lately is an Arduino-based piece.”
That’s awesome! Uhhhhhhh, what’s that?
Arduino is a small control circuit used to program and control output to motors or other controls.
“Like an eye blink?”
“Yeah,” she continued, “or “Rotate this far or this fast.” I’ve been doing workshops, trying to introduce other puppeteers to Arduino because it can be tricky.”
The trick, as she explained it, was that the technology stuff in puppetry comes from a very dry and geeky and scientific place. She said that because of that it’s easy for a puppeteer to get lost in making the servo work but maybe not making it do something cool.
“Like robots.” she said. “Robots are kind of cool but they still look like robots, not very interesting. But if you put like, a teddy bear skin on a robot, now you’re talking about something kind of interesting.”
Not to mention kind of disturbing …
But I got what she was laying down. She meant that technology was about subtlety in puppetry. You wanna use it but you don’t want it to take over. It existed to enhance the human performance.
Annett continued, “What it is, is this. Anybody who’s ever been doing puppetry for a long time, we always wish we had a third hand. Arduino is the third hand. It’s that thing that can make the eye twitch or the hand move when you’re not there.”
I had another 10 questions on this subject, but I decided at that point I wanted to save them for when we went to see the Horse puppets for “Black Beauty”.
“There is no technology in this show …” She said.
I was surprised to hear that and asked her why not?
“This is partly because the show is so huge,” she explained, “It’s got a massive cast, both puppets and actors.”
Annett is in a unique position. Seattle Children’s Theatre is one of the only LORT theatres in the country to have an explicit and dedicated puppet department. A review of its superb production history shows why, and Annett has been building puppets for the stages there for 20 years.
Still, I was curious to know, in the context of production where puppets sat in terms of their classification. Were puppets props? Costumes? Were puppets considered “Actors”?
“It’s a puppet,” she replied.
Okay I overthought that one.
“You could argue for years about what exactly is a puppet. Like I said, in other theatres props build the puppets. Sometimes if they know enough, or the work is too technical a theatre will search out a local puppet artisan to bring in and do the build as a contractor.”
Well sure, puppet artisans gotta work …
THERE’S A WHOLE PUPPET THING OUT THERE …
Never let it be said I don’t do my homework before an interview, (I may be half in the bag when I do it but yeah, whatever I take notes). So, I surfed the internet looking for puppet people. I found them. A lot of them. A whole lot. And they’re organized …
“Oh yeah,” Annett nodded.
“I stumbled across something called, “Drunk Puppets”.
“Yeah, “Drunk Puppet Night.”
And that’s literally what it sounds like? People get drunk and puppet?
“Why is that not a big deal?”
“It is a big deal!” Annett said. “Most major cities have a “Puppet Slam”. Go to the Puppet Slam Network.”
SO YOU’VE DECIDED TO BECOME A PUPPETEER!
Now that I knew that there was actually a pretty solid Puppeteer network, it started looking less and less like a really iffy career choice in general.
They’re here. They Puppet. Get used to it.
I wanted to know what it took to become a successful puppeteer now that I’d learned there was a world out there in which to be successful?
“There was a time, “Annett began, “when I felt that if I could call myself “Puppeteer” with any iota of legitimacy to it, that I was successful. But now having been a professional builder for 20 years, it’s like, success is this …”
Good point. It’s like many other stories I have heard in my travels. In the theatre, one thing leads to another, and if you love it, then you find your place to land. How many people started out acting, only to find that their skills were better elsewhere?
Annett continued. “The shows like “Black Beauty”, I feel very successful having accomplished that much. To pull off that size of a build. There’s a tremendous amount of creativity on the stage.”
Annett explained a successful Puppeteer needs boundless imagination and curiosity. Good writing skills were also important she confided;
“No amount of great Puppetry will save bad writing.”
And the skillset? What tricks does a Puppeteer need in their bag?
“All of them,” she responded.
Math? Everybody I ever interview says “math” when I ask this question …
“People ask me, “Can I do puppetry if I don’t know how to sew?”, Annett said, “Sure, you can do it if you don’t know how to use a pair of scissors. But it’s a lot easier if you have the skills.”
Like knowing which end of a table saw to you she continued. And yes, the business end of a sewing machine doesn’t hurt. Like she said, “You can do more if you have the skills.”
“And in terms of how to, the best way to learn about Puppetry is from other Puppeteers,” Annett said.
Another common thread; I’ve never interviewed anyone in the Theatre who didn’t say the same thing; talk to others in your field of interest …
I just never quite heard put it the way Annett did …
“… And Puppeteers, in general, are pretty lonely people …”
After I stopped laughing, Annett continued assuredly, “They’re very nice people! Very willing to want to connect and chat with you.”
She went on to list a wide array of avenues for the young Puppeteer to explore; local puppet groups, local Guilds, “Puppeteers Of America”, (a national organization), Regional and National Festivals.
“Now if you wanna go to Grad School”, she continued, that would be the “Eugene O’neil Theatre Puppetry Conference.”
She isn’t joking. The O’Neill National Puppetry Conference is the Cern Supercollider of Puppet Conferences.
It’s a two week long, annual gathering of puppeteers and creators and performers. The speakers teachers and performers are the who’s who of the art. The link to the website is at the end of this article, and this article is almost over.
“That happens every year. It’s amazing,” She remarked. “It can be life changing in terms of the connections you can make and the level of art you see there.”
Annett continued. “The creativity is just boundless there.”
I wondered was there a “Dream puppet” that she had yet to build?
“I really don’t know,” Annett responded, “I think I have to say that “Black Beauty” is kind of it.”
Way to swing things back to the show, Annett …
“Building horses is something I just love doing, horses and birds.”
“Black Beauty” gave Annett the opportunity to build practically every form of puppet. From the major horse characters, to rod puppets and smaller shadow stick puppets.
“I got to build something like 30 horses. I never count how many puppets I make because it freaks me out. But there are 7 different Black Beauty’s that I know. There are puppets onstage every minute. It’s told from the point of view of a horse, so it’s looking at the world from the point of view of a horse …”
And with that, there was only one more question to ask …
“Can we go see the puppets? Please please please please …”
TO BE CONTINUED …
To learn a little more about Annett Mateo, you can click HERE (or you can go see a show at SCT).
Seattle Children’s Theatre
Speaking of Seattle Children’s Theatre, you can learn all about this outstanding theatre by clicking HERE.
“Making Puppets Come Alive” by Larry Engler and Carol Flynn
Admit it, you want the book. You can get your own copy of the book that helped to make Annett the amazing artist she is. Check out where to get your copy of MAKING PUPPETS COME ALIVE by clicking HERE.
Apple Valley Minnesota
Yeah, that’s right. I researched AVM and you know? It reminded me of where I grew up and probably most people. You can go check out AVM by clicking HERE. GO EAGLES!!!!!
Admit it, if you made it this far you’re a puppet nerd, and that’s totally cool. When I was a kid I was the exact same way and I would totally be looking at this. Check out Arduino and then use it to make something really cool happen that ultimately leads to world peace by clicking HERE.
Puppet Slam Network
You are not alone. Puppet Slam Network can help you find puppet happenings in your neck of the woods. So go get your puppet on by clicking HERE.
Eugene O’Neill National Puppetry Conference
Imagine having the chance to watch Stradivarius Play his Violin. Being at Princeton and watching Einstein at his chalkboard, or Copeland on the dance floor, and you get the sense of what’s going on here. You can learn all about the O’Neill National Puppetry Conference by clicking HERE.
Puppeteers of America
More proof that there is an entire network out there for people just like you; puppet people. You can learn all about this organization, read stories about puppeteers like you and become a member by clicking HERE.