…As the Puppet Turns…Interview with Drew Allison of Grey Seal Puppets

…As the Puppet Turns… Delving into the lives of the puppeteers… Installment #3:  Founder and Performer of Grey Seal Puppets, Drew Allison interviewed by Gina Gambony

I first saw Drew Allison perform in a pub in Asheville, NC – it was Grey Seal’s “Show of Virtues” for the 2006 Regional festival.  A couple of years later, I discovered Drew had spent time in Wilmington and had worked with some of the same people I work with in some of the same places I’ve worked in.  It’s been fantastic to draw on Drew’s longtime experience as a puppeteer and his passionate commitment to the art; he is one of our artistic directors for the Port City Puppet Festival!

Prior to the festival, Drew will be performing “The Emperor’s New Clothes” at Kenan Auditorium, a venue that is no stranger to Drew.  This show is for local camp groups on the morning of July 15.  Drew will also be co-hosting Potpourri at the festival with Bob Nathanson…that’s right, DREWBOB strikes again!

GG:  Drew Allison, I know a little bit about you…you studied Theatre at UNCW (our host for the upcoming festival) back in the day!

DA: Yes. Under my mentor of all mentors, the late, super great Doug Swink, professor of theatre at UNCW. Along with English Prof. John Clifford, they really transformed me while I was there.

GG:  Did you go to college intending to major in Theatre?

DA:  No, English. Which indeed is what my degree is in, with a minor in Theatre. I had dreams of being a National Geographic Photojournalist, but the puppets wouldn’t go away.

GG:  How did you get drawn into the Theater Department and by extension, puppetry? Or was it the other way around…?

DA:  I was already doing puppetry. I had actually started Grey Seal Puppets while in High School. So, the puppets were there and thus all the theatre courses. Doug Swink gave me a space to work in and helped me produce two full-length solo pieces while I was there.

GG:  So let’s get in the WAYBACK machine for a moment…what happened in your youth that got you started with puppetry?

DA:  I grew up here in Charlotte. I was inspired by television puppetry; Capt. Kangaroo was a favorite, Sesame Street, etc. Personifying objects was fascinating to me. Building scarecrows and such was a real natural high for me growing up. My parents were very supportive and gave me a book by Helen Fling for Christmas on making marionettes. It was game-on then, I started really building tons of puppets and started doing birthday party shows, etc. etc.

GG:  Now, at UNCW Doug Swink had his office in Kenan Auditorium, and he gave you some puppet space there?

DA:  Yes, his office was just off of the lobby. There was a vacant faculty office on the balcony level that he let me use as a studio. To this day I can’t believe his kindness and generosity.

GG:  It is truly amazing. I don’t know if faculty can “do” that kind of thing anymore on campus.

While Doug was not a puppeteer, he obviously had a great impact on you. Did this go beyond offering the space?

DA:  Yes, I think he shaped my whole approach to theatre, and moreover an outlook on life. He was kind, patient and above all else, always laughing and enjoying life. He wore shorts most of the time. I try to emulate all of these characteristics. He respected puppets as a theatre form. He directed me in the pieces I produced while there. He used me and my puppets in outside productions, particularly with the Junior League and their productions.

GG:  The Pied Piper Productions!

DA:  A show Tony Rivenbark starred in is the one I remember most.  I was sort of in awe of Tony’s talent. In one Junior League production, I played a puppet character that was the Director of the show and Tony played the Director’s assistant. He would crack me up the whole show. He was wonderful.

GG:  Tony is a funny guy. Did you know he has an entire Punch of Judy set from Great Britain?

He tries to hide it, but he loves puppets.

DA:  Yes, you showed me when I was there.

GG:  During your time at UNCW, did you know before you graduated that you would be choosing puppetry as a career?

DA:  No. I never thought that was going to happen. When I graduated I came back to Charlotte and went to work for a filmmaker here in town. It gave me a great background in all sorts of film and TV production which turned out to be invaluable for our on-camera work here at Grey Seal Puppets.

GG: And what spurred the quantum leap into full-time puppetry, how did it happen?

DA:  The Great Recession of the early 80’s which got me laid-off at the filmmaker’s. This was the catalyst to focus all energy on puppetry.

GG:  What are some of the milestones in the development of Grey Seal along the way?

DA:  I think moving into a downtown studio in 1984 helped us a lot. Winning an UNIMA Citation of Excellence in the mid-80’s [for “Animal Farm”]  was a real affirmation for us and was a great confidence booster. Having a 10 year Anniversary Documentary made about the company was huge. But overall it’s more of a steady exploration of what we are capable of as performers using puppets.  [Grey Seal also received UNIMA Citations of Excellence for “Bathtub Pirates” in 1996 and “Show of Virtues” in 2007.]

GG:  One thing Grey Seal is known for is FOAM. First, where did you learn your amazing foam skills?  You published the first foam book 10 years ago, and you are also creating an online foam community now!

DA:  Ha! Well, my first real adventures in building “real puppets” in the corner of our attic involved plastic, wood, molds and what seemed like an interminable process for a teenager. I was probably drawn to foam by the Muppets, but what I loved about it from the start was its immediacy, its forgiveness and its flexibility to create all sorts of different looks. Our “look” grew out of years of just playing with foam and finding out what it was capable of.

It amazes me how many people have found solace in The Foam Book.  We just had the 7th printing of The Foam Book. We are writing The Foam Book 2.0 as we speak. Thanks to Amazon, etc. it goes all over the world.

We also did a DVD version of me actually demonstrating the techniques on camera which seems to be helpful for folks.

Grey Seal Puppets-Drew on camera

GG:  Tell me a little about Grey Seal’s work on film.

DA:  Well, there’s some exiting news to that end. Donald Devet, who I worked with for a long time until he changed careers in 1998, is putting together a 6-DVD disc set of a retrospective of all of GSP’s on-camera work. As we compiled all the footage, we were both amazed at how much there was. Enough to fill 6 DVDs??  Holy cow. Our work centers on commercials, family specials, corporate training tapes, etc. The retrospective should be ready by the Festival!

GG:  Grey Seal is obviously more than just the amazing Drew Allison. Who are some of your right hand (and left hand) folk?

DA: Grey Seal is definitely a sum of its parts. We are a team and approach everything that way. Vania Reckard runs our workshop, Megan Agee runs our office and we have several builders that we use on a regular basis: Cheralyn Lambeth, Jeff Hawley, Dominie Doig…

GG:  What would you say is the bread and butter of the company, how has it lasted so long and been so successful?

DA:  Ours has always been a three-pronged approach: live performances in schools and theatres; on-camera work; and building characters for other people.

This approach allows for three revenue streams; when one trickles, hopefully another one flows. That’s our philosophy.

GG:  Grey Seal isn’t just puppets-you build big MASCOTS and such.

DA:  Yes, we custom design mascots for sports teams, corporations, etc. We do the New Orleans Hornet which is well-known, along with the Charlotte Bobcat, lots of local teams here, lots of colleges, etc. The mascot projects are usually one right after another.

GG:  What are your hopes/visions/dreams for Grey Seal for the next 5 years?

DA:  Hmmmm. New stuff. Keep exploring. More on camera work which I love. Nurture young puppeteers.

I feel good about the state of our theatre form. I’m blown away by puppetry I’m seeing on stage and on camera. Very exciting! I’m very excited about the Port City Puppet Festival and hope that people in Wilmington realize how unique it is for them to have something like this in their city and they take advantage of it!

GG:  I’m looking forward to having you here in the Port City again this summer.  What are some places you plan to revisit?

DA:  Elizabeth’s Pizza, Flaming Amy’s Burrito Barn, and Goody Goody Omelet House.

GG:  What can I say…Goody Goody!

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