…As the Puppet Turns…Interview with Lee Bryan: “That Puppet Guy”

…As the Puppet Turns… Delving into the lives of the puppeteers… Installment #2:  Puppeteer Lee Bryan interviewed by Gina Gambony

Lee Bryan, also known as “That Puppet Guy,” is a puppeteer of national renown situated for many years in Atlanta, Georgia.  Lee is a two-time grant recipient of the prestigious Jim Henson Foundation for his solo productions of “Pinocchio” and “Suitcase Circus.”  His professional film credits include work with the Muppets on the feature film, “The Adventures of Elmo in Grouchland.”  The National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences honored Lee with an Emmy nomination for his work with Public Broadcasting on the award-winning Spanish language series, SALSA!

Lee will be performing “Pinocchio” at the Festival:  Friday, July 16, 7:00 pm at Kenan Auditorium.  Tickets will be available to the public!

GG:  Lee, I’m wondering what brought you into performance generally…I have the sense (after seeing you perform) that you’ve had theatrical training/experience.

LB:  I have a theater background and grew up performing musical theater. I was “that kid” doing backyard puppet and magic shows.  I graduated to working with puppets in a local church ministry where I helped create a puppet program as a teen.  From there, I worked as a performer and later auditioned for the Center for Puppetry Arts. I didn’t get the role I was auditioning for, but was offered an internship. That was around 1992.

Under the education department, I began touring my shows. They discontinued their touring artists program (hopefully not because of me), but by then I had already caught the puppeteering bug. I created my first show: “The Princess and the Pea, Y’all” and started my own company.

GG:  Where did you grow up?

LB:  I grew up in Lumberton, NC, Class of 19[static].

GG:  Did anyone provide you with puppet experience before you went to Atlanta? Were there puppet folk in Lumberton?

LB:  No, there was no one there. The library was my friend… I checked out a lot of books. My first inspiration came from Edith Flack Ackley author of Easy to Make, Fun to Use.

In Lumberton, I helped create the program, built the puppets, and wrote the shows… much like I do today.

GG:  Was it with “The Princess and the Pea, Y’all” that you chose your handle, That Puppet Guy?

LB:  Actually, that was bestowed upon me by librarians here in Georgia.

It was catchy and I liked it, so I went with it.

GG:  Yeah, it’s a great name. I can just imagine kids, parents, teachers saying, “Hey-remember that puppet guy??? He’s gonna be here tomorrow!”

LB:  It really happened much like that…and it is easy to remember.

GG:  What was your first experience doing puppetry for television?

LB:  The first time I had a character, and wasn’t a background character was with Georgia Public Broadcasting’s SALSA!

SALSA! was a Spanish language series that taught the language through familiar fairy tales.

GG:  How is the experience different, working for film vs. live?

LB:  It is a whole lot of hurry up and wait.

There are hours and hours spent on set while shots, lighting, and sound are lined up.

Working live, I show up, I set up my stage, sound, and lights… perform, take it all down and repeat up to 3 times a day.

Film can be shot over and over with precision demanded of the script. In a live performance, I know the route I want to take, but the path isn’t always exactly the same. Sometimes jokes work; sometimes, I try something new. It is important to listen to the audience and invite them on the journey with you.

GG:  That’s what I like about live performance, the symbiosis between the performer and the audience. But tell me about the film, “Elmo in Grouchland”-you worked here in Wilmington on that, right?

LB:  Yes, at the Screen Gem Studio. It was a great experience meeting all the icons of Sesame Street. As I type this, I can look across at a collage of pictures that I took with Mandy Patinkin [Princess Bride, Alien Nation, Yentl, Dick Tracy] and Carroll Spinney [Big Bird, Oscar the Grouch].

It was a wonderful experience and a memory that I will not soon forget.  I was a puppeteer for various Grouchland characters.

GG:  I haven’t seen the movie, what should I look for to see your work?

LB:  Among others, I did a boyscout grouch, a character in the “Car Mess” (Opposite of Car Wash) and I even got to hold the Cooke Monster in a background scene…hmmmmmm is talking about this illegal? I don’t know.

Of course, all the lead characters were from NYC.

GG:  Ha ha, the leads are always from NYC. Or  LA. I have an actor friend here in Wilmington who had a nice role in the film as a human, but was replaced by a puppet.

LB:  Puppets are easier to manipulate.

GG:  ~groooaaaaan~  Did you see much of the town, are you excited to come back for the festival?

LB:  Growing up in Lumberton, NC, I was not unfamiliar with the beaches of Wilmington. I am excited to come back. It is a beautiful town with excellent seafood!

GG:  The show you are performing for us this summer is “Pinocchio,” I saw you perform it in Asheville 4 years ago. The performance was fantastic, and the puppets are awesome, the found object puppets. What inspired you to make these?

LB:  Lack of money… ha ha…Actually, I wanted to embrace the movement towards a more “Green” existence. I was fascinated by children who could create whole worlds out of sticks and boxes and baskets. I wanted to tap into the imagination…

Not only is it a performance, but an invitation to dream and play for audiences of all ages.

Pinocchio, I feel I should say at this point, was partially produced with a generous grant from The Jim Henson Foundation, Inc.

GG:  I bought several of your puppets in Savannah, your playful spirit is so very evident in the puppets you make. I’ve taken them to share with kids at schools as some examples of the limitless possibilities in puppet creation.

LB:  Wow! Thank you!

GG:  Are you going to bring some puppets to sell in Wilmington?

LB:  I won’t have an assistant there this time, so I don’t know how much space I will have in my truck. I am performing in SC the week before Wilmington with a different title and have to have both shows in the truck.

GG:  I’m keeping my fingers crossed.

Before we wrap up, I want to ask you about the National POA Festival 2011.  You co-directed last year and you are doing the same next year, right? A bit of masochism here?

LB:  Yes, we have already gotten started. We have a call out now for Performance and Film submissions. For more information, you can always visit www.nationalpuppetryfestival.org to download applications.

Admittedly, it was a crazy week for me with set-ups, strikes, workshops, stores… but I think by doing it two Festivals in a row, the unknown is no longer scary… we learned a lot. If you don’t do it twice, that knowledge is lost.

We are also very excited that we have Paul Mesner as our Artistic Director.

GG:  A crazy week?!? The last year+ has been crazy for me! What advice to have for festival directors, what pithy nugget of wisdom?

LB:  Surround yourself with good people who you can count on, who return phone calls and emails promptly, and who know how to tell time.

GG:  Great advice.

LB:  A glass of wine really helps.

We were so lucky to have such an incredible team last year, many of whom did not learn their lesson and are returning to the team.  Me included.  It was great to have everything so prepared so that we could deal with emergencies which invariably rear their ugly head…

GG:  Lee, I am excited to see you – and your performance this summer! You probably don’t remember this, but I know a secret about you…

LB:  What secret? OH NO…

GG:  You are a really good swing dancer.

LB:  In Asheville in my Kilt?

GG:  Oh Yes.

LB:  IT TWIRLED! Fun night.

GG:  I’m making sure we have some swing music. And I’m hoping to dance with you again!

LB:  I look forward to it!  Save me a dance!