…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!


How Big and How Far?

While running an errand on campus today, I decided to sort out the distance situation so I could give our visitors a better idea of the traveling times by foot at the Important Campus Locations (those having festival events).

My methodology was thus:  I measured my number of steps and rough time estimate from the Randall Library to Kenan Auditorium-the points farthest away from each other of each building.  I am now going to extrapolate the time for the journeys one might be taking on foot around campus.

Randall to Kenan was 321 steps, and I was moving at a pace of almost 2 steps per second, but I’m reducing this to 1.33333 (ad infinitum) steps per second since I’m a fast walker.  At that pace, the journey would have taken about 4 minutes.  Based on this, I would make the following estimates:

Randall-Leutze:  4.5 minutes

Quads-Dining Hall:  5.5 minutes

Burney-Quads:  15 minutes

Quads-Kenan:  20 minutes

Leutze-Dining Hall:  20 minutes

Dining Hall-Kenan:  24 minutes

Burney-Kenan:  6 minutes

FASCINATING STUFF FOLKS!  This campus is a glorious place for riding a bicycle, by the way.  Flat as a pancake at the bottom of the stack.

Here is the interactive campus map on the UNCW website.  They don’t provide the distances (maybe I should send them my analysis?)

…As the Puppet Turns…Interview with Michael Granberry

…As the Puppet Turns… Delving into the lives of the puppeteers… Installment #1:  Stop-Motion Animator, Michael Granberry interviewed by Gina Gambony

I have always been a fan of Michael Granberry, even before he started doing freaky awesome stop-motion animation for a living.  The first performance I ever saw involving puppets that was not for children was a show called “Peepers,” which Granberry wrote and performed in Wilmington, probably 10 or 12 years ago.  His theatrical creativity made an impression on everyone in the Wilmington theater community during his time here.

Granberry now lives in L.A., but he is joining us at the festival to host a screening of a selection of his stop-motion animated shorts-Saturday, July 17 at Kenan Auditorium, 7:00 pm (best for teens-adults). Following this, he will host festival registrants in an intimate session, sharing a selection of the puppets and techniques he uses for his stop-motion creations.

GG:  Michael, I’m wondering what first drew you to puppetry?

MG:  I think it was probably “The Muppet Show,” which was big when I was a kid. Of course I watched Sesame Street, too, but “The Muppet Show” was a little more expansive in the kinds of puppetry they used.

I loved Jim Henson’s work.

GG:  “The Muppet Show,” definitely best show ever.

MG:  I remember going to a show at the New Orleans Museum of Art called “The Art of the Muppets” where they just had ALL of the Muppets there…the well known ones and the very obscure ones.

GG:  Was that when you were a kid?

MG:  Yes, I was in 6th or 7th grade. I went to that show a couple of times while it was in town.

After that I never had any socks because I would sew eyes and noses onto all of mine and do shows.

GG:  Were you involved in theatre yet at that age?

MG:  I was, actually, yes. We’d moved to Louisiana from rural Tennessee and my siblings and I weren’t assimilating to the new neighborhood very well, so my folks took us to audition for a local children’s theatre production…yeah, THAT’LL help them fit in!!

It turned out to be great, though. We all fell in love with theatre and were instantly addicted to it.

GG: Ha! Well, all the troubled kids need theatre. And I think I remember reading that you played around with stop-motion when you were younger.

MG:  Yeah, I got started in all of it about the same time. I was already a fan of stop motion from watching all of the wonderful films of Ray Harryhausen, but it wasn’t until I was about 11 that my parents trusted me enough to purchase a Super 8mm camera to film with, which was probably a smart move on their part.

GG: It’s amazing how some parents really “get” what their kids need.

Many folks in the Wilmington area know more about your work in live theatre, during that Dark Time before you took the work of stop-motion more seriously. What got you back into the work?

MG: I got back into it after I’d moved to Los Angeles, and was working in film production accounting, which is great work, but, as you might imagine, didn’t offer much of a creative outlet.

Creative accountants go to jail, usually.

So I really needed something artsy to do and didn’t really have the time to get involved with the local theatre scene, so I started dipping my toes back into stop motion and it just kind of snowballed.

GG:  Some people who know you wonder what you do with your vivaciousness, your incredible stage energy, when put into the slow, tedious process of this work. Explain yourself.

MG:  Well, stop motion is acting, really, except you are creating a performance really really REALLY slowly, one fraction of an inch at a time.

When you are actually animating, you get into a “zone” and the passage of time doesn’t mean too much.

GG: Have you had any mentors in the development of your craft over the past several years?

MG:  Gosh, yes, so many, that’s been one of the best parts. The stop motion community is pretty small, as you might imagine, and everyone I’ve met has been so supportive. I got to meet Ray Harryhausen himself and he was incredibly gracious and kind. I also got to work for a mad genius named Corky Quakenbush of Space Bass Films, whose insane animations on Mad TV rekindled my animation passion at a time when I thought stop mo was virtually dead.

GG: It’s interesting that you say that–because someone recently said something to me about stop motion being on the way out because of computer generated animation. And my (unsophisticated but earnest) answer was that stop motion will always be a unique artform that can’t be eclipsed. Like shadow theatre can’t be compared to film, they are different genres.

MG:  Everyone said that stop motion was on the way out years ago when computer animation and CGI were brand new…even Harryhausen said stop motion was dead in an interview, which broke my 13-year-old heart at the time!

But now that we’ve been super-saturated by CGI for twenty-plus years people are starting to get weary of it.

GG:  I could not agree more!

MG: As a result people are remembering, fondly in most cases, how much they love stop motion and it’s really making a comeback.

It’ll never be the go-to tool when people want photo-realistic special effects, but it’s resurgence in popularity just goes to show that there is a place for every medium.  And an audience for every medium.

GG: And you have made a career out of it, which is so amazing. When did you know that you weren’t just messing around as an artistic outlet, but you could really pursue this full time?

MG:  Ha! I think it’s when no one would hire me as an accountant anymore!

I took some time off after what turned out to be my last film job as an accountant to make a film called “From Beyond” based on a story by H.P. Lovecraft.

A lot of strange things happened…a producer saw one of my earlier films and contacted me with the idea that we pitch it as an animated series.

It got picked up by Turner Entertainment for a new website they were creating, called SuperDeluxe.com, which is no longer around.

So all of a sudden I was getting paid to write and animate my own show. It was crazy.

GG:  I’m particularly excited to see the piece from Mythic Journeys, “Vikram & Beetal,” [titled “The Bone Orchard”] where you animated puppets designed and created by Brian and Wendy Froud. How did you land that gig?

MG:  That was another utterly insane thing.

I saw an ad on Craigslist looking for 2D and 3D animators to work on a documentary about mythology. I wrote to the filmmakers and said, “what about stop motion?” They wrote me back and were like, “we hadn’t thought of that but we love stop motion”.

GG:   That’s so cool.  So, they were not even intending to use the Froud puppets originally?

MG:  I met with them and they said they’d like to work with me but they really didn’t know what they wanted me to do, so I left and forgot about them. A couple months later they called very excited and said they wanted the story, which they called “The Bone Orchard”, to be the framework of the ENTIRE feature-length documentary, with different scenes intercut throughout the film.

So instead of one little segment it turned into almost a half-hour story, chopped up into different “chapters”.

The Froud’s are members of the Mythic Imagination Institute, which was where the filmmakers got the idea for the film. They asked me what I thought of the idea of asking them to design the puppets and I told them, “good luck.”

They did and the Froud’s said YES.

I was dumbfounded.

GG:  That is….incredible fantastic WOW awesome.

MG:  I know, right?

They were beautiful pieces of art, too.

We had to be so careful with them, because they were one-offs, i.e., we only had one of each.

We actually had to build a few replacements, since puppets take a lot of abuse during animation, but for the most part you can’t really tell.

GG:  Your puppets take some SERIOUS abuse.

MG:  Yes, puppets seem to be magnets for violence, whether animated or live-action.

GG:  What is the release status of this film now?  Can I get it on netflix or what?

MG:  The feature documentary is on the film festival circuit now, winning a lot of awards, which is nice. The filmmakers also cut the stop motion section, “The Bone Orchard”, into a stand-alone short so that it could also be entered into festivals independently. It’s won a few awards on its own. I think they’ve got a distributor but not sure if it’s actually released for sale yet.

GG:   I’m excited that we get to see it in style at Kenan Auditorium.

MG: I’m excited to see it there, too!

GG:  Well, Mr. Granberry, thank you for joining us this evening for our first installment of …As the Puppet Turns…

MG:  My pleasure! Thanks for havin’ me.

Check out Michael Granberry’s new animation reel posted on YouTube!

And here we have the Port City Puppet Festival BLOG!

The Port City Puppet Festival is a gathering of Puppeteers from…well, from all over the place.  I might say, “from the Southeast Region,” since this is the Puppeteers of America Southeast Region’s 2010 festival.  But we actually have puppeteers coming from all over the place:  North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Maryland, Oregon, Missouri, Connecticut, Vermont, California, AUSTRALIA….and guest puppeteers/puppet enthusiasts from these places and more, even NEW YORK CITY.

We have our official website up, running, and constantly being updated, but this format here is a good one to share some additional information about the festival and WHAT IS GOING ON.   There is sooooo very much to talk about.


Festival T-Shirts are for sale…$16 for early order. Magnifico, verrrry classssy.

White on Black or Black on White!