Keep Dreaming, Keep Believing: Interview with Chase Woolner, Puppeteer and Puppet Builder
For those of you who haven’t seen THE MUPPETS in theaters all I have to say is… what’s wrong with you?! I jest of course, but in all seriousness it’s a wonderful film that pays tribute to those that came before it and proves that puppets can be every bit as popular as 3D animation (believe it). Okay, maybe I’m a tad bit biased seeing as how my pal Strange Kid is 65% fleece (we’re not sure what the other 35% is quite yet), so if you’re not into puppets see it for the celebrity cameos. See it to experience Amy Adams and Jason Segel belt out a duet. See it for Chase Woolner.
Who’s Chase Woolner? Well he’s one of those wild eyed “dreamers” that
Jim Henson Kermit the Frog spoke about so long ago. As much a kid now as he ever was at age 5, Woolner is currently a student at CalArts majoring in the art of puppetry. He’s also a director (see below) and as if that weren’t enough Woolner was also one those invisible hands behind The Muppets latest feature film. I don’t want to spoil anything though – Chase explains it so much better.
Thanks for swinging by the clubhouse, Chase. Tell us, how did you first become interested in the art of puppetry?
I grew up in downtown Chicago in the 90’s. In and of itself, Chicago has a wonderful history of puppetry in early television with Burr Tillstrom’s Kuklapolitans, Garfield Goose and Friends, Marshall Fields’ Uncle Mistletoe, etc. What made the 90’s so unique was that there was a surge in new television programs featuring puppetry on PBS. Shows such as The Puzzle Place, Barney, Wimzie’s Playhouse, Tots TV and Dudley the Dragon in addition to the continuation of Sesame Street, Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood and Lambchop.
The first time that I met Jane Henson, she asked me the same question of how I got started, and I told her I started at age five, at which she laughed and asked: “What were you doing before that?” [It's] a marvelous question because when children are playing with their dolls/plushes and coming up with stories they are basically puppeteering. It’s a natural human development and coping mechanism. It just happens that puppeteers are people that never grew out of this stage and simply built upon their human instinct.
Can you remember the first puppet you built?
It’s difficult to remember the very first puppets that I built. I do remember the puppets that were “breakthroughs,” in my awareness of building puppets. I have been lucky because both my family and teachers have been really supportive of my interest. In school each project that was assigned would invariably be turned in to a project either about or utilizing puppets in some way.
I remember one class project in third grade where a drawing of an alligator was passed around to be colored. I decided that I wanted mine to be a puppet. So, with the help of a student teacher, I used three sheets of the alligator drawing, some glue and grabbed a couple of brads to use as joints for the mouth and appendages and voila! Alligator puppet. I was very proud of my creation that day.
I remember reading that you once said, “Puppets have a remarkable ability to say and do things that cannot be said by an actor.” What kind of things were you referring to?
I did say that! I think I even put that same line in my college application, haha! It’s something that is very inherent to the craft of puppetry; while an actor or dancer can imitate a monkey, flower or tape dispenser, a puppet can BE all of those things in addition to being an actor, dancer and singer. In a sense, it’s a heightened version of method acting.
A puppet is also a physical object that exists in space and time. The character has the ability to create a presence, do the impossible and change its form in an instant. Two prime examples are the horses in Handspring Puppets production of War Horse, and the Firey’s in Jim Henson’s Labyrinth.
The horse figures bring very convincing equestrienne life to the live theatre stage to be performed night, after night, after night. Having real horses on stage would be impractical, but the presence of a life-sized sculptural form with the mannerisms of a horse is the perfect solution. The Fireys – in real time – sing, speak, play basketball with their heads, gain additional arms and legs etc. It’s marvelous and exactly the type of things that live performers are unable to do in and of themselves.
As a fourth-year student a CalArts’s School of Theater what tip, trick or lesson has had the most significant impact on you as an artist/performer?
CalArts is a great institution for artists because it is less like a school and more like a studio in which talented artist pass through creating work. Artists have complete freedom in what they create and how. It’s superb because students really take charge of their education and discover their path as an artist. CalArts is all about collaboration between disciplines and this is probably the greatest thing that I have learned and gained from the school. Having the chance and ability to work and learn with other world-class artists in animation, music, theatre and dance creating new and original work.
Flipping that around, what advice would you offer someone just starting out or looking to break into the field of puppetry?
The best advice I can give to someone interested in trying out puppetry is… just do it. I know that may seem like a frustrating answer, but it is the best one. Just do it. There’s no “correct” way to start or fall into puppetry. Look at many different books on puppetry, talk to many different puppeteers and puppet designers/builders, watch clips on YouTube, find movies and old television programs, build your own designs, study the various style, techniques, craft, history and then start developing your own voice as an artist.
A mentor of mine was once telling a story, which turned into a rant and he said; “I’m tired of people coming to me and asking, ‘How do I become a puppeteer?’ You cant’ BE a puppeteer. You either Are or you Aren’t!” I think [this] is great Yoda-like advice, you know. “Do or do not, there is no try.” I feel that this is the way that everything should be approached. And really, similar to animation there are so many aspects to puppetry that there are many routes to take. The most important thing is to be positive and love what you do. You’re playing with puppets! Just do it.
What are some of your biggest influences when it comes to puppet building?
Puppet building to me is all about “the design” and “the character.” Of course, function – what the puppet has to do – is very important. While we all know, “form follows function,” (from architect Louis Sullivan) Stephen Sondheim recently added that “content dictates form” in his book Finishing the Hat. Those are kind of my two “rules” that I like to repeat in my head when I’m designing. My list of design influences is very long, which makes influences difficult to mention.
You recently took part in the much-lauded return of THE MUPPETS. How did you end up working on the new film?
Yes, well I am always looking for new experiences, new places to learn and new people to meet within the craft. Two years ago during a winter break from school, I saw a posting that Steve Whitmire (Kermit the Frog, Rizzo the Rat, Wembly Fraggle) was giving a lecture called The Sentient Puppet, and a performance workshop at the Center for Puppetry Arts in Atlanta, GA. As soon as I finished reading [it] I called the center to reserve tickets and bought a plane ticket to Atlanta to fly in and out the day of the lecture because I knew I HAD to be there.
The day of the lecture, I’ll never forget… it was a chilly, icy Atlanta morning ans I arrived early, toured the Center’s puppet collection, and attended Steve’s lecture which had a lot of great points/perspectives on puppetry. Then, after a short break, was a series of puppetry workshops in which groups of the attendees got to perform on camera with Steve lip-syncing to songs. [It] was really a lot of fun and after the workshop Steve pulled me aside and said, “You were very good in there, you know, we’re doing this upcoming film, could I have your contact info?”
Of course, I was shocked… stopped breathing and stammered some sort of response. But that is the beginning of the story of how I was invited to Hollywood to work with the Muppets thanks to Steve Whitmire and the Center for Puppetry Arts.
I understand that you completed your first short film, s’Muther. What can you tell us about that project?
s’Muther, was an experiment in my storytelling through puppetry abilities. It was an attempt to push my own aesthetics and an attempt to show and tell a difficult story in a way that hadn’t been done before. I adapted the story from a news article that I had read several years ago that had really stuck with me and I thought it would be an ideal dramatic story for puppetry. I also borrowed a lot from Japanese Bunraku traditions because a lot of their stories fall into the same vein as mine.
Additionally I studied the work of Japanese filmmaker Yasajiro Ozu and attempted to tie in some of his cinematic techniques such as his “pillow shots,” into my film. I think it was a successful experiment. I learned a lot from working on it and screening.
Did you do all of the puppet designs and builds yourself?
I did not. I had a great team working with me on s’Muther, collaboration is key. I did design the look of the puppets and how they would be operated, but I also hired a mold maker, costume designer and had a couple of other assistants that helped me sculpt and assemble the final puppets.
What’s the best thing about what you do for a living?
Being asked to be creative and to work with other people who are passionate about their art form and are equally excited to contribute to other people’s projects. Overall, I love having a fun time working, which is at the same time playing with cool toys and good friends.