How I First Met a Puppet

Roll back in time with me. It is early March 2010. I am in St. Louis attending the Midwest Theatre Auditions located on the campus of Webster College. This is not my first time at this audition conference, but I am still full of nervous excitement. However, this year was different than the past two. I knocked my audition out of the ballpark.  To change it up, I decided to do something ballsy and sing a song completely out of context. This has now has become my norm. Songs like Poker Face, Bibbidy Bobbidy Boo, Tik Tok, Total Eclipse of the Heart…you get the idea. So needless to say, I had a healthy plate of callbacks to attend. And I was planning on making it to them all. I wrote down all of my callback information, gathered my belongings, and was on my way…

So, I’m doing my little callback thing when the story really begins. I am sitting in the hallway reviewing some material when a couple of gentlemen walk by and recognize me. “Hello, MJ,” they say. “How are your callbacks this year? You had a great audition!” I greet them and thank them. These guys called me back last year for their company in Missouri. They peruse my list of callbacks as we briefly chat. Then, one of these dudes exclaims, “Oh! Madcap! Have you gone to that one yet?” I reply, “No, not yet, but I am planning on it.” The fellow continues, “The lady who is running that callback is crazy and such a good time. She sat behind us in the auditions. You will love her!!!” With my interest peaked, I headed straight for my callback with Madcap Puppets from Cincinnati, where I met the one and only, Mel Hatch Douglas.

Now for those of you who don’t know Mel very well, crazy might actually be the best singular word to describe her. But Mel is not crazy in the typical sense. She is crazy in the most endearing, lovable kind of way possible. Mel is passionately fond of all kinds of diet soda, has a huge mane of curly long hair usually found in perfectly crafted braids, she wears a watch on her ankle, and has a way of showing love and compassion to almost every single person she meets. None of this means that I had a good callback…

I sucked. Let me reiterate…I SUCKED! I walk in and immediately notice all of the hand-in-mouth puppets. They seemed to be everywhere. These are the puppets that we, as Americans, are most familiar with because of shows like Sesame Street and Avenue Q. We start the audition and I, quite frankly, could not get a damn thing right. I started with a voice that was too harsh. Mel stopped me and started laughing as I began to cough. Frequently, I would speak for the puppet without moving it’s mouth. Often, I would not even look at the puppet at all as I moved it around. Mel was gracious and kind…but let me be the first to say, I wasn’t ready for puppetry yet. Or so I thought.

I arrive in Cincinnati a mere six months later as the resident actor here at Know Theatre. Eric informs me that I will be working on a show called The Dragon. He explains that this will be the last show of our season and it will be a collaboration with another company in town, Madcap Puppets. Somehow or other, I did not make the connection right away. I knew we were going to be working with puppets and having virtually no experience in the field, I was wary.

The day of the first workshop arrived. I sit upstairs patiently awaiting the work. I see what appears to be a costume rack with long wooden figures hanging from it with strings. “These must be our little puppet guys,” I think to myself. We are just about to start the workshop when none other than the good ol’ Mel Douglas comes trudging up the stairs and into the theatre. Little did I know we would be working together after all!

I have to say that though my first experience with Mel and puppets was very poor, my second one, working on The Dragon, was quite the opposite. Though the style of puppetry is very different from that of hand-in-mouth puppets, I think I have come a long way since my days of callback misery. In earnest, it is being around trained puppeteers such as Mel and John that has informed everything I have done and everything I have learned. They are brilliant artists. I am fortunate to have had the opportunity to learn a craft that I would have never tried otherwise.