Standing inside of Studio A at the University of North Texas’ Radio, TV, Film and Performing Arts Building on Thursday, a group of students laugh among themselves as their instructor shares the importance of puppet choreography at “Beyond the Sock.”
“Everybody try to get their character on the same plane,” Peter Linz, the voice actor of Sesame Street’s Ernie, said while lining students and their puppets in front of the studio’s camera before beginning. “A five, six, fiddlesticks, right, left, here we go, twinkle, twinkle, little star.”
The four-and-a-half-day workshop, now in its seventh year, allows those in attendance to learn the puppeteering ropes of “character development, design and construction methods,” from industry professionals such as Noel MacNeal, Linz and Pasha Romanowski.
MacNeal, 57, who portrayed Bear in Disney’s Bear in the Big Blue House and several characters on Sesame Street, said the biggest impact of the workshop is what people take back with them once they leave.
“Some people have used [the workshop] for students or special-needs kids,” MacNeal said of students who have come from around the world, including Australia and Canada. “We had a storyteller who was here one year and she’s used it for part of her professional storytelling, like festivals.”
Katherine Hannaford, 39, a schoolteacher from Sydney, Australia, now in her fourth year attending the workshop, said she originally attended the event to meet Romanowski, a professional master puppet-builder and founder of Project Puppet.
“I’ve been building puppets from [Romanowski’s] website for well over 10 years now,” Hannaford said, adding that her particular interests include the Muppets and their penguin characters. “When I heard this workshop was happening the following year I went, ‘Well, I’m going to go. I want to go and make a penguin.’”
Hannaford, a recipient of the National Puppetry Scholarship, said learning puppeteering under Linz and MacNeal’s guidance changed how her puppets were built and how she instructs her classes.
“I realized how important the mouth plate was, how important the comfort inside the head was, and how much padding is needed to affect performance,” Hannaford said. “I also teach workshops now in Australia for teachers in the classroom for small amounts of money because of being budget-conscious and using recycled or easy-to-find materials.”
Priscilla Lawrence, 51, of Mississauga, Ontario, is a first-time attendee at this year’s workshop. Although she could have attended other workshops in Canada, she said the expertise available in Denton was “exceptional.”
“I’ve just heard so many good things,” Lawrence said of “Beyond the Sock.” “I felt like this would be the best course I could do to really give me the credentials I needed to know, in terms of puppetry.”
Lawrence, acknowledging that she viewed her skills in puppetry as “basic” prior to attending the workshop, said she now feels she has an edge from learning about the proper puppetry standards.
“I realize now that there is so much I was doing that may not have been quite the best way or technique,” Lawrence said . “I think coming [to the workshop] was really where we find what quality puppeteering is.”