Is it Art?

Huh?  Puppetry?  Why sure it is.  All of my puppets start out as doodles in my sketchbook, that are then brought into a meeting room full of grumpy old bears who wear turtlenecks…

puppet puppeteer sketchbook Wump Mucket Puppets Terrence Burke

A page from Terrence Burke's puppet ideas sketchbook

Just kidding about the bears.  In reality, I show my sketches to my wife Lara and our children Eleanor and Tiernan to get their feedback.  Lara has the amazing ability to refine my ideas into a practical, performable puppet.  Eleanor has sharp little eagle eyes, and knows a good puppet design when she sees one. In fact she has drawn a very cool robot puppet for me to use in the not too distant future.  Tiernan loves to laugh at his daddy’s silly voices, so I listen to how much he laughs when I am trying out new puppet characters or bits to include in the show.

puppets puppetry prop Wump Mucket Puppets Terrence Burke

Eleanor with the Super Sugar Crunchy Things cereal box prop.

In example, if you attended our last performance at the Cincinnati Art Museum, you heard Coleman go on about how he wanted his own cotton candy machine so he could eat it when ever he wanted to.  That little bit of Coleman comedy was first tried out last Spring when I was ad-libbing with Coleman in front of Tiernan and Eleanor, and got lots of laughs from them.  So I made a mental note (which I lost) and eventually added it into the show.  Judging from the laughter I heard at the two shows, I’d say it worked.  I just dread seeing the dry cleaning bill to get the cotton candy out of Coleman’s fur.  And speaking of our furry little friend, episode 2 of his “Out of the Woods with Coleman” has been shot, and is gradually being edited into what looks to be a very silly piece of video.  We’ll keep you posted on that project.

puppets puppetry sasquatch puppet Wump Mucket Puppets Terrence Burke

Terrence, Eleanor, Coleman, and Michael on location in Kentucky.

More about art…

When I was very young I loved to watch two things on television (well three if you count Batman).  The two BIG things were puppets (of course) and cartoons.  Saturday mornings were my favorite time of the week, even though there were many scuffles between me and my siblings on what cartoon to watch.  Somehow I got the idea I wanted to be a cartoon animator without really knowing much about it.  All I knew was they drew the characters, and magically those drawings came to life on my TV.  A “magic box” I guess.  My art skills were pretty raw back then, yet my parents helped me by paying for drawing lessons.  Sadly I never was patient enough to practice my drawing, and I am still a “doodler”.  Yet, I am happy with that since I can scratch out a puppet idea quickly, and have my art school educated wife to tweak the design a bit (thanks Lara!).  As my puppet projects have grown, I can’t help but notice that somehow, along the way, I sort of became  a character animator.  Instead of having my characters limited to a screen, they are three  dimensional objects that you can touch and interact with.   I have often described my puppet show as a live Saturday morning cartoon, and think that to be very cool.  Please pass the Cap’n Crunch.

In memory of my father Denis Burke

I was recently in a conversation with a neighbor and was asked who my influence was as a puppeteer.  My reply was quick, “Burr Tillstrom, Caroll Spinney, and Jim Henson“.  Those men created or performed puppets that I really enjoyed as a child.  I admire their work and have viewed hours of their performances on DVD, read many books written by them or about them, even had the pleasure to meet Caroll Spinney several times in my life.  Yet, as I thought about my answer more while driving in the car with my children, there is a man who was far more influential on my work than any of those brilliant puppeteers.  That man is my father, Denis Burke.

My dad would be celebrating his 74th birthday later this week, if he had not suddenly died 10 years ago in late January 2001.  I took his death quite hard.  It really did a number on my daily life.  I began a spiral down into a state of mind that I never wish to see again and eventually agreed to see a counselor.  It was in those sessions that I realized that I needed to find an activity that brought joy back into my life.  I can’t recall exactly how it happened, yet the idea of working with puppets kept popping into my head in the Spring of 2001.

Puppets have always interested me.  Some of my fondest childhood memories are of watching puppets on television.  One of my most cherished memories from my boyhood, is when my dad drove me to Boston to attend a puppet convention (it was here that I first met Caroll Spinney).  My father was very supportive of my interest in puppets, and bought me a Musicians of Bremen finger puppet set to encourage my puppetry hobby.  Gosh, I wish I still had those little felt puppets today. 

As I remember back to those darker days in early 2001, I recall feeling so empty.  I was in my mid-30’s and was not prepared to lose my father so suddenly.  Is anyone?  Perhaps my brain kicked into a survival mode to help the rest of me survive the loss of my father.  Maybe the childhood memories of attending that puppet convention with my dad were waiting to be remembered fondly to release a feeling of happiness during that hard time in my life.  I may never know. 

The fact is that my father’s death brought on my adult interest of puppetry, which has brought me to the creation of the Wump Mucket Puppets.  That Spring I joined Puppeteers of America and the Cincinnati Area Puppetry Guild.  I began drawing ideas for puppet characters, writing down bits for scripts, all of that creative activity helped me to keep my mind off the aftermath of a parent’s death.
Sure, it took me a while to get those sketches and scribbles into the form of a live puppet show, yet I did it.

Back to the influence topic.    I guess I get the performer gene from my father.  He was a radio broadcaster for many years, and could cook up some very silly schtick for his radio shows in the early 70’s and into the 1980’s when schtick could still be found on the radio.  For those of you who have heard my Cyril the Sea Serpent character shout “SCHPAK! SCHPAK!”  during the show, I am borrowing it from my father as a bit of a tribute to him.  My Dad introduced me to Monty Python’s Flying Circus, Ealing Studio comedy films, and the work of Mel Brooks and Woody Allen.  The man KNEW what was GOOD comedy.  I really hope that some of his comic awareness has rubbed of on my puppet show scripts.  I think that some of it has since I do hear people laughing at my puppets during the show. 

And that’s what got me started in puppetry in the first place, finding joy where there was sorrow.  Turning a frown into a smile.  Making people laugh is possibly the greatest thing that I can hope to accomplish as I try to do my very best as a puppeteer.  I know that my father would like that.

Dad & Terry December 1991
Denis and Terrence Burke, December 1991