Stacey Gordon believes people should never grow up, and that they should always strive to inject imagination, creativity and fun in their lives. What better way to do that than by using puppets? As founder of Puppet Pie in 2006, Gordon creates one-of-a-kind puppet creatures she sells and uses in theater performance, as co-founder of the puppet theater and puppet improv troupe Die Puppet Die. The 37-year-old Phoenix resident has had a love for puppets since a young age and now travels to conventions and festivals around the country spreading her passion for the art form.
You can catch her performing as Claire the sheep in the Settlers of Catan-based web series The Bob & Angus Show, sponsored by the board game company Mayfair Games. The new series starts this Thursday, October 1, and you can view episodes at www.thebobandangusshow.com.
Watch Gordon’s puppets live in action this Friday, October 2, and Saturday, October 3, at the Great Arizona Puppet Theater at 8 p.m. She performs with Die Puppet Die there every first Friday and Saturday of the month, other than summer months.
Kids can take a mask-making workshop with Gordon on Saturday, November 14, in conjunction with the Grand Avenue Festival and Phoenix Annual Parade of the Arts — check out www.puppetpie.com for more details.
Gordon, who has made thousands of puppets, has a presence at local arts festivals, and can puppet-ize anything from mirrors to chalkboards, talked about why she has made puppetry her career. You can hear her name her five favorite reasons for loving living in the Valley in a video below.
What brought you to Arizona?
My husband got a job down here right after we got married, and we moved here in 2001 from Littleton, Colorado.
I grew up in northern California in a really small town called Ripon. I met my future husband while visiting a friend in Colorado and moved there after high school to go to community college and was going to study education. I ended up going on the Disney College Program in Florida, shadowed the puppetry department there, and decided to skip having student loans and dive straight into puppetry and theater.
What’s your earliest memory of being interested in puppetry?
My grandfather carved marionettes when I was a little kid. My mom made teddy bears and porcelain dolls, and I was always encouraged to pretend. The emphasis on growing up was not placed in our household — it was not encouraged. My grandmother collected dolls, my mom made miniature houses, and pretending was a big deal in our house. I think theater was the next step.
I was surrounded by puppetry because of my grandfather, and I grew up watching Sesame Street. When I was very little, I wanted to be a monster on Sesame Street when I grew up. When I was in high school, our church had a puppetry group I joined. We would go to Mexico on mission trips, and my mom helped me make puppets for the church. It was something I learned very early on.
What has your career evolution been like?
When I was in college, I was a nanny, and when we moved to Phoenix, I went through a local nanny agency and found a family that needed a habilitation therapist for their child with autism. I got trained in that and was a therapist for kids with autism until I got pregnant with my own child who, as it turns out, has autism. Being a stay-at-home mom allowed me to pursue puppetry full-time.
I was part of a puppet group called Elastic Theater starting in 2002. The Trunk Space asked me to have some of my puppets in a gallery show in November 2005. In August, I had been in a really bad car accident and got mono from my passenger, so I wasn’t able to get up and get to my sewing machine. That’s when I started making finger puppets, because all I could do was lie on the couch. Making a lot of finger puppets and having people ask me to make them puppets is part of what inspired me to start Puppet Pie.
A friend had come to the gallery show in 2005 and asked me if I had heard about a new website called Etsy. I hadn’t, and she made me get an Etsy account. I opened up a store in February 2006 under the name PuppetPieShop.
For people who have never seen a puppet slam, how would you describe it?
We do short form puppet theater for grown-ups. They’re very short pieces. You’ll see a lot of performances in one evening. Because they are for adults, we have a saying at the Great Arizona Puppet Theater that, “We like children — so don’t bring them to the puppet slam.”
They can sometimes be political, offensive, hilarious, politically offensively hilarious. We try to keep them entertaining. They can be thoughtful and beautiful. You kind of don’t know what you’re going to get, because there are so many different performers.
We’re starting up workshops for people interested in doing puppet slams and will be hosting those here at Puppet Pie. The next round will begin in January.
What is your work like with Die Puppet Die!?
We do improv at the improv theater The Torch Theatre, and we also do sketches that are written, which we perform at the puppet slams.
How would you describe your writing process with the puppets?
My writing partner is the other member of Die Puppet Die, Mack Duncan. We usually get together in a room, we throw open our laptops, and we throw out a bunch of ideas about, hey, what if these characters we have established get into this situation? Or, what if we take this story, and we fracture it a little bit?
What would happen if the Big Bad Wolf, who is in a lot of fairy tales, made New Year’s resolutions? What if he encountered all these temptations on his way to do yoga? That’s how we came up with The Big Benevolent Wolf, where he’s trying to not solicit children, not eat pork, or not cross-dress and wear sheep’s clothing. Then, he encounters all the temptations on his way.
I think because Mack and I have been improvising together since 2001, when I was in the improv group Apollo 12, it really helps, because we can bounce ideas off each other and start a scene together as we type it out.
What is your puppet creation process like these days?
Mostly, it’s working on commissions. If I had time to make them for fun, I would totally make them for fun. Usually, I’m making them for the Etsy shop, conventions or commissions. I just finished up a neat robot with an electric lightbulb on his head.
I make a lot of sock puppets, which are the affordable puppets for the masses, but I try to make them all one-of-a-kind. I try to not duplicate as best I can. Even when I do duplicate them, if someone orders similar puppets, it’s really difficult, because I feel like they all kind of have their own personality. An eyeball gets put on in a different tweak of a way, and it’s a totally different puppet.
Do you have a personality in mind when you begin creating the puppet, or does that come after it’s finished?
It depends. If I start with a sketch, there’s somewhat of a personality in mind, but you don’t see the full personality until the puppet’s finished. Not to be weird about it, but they just kind of take over. If a puppet wants to be a certain way, it’s going to be a certain way. Maybe that’s more of a testament to my puppet-making skills.
What do you look for in the materials you use?
If I’m doing a mirror, a chalkboard or a picture frame, I’m looking for something really furry and fun. Fur can be used in so many different ways. If I put fur on a puppet going one direction, say over its eyes, it’s going to give it one personality. If I change it and rotate it 90 degrees, it’s going to change that puppet’s personality so much.
What are your goals?
I opened up my Puppet Pie studio on Grand Avenue in May. I think I definitely want to see how much I can grow Puppet Pie. I really want to start giving puppet-building and puppeteering workshops here in the studio. I do a lot in libraries and schools, but with the studio, one of the goals is to teach and grow the puppetry community here.
What inspired the name Puppet Pie?
I just thought the words sounded fun together. Pie is fun, and puppets are fun. I have a weird fascination with fake food. I make a lot of fake food puppets, particularly finger puppets.
It makes me think of so many things, because it can be a little bit dirty, and then I think of the menagerie of things that can go in a pie and all the different kinds of pies and puppets.
In actuality, it was probably less thoughtful than that — it’s just fun.
Do you have a favorite puppet you’ve made?
I built a giant bowl of cereal with giant eyeballs, which was fun. I was recommended to the project by my mentor. I think that’s why it means so much to me.
I also love Claire, the sheep I built for The Bob & Angus Show. I adore that character so much, partly because I perform her and have created everything about her.
Why would you encourage someone to watch a puppet performance?
You should watch a puppet performance because storytelling can happen in lots of different ways. There are stories puppets can tell that humans can’t. There are things you can hear a puppet say that, coming from a human, either wouldn’t be right or believable. It allows you to imagine. It allows you connect with your inner child. It allows you to believe things and suspend your inner disbelief in ways that watching humans won’t allow you to. It’s fun and thought-provoking.
Puppets, for years, have been able to say things humans weren’t able to, including in London when theater was banned but puppets weren’t.
Look at Punch and Judy — it’s such a terrible, wrong story of this guy who beats his wife, evades the police, and throws his baby out the window. We would never take that from humans, but somehow, it’s OK from puppets.
Why would you encourage someone to try out puppeteering?
For the same reason you should color in a coloring book, and get out paints and paint, and get on stage and read a poem, or write a poem: it allows you to tell a story. Everybody has a story to tell, and why not make it fun or thought-provoking through puppetry?
Why should people commission a puppet from you or check out your merchandise?
If you want a puppet that is built in such a way that it’s easy to use and is made professionally, that’s when you should commission a puppet from me.
If you just want something fun to play with and to annoy your co-workers with, come get a sock puppet, or if you just what to add color to your life, get a chalkboard that looks like a monster from me. Or, get a finger puppet of corn, because who doesn’t want an ear of corn on their finger?
I feel like, as grown-ups, not enough emphasis on fun and creativity and imagination is placed. A lot of people could use being silly, and I like to think I offer some silliness. Why not make anything in your world more fun? Fur and eyes can do that.
What would you say are the biggest benefits and challenges to running your own business?
One of the biggest benefits is that I’m raising a child with special needs, and the flexibility in being able to create my own schedule and still be able to tend to his world is amazingly beneficial.
The challenges are not knowing whether or not you’ll succeed. You’ve got this great idea, and you just hope others get it and want to participate in it. And gosh, the paperwork — I hate the paperwork. As a creative person running a business, just the day-to-day of not getting caught up in the financial side of it and letting the creative side shine through is important. That’s why it’s so important to get together with creative people and refresh yourself at festivals and conventions to help you push your own boundaries.
What advice do you have for someone who wants to get into puppetry professionally?
Learn everything you can from people who have gone before you. Take every bit of advice, but at the same time, follow your instincts, and dream big. You have to dream big. No great things have happened from being cautious. Take risks.
Allow your community to support you emotionally. Allow your friends to come in and help you. Don’t think you have to do it all on your own. Ask everyone for advice.
If you want to become a good puppeteer, watch all the good puppetry you can. Watch live performances. Find a mentor. I had the most amazing mentor, who sadly passed away in December, and he taught me so much about colors, about building and about sewing. Finding someone to push you is probably the best thing you can have when becoming a puppeteer.