with Terrence Burke Like lots of kids, Andover native Terrence Burke loved puppets while growing up… and he never outgrew that infatuation. Decades later, the lifelong passion culminated in Wump Mucket Puppets – a touring cast of puppets that Burke, a renowned puppeteer, brings to life on stage. Burke, who now lives in Cincinnati, has performed on PBS and tours around the nation. This month, he’s returning to his roots, bringing his new show “Tales From Bucket Gulch” to three Bay State libraries. The show features original songs and silliness and is geared towards children ages 3-10. You can take in one of these free shows: Townsend Public Library in Townsend on Aug. 1 at 11 a.m.; Flint Memorial Library in North Reading on Aug. 3 at 10:30 a.m.; Robbins Library – Edith M. Fox Brand in East Arlington on Aug. 8 at 3 p.m.
How did you become interested in puppetry? Has it been a lifelong passion? My interest in puppets began when I was a young boy in the 1960s, watching TV shows “Captain Kangaroo,” “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” and “Sesame Street.” After seeing Jim Henson and his fellow puppeteers I was hooked. My parents enrolled me in a puppet class at the YMCA and brought me to a puppetry festival in Boston in 1970. In middle school I began to explore other performing arts, such as choir, community theatre, and creating my own music. Years later, I revisited puppetry as a hobby. Upon becoming a father, I entertained our children. Years later, my daughter told her preschool teacher that her daddy is a puppeteer. The teacher invited me to perform a short show for the students, and I haven’t stopped since then.
What’s the process of creating a puppet? Where does your idea for a character come from, and how do go about bringing it to life? All of my puppet characters start as doodles in my sketchbook. As the drawing is refined and shaped, a proper character emerges. From there, the head is sculpted, using either clay or a block of foam which is then covered with paper mache or fabric. Then the puppet is then painted or covered with fleece or fur. Finally the body and costume are sewn, and attached to the head. Accessories such as jewelry or buttons are attached at the end. It typically takes a week or two. Character ideas come from everywhere. Lately, my audience have been a source, with young ladies asking me to create more female puppets. Bringing the character to life is probably the most difficult part. The voice has to be unique, and I must be able to sing in voice without hurting my vocal cords. I experiment with voices, phrasing, vocalizing, and work on making the character believable. I also ask for feedback from the audience. Children are very honest and helpful in this respect.
You create the puppets, write scripts, music and songs, build sets, voice characters… is there an aspect that’s your favorite? I enjoy wearing so many different hats throughout the process. If I had to choose one, it has to be performing. I love to hear children’s laughter and applause. The energy shared between a puppeteer and their audience is magic.
Your puppet troupe seems to be a family affair. How does your family contribute? It must be a fun household! My wife Lara, a talented artist, has built many of the puppets in the cast. She also helps me paint the stage props, sew costumes, and draws the coloring pages that I give out after the show. Our daughter and son have grown up with the puppets in their lives, with Eleanor performing with me a few years ago. These days, she and her brother Tiernan help by making suggestions with jokes, or songs that I am working on.
When you look back on all your puppeteering years and performances, is there one experience that stands out? I regularly donate performances to The Ronald McDonald House, by sharing 30-minutes of fun with children and families. There have been several instances that I have almost started crying after meeting with the kids. It is my intention to help them forget what medical procedure that they are going through, and laugh at my characters and stories.
What do you hope people take away from your show? Is there an overall message, or is it all about fun? I consider my puppetry to be my vehicle to share joy with. Children are exposed to so much negativity these days. I bring them pure, wholesome fun. There are some recurring themes, such as kindness, being yourself, and taking care of our planet. Yet, using gentle humor to tell a fun story is my goal as a puppeteer.
So many children seem to be screen-obsessed these days. How do you get them interested in and excited about puppets? While the technology to share stories has changed, I find that children still enjoy a well told tale, with songs, catchy music, and silly jokes. The puppet stage is just a really big “screen,” and we are live! They are often surprised that it is performed by one man, which I hope inspires them to be creative, tell stories, even become a puppeteer.
What can people expect from your newest show, “Tales From Bucket Gulch?” I bring the audience to the Old West. The show opens with tall tale about biscuits, followed by a couple of the puppets trying to find gold, with silly results. We close with the story of two cowpokes, who acquire a cow who won’t moo, she wants to be an opera star. There are several songs, even a funky dance break that the audience is encouraged to join in. It is written for families to enjoy together, creating happy childhood memories that will last a lifetime. There are no guns in Bucket Gulch, since the sheriff cleaned up the town years ago. It’s a peaceful, friendly fantasy version of a Western town.