Category Archives: Theater

Santa’s Secrets from Santa’s Little Puppet Helpers – “What I Learned as St. Nick’s Warm Up Act”

This year a gig came my way that only a Grinch would pass on. I got to bring my favorite puppets and work the line of families whose kids were waiting to sit on Santa’s lap at the glorious Huntington Library near Pasadena, California.

Three other puppeteers and I were invited by Head Gardener Jeff Karsner (a member of the LA Guild of Puppetry) to help stage and monitor puppet displays from local collectors throughout the Botanical Center where Santa sat. But our main job was to keep the members in line entertained with puppets strolling past and interacting with them…THOUSANDS of them!

Initially I was concerned about working with so many excited kids. I usually perform for adults. Jeff hired me after seeing my stand-up with puppets during an evening performance for Guild members at the Bob Baker Marionette Theatre.

My puppet films and even the puppet webisode series I created, LosTiteres.TV, are aimed at adults. I have also taught solo performance and improv at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts for about a decade, and acting at UCLA for serious-minded artists – not really kids’ stuff.

But I grew up strongly influenced by Jim Henson and performed improv with his puppeteers, so their popular style informs the look and style of my own puppets. And with their new movie, The Muppets, coming out simultaneously, I felt that I would be well received by children. I brought several colorful hand & rod puppets bedecked in holiday garb that seemed to authenticate them as Santa’s Little Helpers.

I was soon to learn something that freed me up to hit my improv groove: kids don’t like puppets talking down to them. Working the line taught me a few other things, and since this role of ‘elfin puppeteer’ (yes, we all wore matching elf hats) seemed to warm up cold folks in the long Santa line, I thought I’d share some observations:

HAVE A FLEXIBLE SCRIPT

Everyone is there for one reason: Santa time. So my puppet characters approached families as “Santa’s Puppet Helpers” on the serious mission of conducting pre-interviews for the big guy. Here’s a sample script:

“Hello, my name is ______. I’m Santa’s Little Helper, and he’s asked me to come out here to meet kids before they get to him. What’s your name? …. Well, [Stan], let me see if I remember if you were on the naughty or nice list. Hmmm, naughty, nice, naughty, nice, okay now I remember – definitely… (the kids are on pins & needles here…) Nice! Yes, Stan, yes, I remember, definitely nice. (Most parents would say, ‘Well done’, or ‘Yes, he’s been very good this year’)… Well, Stan, I’d like to know what you want for Christmas, and I’ll put a word in to Santa, even before you get there, so he’ll remember! (The kids get serious and pitch you like they’re CEO’s in a boardroom…the perfect time for a puppet to yank their chains and pretend to hear something else:) I think I heard you wanted a TRAIN SET! No? A TOY POODLE? No?…I’m sorry, I have very little ears…Oh! LEGOS!…Alright, Stan wants LEGOS, Got it! … Now, beefooore I go, I have a knock knock joke. Knock, knock… (Who’s there)… Mary… (Mary Who?)…. Maaaary Christmas!!!!

And then I’d finish with a song and walk on to the next child down the line. I’d vary the “knock knock” jokes and also ask them to join me in singing a chorus of Jingle Bells or another simple song with a short refrain. (“Rudolph”, I realized early on, has too lengthy a story built into the lyrics!)

Even the upcoming shy child who might have withdrawn behind his mother, peering out from behind her legs, was usually listening INTENTLY to the prior interaction. The children’s familiarity with the simple script (confirming niceness, reciting toy requests, joke and song) usually made every child comfortable enough to engage by the time I got to them. They were pumped up to get “interviewed”, once they’d overheard what was involved previously and knew what to expect.

No complicated script was necessary, since the kids mostly wanted to talk TO the puppet. I realized this, and would just have the puppet interact live with them. I could hear in their voices that this is much more fun than seeing puppets on TV!

PERSONALIZE THE CONNECTION

I was always sure to start by having the puppet say its name slowly and clearly. After a few moments the kids felt okay telling me their names. When I’d have two or more children with a parent, I’d sometimes make up a silly song that simply repeated their names, ending on a crescendo that made everyone laugh and feel at ease. For me, this was also a trick that helped me recall their names later when I’d reappear with another puppet as the wait time often went past an hour.

With so many tots and babies in the mix, I would have the puppet wave to them from a distance before approaching so as not to startle them. Usually little babies looked more confused than anything else, and I didn’t want to risk causing any noisy crying. Plus, a cautious approach seems to work for new parents who aren’t always comfortable with strangers getting too close to their newborns.

Older kids also responded well to the puppets, and sometimes, just for kicks, I’d approach them just to see if they would recoil. They rarely did, since the kid inside of them really wanted to be part of the act and join in the back-and-forth. Just for kicks, when they said they didn’t know what they wanted, I would say: “I know, dinner with Justin Beiber!” And that would get squeals of laughter. I would use Justin interchangeably with Beyoncé.

They were always dazzled when I would walk back through the line and remember their names and, most importantly, what they wanted. “Oh, that’s Sofia! She’s the little girl that wants the stuffed green Angry Bird.” She would love it, and her mom looked appreciative. Children LOVE to be remembered by the puppets, so after I’d worked the line with my spiel, I’d go by and have further conversations with some kids, or simply walk by them and call out what they said they’d wanted as presents this year.

STAY CLOSE AT ARM’S LENGTH

One thing I managed to do was keep my puppet high above ground, looking down at the children, mindful if they seemed rambunctious. The puppets are delicate, and I learned the full force of a raging 3-year-old’s grip on one puppet. He let go, thank goodness, and no harm was done, but I learned my lesson about close-up interaction with pumped-up kids.

I’d bring the puppet down closer if I perceived any sort of Zen wonder in the child. I’d say something like, “Oh, I’m upstairs and you’re downstairs, I’m upstairs and you’re downstairs… Let me go down the stairs so I can see you better!” And I’d have the puppet do a little walk as if going downstairs and that would make everyone giggle.

Most parents with smaller children who might damage the puppet actually picked their children up to see the puppet at my level. And although the child would often reach out to touch my puppet, the parent’s control was helpful in keeping the puppet out of harm’s way. Simply waving to the smaller or fussy ones still seemed to score big points with families.

BELIEVE THAT YOU WILL WIN OVER THE NON-BELIEVERS

Children, I found, varied in their abilities to see the puppet as real – or in their interest in playing along. But I’d say about ninety percent of them wanted to believe in its reality. The kids who were truly into it were fascinating to watch. They would want to totally disregard me and were laser-focused on the puppet, their faces full of wonder and their voices jubilant!

One of ‘em was a “little lawyer” who insisted on pleading his case why he was a good boy, even though I always established up front that everyone was on the Nice List. Another little boy wanted to come up every once in a while to tell the puppet a new “knock knock” joke he’d just remembered. And still others wanted to know why puppets were helping Santa, to which I would always reply: “It’s not just a job for Elves anymore. That’s SO 1986.”

I had the most fun when the little darlings wanted something very expensive or a live animal. Several girls wanted their own ponies and horses, and I’d always suggest plush, stuffed ones. When they’d corrected me: “No, I want a REAL one!”, I’d once again blame it on my little ears or say that Santa would have to decide.

Some children were receptive but still stunned into silence about what they wanted, so I’d offer up choices to keep the banter flowing. A teddy bear is gender neutral and was usually well received.

The parents, often a little bored and impatient, wanted some magic for themselves, so, I didn’t leave them out of the wish listing. To the moms I’d suggest “dinner with George Clooney” or a “yacht”. This would get giggles… and when Momma is happy, everyone is!

KNOW WHEN TO WALK ON BY

Of course, when kids cried and/or looked scared of the puppet, I would either not acknowledge them or just walk past them cheerfully. I might just offer a wave, blown kiss or peekaboo from afar, just so that parent would know I wasn’t upset or acting indifferent.

Sometimes on the second pass with a different puppet, a parent or child who had initially been unreceptive would engage me. I was constantly looking at faces and body language as I walked the line to interpret my welcome.

PUPPETS LOVE BLAMING PUPPETEERS FOR MISHAPS

On the rare occasion that I asked the same kids what they wanted a second time, what seemed like a mistake actually offered up a delightful opportunity, since they got to act like the puppet was a dunce. Correcting puppet errors is something kids love to do.

Whenever I would mess up, or I’d double up on puppet interviews, I would have the puppet blame it on me. And of course, I always took a beat to look surprised.

And here’s a cautionary note: just because a cherub-faced child has long hair doesn’t mean it’s a girl, and short hair doesn’t always signify a boy. Keep what you’re saying gender-neutral for as long as possible until you’re absolutely sure. I had egg on my face of couple of times; I used the puppet to wipe it off…

We had three puppeteers working our very long line that coiled around the building and out into the parking lot. We were outside for the most part but tended to work in shaded areas to protect the puppets from too much light.

As lead puppeteer I would work my part of the line and periodically go out to “visit” with the other puppeteers. I found that everyone loved when our puppets interacted together on occasion – especially when we would break into a chorus of Jingle Bells!

As the day went on, the line got longer, and part of the routine involved restless parents asking about how much longer it would take. I’d have the puppet offer an estimate with the caveat: “But I’m just a puppet, so if you quote me, I’ll deny it.”

To the kids that were in the very back of the line, one of my favorite quips was to tell them that, although they were towards the end of the line, they were first in Santa’s heart. The moms would go, “Awww!”… And that would keep them happy for another few minutes.

EMBODY THE PUPPET & THE HOLIDAY SPIRIT

Children love being told that they were good this year and that they deserve what they want. Many of the teenagers had skeptical faces, but their hearts were wide open; you could see it in their yearning eyes. Let’s face it, we all want some magic, some cheer, even if it’s from some silly puppet in a Santa line.

I learned a lot standing in line with families waiting for Santa, and quite possibly the most important lesson was this: We’re all kids at heart hoping to get our wishes fulfilled. And when we get a chance to live in a fantasy world for an hour with our families in pursuit of dreams, we do it!

In fact, an old grandpa in line with his grandkids asked me for a Time Machine. Not wanting to burst his bubble, yet covering my own realist rump, I said: “I’ll see what I can do. I think Santa might have a Time Machine for you – but if you quote me, I’ll deny it.”

Felix Pire’s Solo Performance Workshop    *** Feb 15 – Apr 19, 2017

I’m finding that many of my #artist and #actor friends have something so say about the world right now…

So I’m offering this #SoloPerformance Workshop so you can speak your mind, show your characters, and put together that #soloshow you’ve been wanting to mount in #LaLaLand! … Message me with your interest for more info (and please let friends know). 

$300.00 for 12 classes and the final performance. Classes will be held at my place during the writing phase, and will move to a theatre in the Hollywood Area for the last couple of classes where we will be staging the piece in an evening with several other students (which will last 15 minutes per student max, although you may finish your play in its entirety). I’m looking at The Complex on Theatre Row for final performances. 

* Felix Pire is the winner of the New York Outer Critics Circle Award for Outstanding Solo Performance, and taught “one person show” class at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts for over 10 years.

Let me know if you’re interested and I’ll add you to the list!

Contact: fpire@yahoo.com

#onemanshow #expressyourself #onewomanshow

Mrs. Martinez Monologue

One of my favorite solo performance pieces is one I created for my solo play, “The Origins of Happiness in Latin,” a series of monologues about growing up in Miami in an immigrant Cuban family in the 1970’s. “Mrs. Martinez” always slays the audience. Everyone has had a Mrs. Martinez, that’s become quite clear to me since I started performing this piece!

This show in its entirety came about when I returned from performing Off-Broadway, circa 1998, and was approached by Luis Alfaro and Diane Rodriguez to join a “lab” of sorts that was part of the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, called the Latino Theatre Initiative. They also had several other minority writing labs going.

Within this program, I could basically come to the Mark Taper Forum and under the guidance of Caridad Svitch, tweezer-picked playwrights would come and take part in what I call the “seance” writing sessions.

There was a round table in the room, around which these brewers of tales would sit together and let the energies of inspiration flow around and touch each other’s artwork. The writing that came out of there was inspired and unique. But sadly, as the economic situation came on, they had to close down all the writing labs. Fortunately, my work there was finished by the time that it all came apart.

I submitted the play for a grant: The 2000 California Community Foundation’s Brody Award. I won it and with the dough mounted a production of a couple of monologues at the Tamarind Theatre on Franklin in Hollywood and performed a couple of pieces from it there. Thankfully, my friend Anthony Rapp (RENT) was in town, for at the time, there was a thing called “pilot season” — a special time when television networks would audition and create a lot of test shows for the next season.

I learned a lot from Anthony. He really impressed upon me the specificity that eventually you now see in the Mrs. Martinez monologue. Before that point I’d played characters doing a full on monologue. I’d never jumped from my own “persona of me” to a character within a monologue, except for while doing moments in stand-up… Rapp is a genius at acting like he’s doing very little in his direction. He’s a master of less is more. But the little choices that he created with me, and for me, are still in the piece… I really believe in working with directors on my solo work. As I tell my students, solo performance is an illusion, it’s never really solo.

I submitted the play to the Arizona Theatre Company and with my playwright friend Elaine Romero as part of that milieu, she really made a push for me. Turns out, in 2001 it won their National Latino Playwriting Award. This was a real honor, but aside from the award money, which was great, all things stayed silent… Little did I know, things were a-brewing…

Shortly after this, one of my first and most important acting teachers, Ellen Davis, in Miami, got the show sold as a 45 minute tour for middle & high schools in the Dade County area. I flew to Miami and Ellen did the first staging of most of the material. It was such a thrill to get to work with her. She was the teacher that really grounded me in acting and never let me get away with too much schtick. She was the one who embedded, who always demanded in my work a sense of reality. Her catch phrase for me was: “Feel, stop playing it for the comedy.”

The kids were great during the tour. I had some pieces of the show where I sort of danced around a little. In one of the all black schools, one kid stood up and asked me (mockingly) who taught me how to dance? … I said: Pee-Wee Herman… And that got me a laugh. But let’s face it. You perform for teenagers and you’re putting your artistic soul on the line, because they’ll aim straight for it! They don’t play around… I guess that’s what made me feel the play was pretty funny. If I could keep these teenagers entertained, it works!

A year later, in 2003, the Arizona Theatre Company called and asked if I’d be available to perform in a run of the show and I jumped at it! … Great reviews and word of mouth followed. I adored the ATC production, the director David Saar was a creative powerhouse, and really knew how to craft a delicate, funny show about family. (He reminded me of Jim Henson a little; he has his own children’s theatre company in Arizona called Childsplay).

I sent all the notices to Urban Stages in New York who had produced “Men on the Verge…” and they put me into their season for a two month run, directed by a cool Latino chap, Angel David. Again, New York critics were kind. And throughout all of it, I learned a lot about storytelling and family and what’s important in life… And I guess the greatest lesson is that in the end, even the people that pissed you off the most are important, because they were teachers of what you don’t like. Sometimes knowing that is as powerful as knowing what you do like.

Mrs. Martinez ended up being a great sport about the whole thing and she really did get to see the monologue when I played it in Miami. Gables Stage was the producing theatre of the tour, and she came to a one-night only event where I performed it there. She was very kind to my folks. After all, she also taught my two younger brothers, both of whom she called: “Pheeleeeps.”

Years later, through a friend on Facebook, I found out her low pitched voice came from the fact that in Cuba, she used to be a classical singer. Made me gain a whole new level of respect for her… Who knew?!

I should stop talking…

Here’s Mrs. Martinez. Hope you like…

The Mismatch Game

FelixasRicardoTHE MISMATCH GAME as “Ricardo Montalban” (07/24/09 @ 8PM & 07/26/09 @ 7PM)
– Jul 22, 2009

NewWorks_MISMATCH2006
PERFORMANCES ON: FRIDAY, JULY 24, 2009
at 8PM and SUNDAY, JULY 26, 2009 at 7PM

Felix performs this weekend as “Ricardo Montalban” at Dennis Hensley’s spoof of the old 1970’s game show where innuendo-laden sentences are given key words by the contestants.

Felix brings a young, Fantasy Island-aged Ricardo Montalban to life, alongside a cast of brilliantly funny celebrity impressionists. Performed as a bi-monthly benefit, this show has raised thousands of dollars for charity.

The Renberg Theatre, 1125 N. McCadden Pl., Los Angeles, CA 90038

 

FelixasRicardo