Thursday, May 14, 2015

A conversation with All Puppet Players' Shaun Michael McNamara, the star, writer and director of PUPPET WARS: A FEW HOPE

Shaun Michael McNamara
photo: Jonathan Castillo
By Gil Benbrook

For anyone who has been to an All Puppet Players' production in the past you know you're in for a different type of theatrical experience like nothing out there. While it might seem at first glance that their productions are just adult puppet shows, they are actually much more than that - a rare blend of spoof and homage with a big dose of improv and audience participation.  Their latest production, Puppet Wars: A Few Hope, a spoof of Star Wars, which has the tag like "May the Felt Be With You," opens this weekend at the Playhouse On The Park at The Viad Corporate Center in downtown Phoenix.  

As one of the newest theatre companies in town, Shaun Michael McNamara's company has actually been entertaining audiences prior to their move to the Phoenix area in 2013. Starting out in California back in 2010, McNamara's hilarious adaptations include spoofs of pop culture hits from big box office films including Top Gun, to literary blockbusters like Fifty Shades of Grey (retitled Fifty Shades of Felt) as well as Hollywood film classics like Frankenstein and The Exorcist (redubbed, naturally, The Exorcist Has No Legs).  McNamara took a break from his Puppet Wars rehearsals to give PHX Stages readers some background into how All Puppet Players came to be, as well as what's next for the company..

Shaun with his first puppet
Photo: Marcus McCarty
How did you get started in puppetry?

In fifth grade, I was enrolled in an after school program. You could choose from a few options, sports, music etc. But there was a puppet class taught by a teacher named Marcus McCarty. Any child in the 80’s will tell you that puppets were everywhere at that time, and the thought that not only could I build them, but perform with them was too much to pass up. So I took the class and I have been doing them in some form or another ever since.

Besides your high school experience, did you have any additional formal training in puppetry? And what about acting, comedy or improv?

I have been lucky to be trained by some wonderfully talented and successful professional puppeteers when I worked at Disney and Universal. People who no one would recognize on the street but have had a large hand in creating such great works. As for acting and comedy- all of that comes from simply doing. I seek out empty stages and try to fill them with whatever wild things my mind can come up with.

The Monster being chased by villagers in
Frankenstein Has No Legs - 2011
Jason M. Hammond
How did All Puppet Players come to be and why the decision to form your own company?

By happy accident. I was a little bored with normal theater. I had been performing in musicals and straight plays for over ten years and I was looking for something that would stretch me a little as an actor or at the very least get me out of the acting rut. All the really juicy roles, like Hamlet, Willy Loman, and John Proctor are written for people who are older, or more experienced, or don’t look like me. I was getting a little tired of playing the comedic side-kick and was looking to stretch.

I knew I wanted to do a puppet show. I knew I wanted it to be a serio-comedy and I have an utter disdain for all things Shakespeare… believe it or not, it seemed like a perfect marriage.

My wife, graciously agreed to let me use every penny of our savings to rent a space, buy some puppets and produce this thing on the “shoe-stringiest” of budgets. Before we even opened we were sold out. We did no marketing at all, but maybe a Facebook post. We couldn’t afford it. So really it was just all my friends watching to see a possible train-wreck in a quiet theater in Santa Ana on a Thursday night. By closing weekend we were asked to do a seven week run in Fullerton and the offers just kept coming. Before too long, everyone, including the cast were asking me what the next show was. Suddenly I realized, this was not going to be a one-off type performance. I had found a different way to act than I had ever experienced and I did not want to go back to acting the way I used. I was fine with being masked, with a puppet on my hand. It felt, no pun intended, more freeing.

Directing Avenue Q
photo: Jason M. Hammond
It sounds like you fell naturally into it, which is great and that you were filling a need for a different type of entertainment, almost like it was almost your destiny.  But why the decision to come to Phoenix?

I was born and bred in Phoenix, but like a lot of actors here I thought I was destined for more. When I moved to California there was a time that I was really doing it. I was auditioning every day. I was in the room with successful actors and directors and I had the privilege to be on sets and paying dues, etc. But what I found was I hated it. Would I have hated it if I found more success? Probably not as much. The money is great, fame is fun. But what I found was I was not destined to be a movie or TV actor. I feed off of the live audience. I love the “anything can happen” vibe that live theater produces. When we moved here, we came to get away and reevaluate where our next stop would be. We really considered Arizona as a rest stop to where we were truly meant to be.

Puppet Wars: A Few Hope - 2015
But when I saw the theater landscape and how much it was thriving here. How actors where putting up great work and theaters were willing to take chances on some groundbreaking shows and how audiences seemed to find and support these theaters that were doing controversial material with no apologies, I was floored. I suddenly felt like we had to dip our toes in the water, so I went to work finding theaters that were willing to take a chance on us. Chris Hamby at Theatre Works, Damon Dering with Nearly Naked, Brett Aiken and Debra Davey with Mesa Encore, they all gave me that empty stage and said, “play”. I pitched them whatever was in my brain and not one of them ever turned me down.

It proved that moving back was the best thing I could have done.

I'm also somewhat new to Phoenix, and, like you, am also amazed with the thriving theatre community here and the dedication of so many people at so many theatre companies. That's why I decided to start PHX Stages as a way to have one place to showcase all of the great theatre in town and to help get the word out. So I completely understand where you're coming from. Now lets talk about the types of shows that All Puppet Players produces. You’ve focused mainly on presenting puppet spoofs of famous pop culture hits, how did you decide upon these types of shows to present?

There are two main things I look at. Is it a drama? Not just a run-of-the-mill drama, but a really good drama? The sadder it is, the funnier I know I can make it.

The second is, should it be done on stage? Should anyone conceivably want to put Top Gun on stage? Probably not. That means I must. Sure you could put actors in fake planes and have them zoom around the room, but isn't it funnier if you have a Tom Cruise puppet with an actual Goose puppet sidekick? You’re welcome America.

So Puppet Wars opens this weekend. What can you tell us about it?

Nothing. I’m secretive like J.J. Abrams. All I can tell you is it’s a spoof. If you like Star Wars you’ll love this show.

Come on, you can't tell us anything about it?

Well, I can say that Han shoots first.

While I'm glad to hear that Han shoots first, I guess there is nothing like keeping interested theatre goers wanting for more. And it seems like you're gonna have a lot of them as while Star Wars has always been popular, it is especially getting a lot of press now with the upcoming film sequel trilogy. How big of a Star Wars fan are you and do you think there is anything in Puppet Wars that might upset a hardcore Star Wars fanatic?

Listen, I am not a huge Star Wars fan. I appreciate it, but I am also able to see the flaws and how ridiculously bad the script is and how poor some of the acting is. All that is played up in a way that will give Star Wars fans a laugh and not alienate them. Also, I have some die-hards working on the show, including my wife, who have mad sure this is lovingly spoofed and not downright crapped on.

Fifty Shades of Felt - 2013
That's good to know as I don't think you'd want a theatre full of Star Wars fans to turn on you!  Your shows involve a considerable amount of adlibbing and audience involvement.  Can you share some fun stories with us of anything that was especially funny or went horribly wrong at a show?

I have to say, Fifty Shades (the second run) was the closest I have ever come to feeling out of control. An open bar typically doesn’t help. But I do remember one guy was sitting in the front row and got up right before the sex scene and as “The Inner Goddess” I asked him where he was going? He said he was gonna get a beer. I told him that the best part was coming up. He said, “wait for me.’ So we did. I held the show for about a minute while he got his beer. He came back in, the audience roared, he walked up on stage (which I’ll admit was where I got nervous) and handed me -the puppet- a beer. We clinked bottles, he sat down, the audience applauded and we moved on. Crazy night. I drank that beer too. Not gonna waste it.

McNamara with the Team America puppets at Chiodo Brothers Studio
Anything about future plans for All Puppet Players that you can share with our PHX Stages readers?

We have a two year contract at Playhouse on The Park so we are already working on our new season. I can say right now we can confirm we are doing Santa Clause Conquers the Martians this December. We are going to blend live actors with puppets, so if anyone knows of a good Santa Clause let me know. Next year I am looking at a few spoofs, one that includes dinosaurs. I also really want to do a drama. I want to show what puppets can really achieve and how emotionally invested we can make our audiences become with our felted characters.

Anything you would like to say to someone who is interested in auditioning for your group?

Puppetry experience is not a must and most times is highly overrated. We perform like Avenue Q with the puppets out in front of us. We wear masks to cover your face which helps you perform multiple characters but maybe doesn’t help so much in the claustrophobia realm.  You can’t puppet? Who cares? I’ll teach you. You can’t improv? Who cares? We got your back. You’re afraid? That’s what makes it fun! The one thing I can guarantee is you will have an experience unlike anything you have done before. You are in the thick of the creative process. You get to help mold, and pitch jokes and characters. You get to own a show more so than you would if you’re doing a standard play. Just try it… Come on…. Everyone’s doing it.

For more information on Puppet Wars, that runs from May 15th to May 30th, click here.

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