Puppets Take Long Island, the Island-wide puppetry festival by the Long Island Children’s Museum and Sag Harbor’s Goat on a Boat Puppet Theatre, continues its run of exciting puppet shows for all ages through September. We talked to Long Island puppeteer Steven Widerman about The Puppet Company, his touring puppet troupe, and how popular media is changing the world of puppet theater.
Widerman began doing puppetry at a very young age and never stopped. “I started as a child; I was doing puppetry with toys. I made my first show in the third grade, then made it into a business I kept going through high school and college,” he says. “I’ve basically been doing it my whole life. I was a music major in school, and I’ve always been involved with theater and the arts. Puppetry involves all types of skills—sculpting, scenery, theater arts are all incorporated into it.”
Starting out at a young age has paid off for Widerman, who worked with iconic puppeteer Bill Baird. Baird, who passed away in 1987, is known for his marionette work and famously performed the puppet show sequence in the film version of The Sound of Music. “I started out working for Bil Baird’s marionettes,” Widerman explains. “He had a theater in Greenwich Village.” Working with Baird inspired Widerman to start his own company. “After [working with Baird] I started The Puppet Company. We make all our own puppets. I ran a theater in Manhattan for 10 years, from 1988 to 1998, then I moved out to the suburbs, where we do touring locally and around the tri-state area. I also do a lot of films, commercials, industrial work—anything with puppets.”
Although he started out working exclusively with marionettes, Widerman eventually began performing with all types of puppets. “Like any art, puppetry goes through fads. Right now it’s popular to do tabletop. I’ve done every form of puppetry you can imagine and then some—shadow, finger, objects…I’ve explored puppetry thoroughly. And on the television, as well,” he notes. I worked on Bear in the Big Blue House and The Book of Pooh, in addition to commercials and other projects.”
But Widerman’s passion is with his own material. “I have two formats that I work in—a large stage, that’s about 10 feet tall and 14 feet wide, which a five- or six-man show. It’s a marionette show, and it’s not done a lot,” he says, “and then I have a small setup that’s a two-man show. The smaller show is what travels around. It’s the show I usually do. Within those two formats, I have about five or six different shows. One’s actually a sequel of another. On the small stage, I have two or three shows. I try to stick to one variety show I do everywhere; it has to appeal on many levels. Even if the kids don’t get the jokes, they hear their parents laughing and they have fun. A lot of times the parents have more fun!” Widerman notes, adding that adults love puppetry just as much as children. “Puppet Slams, puppet shows for adults, are very popular lately. I started a Puppet Slam on Long Island at Cinema Arts Centre [in Huntington]. I’m hoping to make that an annual event.”
Widerman just returned from Puppet Festival rEvolution 2013, a national puppetry festival at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania. “I was the co-curator. We had puppeteers from all over the country in one room for a few days,” he marvels. “I did some street performing back in the late ’80s with characters [I still use today]. A lot of people actually recognized me from my street work! We also had one of the puppets from Being John Malkovich, and a Muppet, one of the rats from the Muppet movies.”
Widerman believes the Puppets Take Long Island Festival will be a boon for puppetry on the island. “Puppets are a unique art form; the Muppets are so popular, but It’s nice to get other stuff seen. It’s kind of exciting. We’re getting puppets into venues they’ve never been. When I was running a theater it was the first live theater the kids have seen. To see something real for the first time is a special experience,” he says.
Currently Widerman is working on several different TV and media pieces and has been experimenting with the Vine phone app. “I’m kind of stuck on Vine right now. I’m exploring that completely. I’m very artistically challenged by Vine, it’s great.”
Steven Widerman will perform the Al E. Gator Variety Show at Suffolk Theater in Riverhead on Saturday, August 17 at 2 p.m. For tickets, go to suffolktheater.com. For more information on Puppets Take Long Island, go to puppetstakelongisland.com. For more information on Widerman and the Puppet Company, go to thepuppetcompany.org, and check out Widerman’s Vine videos by searching for his name on the app.