Nurturing puppetry and creativity at Vegas’ Scott Land School of Puppetry Arts & DesignLAS VEGAS — In a little workshop studio in south of the Vegas strip, it’s day two of a special event that’s sheer magic.
Only it isn’t about magic.
It’s about extracting something deeper that’s in human beings. Something often tough to extract.
And it is being extracted here.
Step into my time-machine and go back to last weekend in Las Vegas on May 13 and 14…
Ronn Lucas, ranked as one of the all-time top ventriloquists, is on the stage in hour-two of what will be his 8-hour day in a three-day course on how to make ventriloquist “figures,” aka dummies. Only it’s not really about ventriloquism, or even ventriloquists: it’s about nurturing creativity, igniting self-confidence so people who are willing can dig deep, create a character, learn a new a craft — and while at it see first hand how someone with comedic skills can seemingly make a cloth, foam or wooden puppet talk. But this session is different than most seminars or conventions for entertainers or for entertainment “civilians.”
Scott and Lisa Land are running their fourth special three-day weekend puppetry workshop of the Scott Land School of Puppetry Arts and Design. Scott Land’s nickname is “Puppeteer to the Stars,” because he has performed with and for so many of them (perhaps his biggest fan among them is Dick Van Dkye, who Land worked with on a PBS special). He was lead puppeteer in the adult satirical marionette film Team America: World Police. Besides performing with marionettes, Land, an actor who has appeared in national commercials, is a prolific builder of puppets of all kinds. His wife Lisa, a trained artist, does the meticulous fine art painting.
Lucas stands on a small, brightly lit, well-mic-ed stage in Team Land Productions studio. Racks of some of Land’s most famous marionettes (Michael Jackson, Pavarotti and many others but his REAL CHICKEN puppet Sal Monella was not there) hang on shelves with expressions instantly communicating character.
During his day long session Lucas shares his background and how he got into ventriloquism. He was greatly inspired by the “organic puppetry” of the late Jim “The Muppets” Hensen. So he was the first ventriloquist to popularize using big Muppet-style “soft puppets” in his act, versus what he calls the traditional wooden “knee figures.”(PS. Shari Lewis used a sock puppet.) Lucas later searched for something that would be unique to his act and bought the rights to use a “ventriloquist mask” from Joel Hodgson — a specially constructed mask with a movable mouth, where a volunteer puts it on and Lucas “throws” his voice into the volunteer. Many ventriloquists then incorporated various versions of Lucas’ mask into their acts.
Lucas gives a running bio and opens his professional soul to the group. He talks about how at 18 he set a deadline of having to be on the Tonight Show by 28 or he’d switch to another business. He met that goal and in his career had a TV show that ran several years in England, performed before three Presidents, did sitcoms, variety shows, late night shows, cruises, and is still busy on many performances and projects.
What makes this different is that the ventriloquist-stand up comedian is here for nearly 8 hours ( counting the hour-long luch break where the group breaks to goes together at a nearby restaurant) talking to 20 people from all over the U.S. and Canada. He isn’t “holding forth” — or holding back. He talks about a show of his that went bad (all entertainers have had them but try not to admit it) and explains precisely why. In 2007 he wrote a book titled “Living Better through Ventriloquism.” He’s now writing a book about performing and says Chapter 9 will be “There’s no such thing as a bad audience, just an entertainer that failed to connect.” Chapter 10 will be “…But every now and then you still get a bad audience!” In other words, “You must know when it’s not your fault and forgive yourself.”
Lucas then performs, revealing some new jokes to the audience. He takes out one of his most famous characters Buffalo Billy (his dragon Scorch once had his own sitcom), performs and sings with him. Then does his mask bit. There is not a trace of ego (no, sense of hey look at me how great I am which you can sense in some performers — good ones and awful ones) in his performance or seminar. Lucas came in having fans; he left having made dear friends.
An enticing invitation
Why was I there? In my non-writing incarnation I’m a ventriloquist myself. I got an invitation to attend and found the subject fascinating. I couldn’t make the first two days. I have been to many conferences, conventions, workshops and seminars on puppetry, writing, journalism, international affairs and business but was not prepared for the magic created by the two days I was there, or watching Land himself in action.
Land in action
Land had dealt with other aspects of building a dummy in the two first days, and now he is in his glory. An attending ventriloquist brought three vintage, real wood puppets made by retired figurebuilder (dummy maker) Chuck Jackson and takes off the three valuable dummy heads and passes them around for each member of the group to try. Land talks in awe of the characters. “These are pieces of art,” and points to how the headstick was carefully designed by Jackson, and even the metal tabs that pull the strings were created by Jackson. “Do you mind if I open up the head?” he asks the dummies’ owner. So he opens the head revealing intricate mechanics. With a sense of wonderment and joy he points to individual levers, pieces of plastic, string, explaining to the class why each part is used and talking out loud as he tries to figure out how other parts were put in and for what reason. The class sits very close to him and discusses aspects of the head.
He then gets to working on the non-wood head that will go on the body students were taught to build earlier. He uses a bunch of drills, shows how he prepares to put the eyes, jaw and mouth in. How to make a head-stick. Students offer some additional ideas and although he’s leading the session, he’s taking all suggestions in. He fits in the mouth, the eyes and the headstick and demonstrates how you go back and adjust it piecemeal to make it fit and work perfectly.
The atmosphere isn’t like a typical class or convention where the feeling is that Moses (the speaker) has come down from the burning Bush with superior knowledge from God to present the 10 commandments to underlings who need to educated. It’s more like a meeting of a classic business “mastermind” group where there may be a leader but ideas and excitement flow about what is possible through hard work, thinking things through, coming up with ideas — and creativity.
Several times Land talks about existing puppet and dummy designs and why they are made that way. Then he asks: why not use some other puppet forms, and shows examples of forms he’s working on.
In effect, Land’s main message to his students is: to be creative you just shouldn’t just think outside the box, why not think about creating a new kind of box?
The underlying issue
The underlying issue faced by any of the arts is always how to pass solid knowledge on to new generations and and encourage them to use it and innovate and expand it. It’s a truism that each generation doesn’t like the last generation’s music and creates its own; each generation has less respect for the comedy of a previous generation. Sometimes generations build on previous knowledge. Sometimes (as in music) they may totally throw out the old and install a new. In art and most branches of entertainment there is often continuity, which can border on stagnation. In puppetry and the arts, there’s YouTube, courses, DVDs and books but where can you immerse yourself for an extended period of time in an intimate setting and focus on one aspect of an art?
How can artists of all kinds perpetuate their arts by passing on sufficient info, spark critically-needed enthusiasm, confidence and fostering creativity? How can they light that spark and turn it into a burning fire?
By one definition, creativity is “the use of the imagination or original ideas, especially in the production of an artistic work.” Another thought on creativity: “In order to be creative, you need to be able to view things in new ways or from a different perspective. Among other things, you need to be able to generate new possibilities or new alternatives. Tests of creativity measure not only the number of alternatives that people can generate but the uniqueness of those alternatives. the ability to generate alternatives or to see things uniquely does not occur by change; it is linked to other, more fundamental qualities of thinking, such as flexibility, tolerance of ambiguity or unpredictability, and the enjoyment of things heretofore unknown.” A ton of books, countless articles have been written on how to get those creative juices flowing. One way to inspire is by to create an atmosphere where you never know what Vegas stage performer will drop by.
In walk several Vegas magicians including Jeff McBride, who performs in Vegas, is a Magic Castle Magician of the Year, and a Guiness World Records holder who’ll be on a bill with magicians doing an Asia tour. They come in after their shows to joke and chat with the group. In walks Fielding West, a highly popular magician with several honors, including this year’s Academy of Magical Arts award. He treats group members like long lost friends.
At one point, a funny, slender man with a Texas accent enters and immediately begins to talk and make the crowd laugh. He hands out nearly 30 year old little McDonald’s Christmas give-aways. It’s Earl Cheney, a legendary clown, magician, former owner of a famous Vegas magic shop and third generation entertainer: his father was Lon Chaney, Jr. (most famous for his performance in Of Mice and Men and his role as Universal Studio’s iconic Wolfman), and grandson of Lon Cheney (“The Man of a Thousand Faces,” star of silent and early sound films). The word people use for Chaney is “charisma.” In a short time speaking from the audience, he proves to be a rich source of stories and show biz tips. The audience loves him.
Another unusual aspect — and what comes next
What is missing? Something not missing at many conventions, seminars and workshops: merchandising.
Land has DVDs which were there and available, but he doesn’t hawk them or push them. Lucas didn’t bring any “back of the room” merchandise at all. It was all about sharing, discussing and creating.
Food and alcoholic and non alcoholic drinks are brought in for the two-hour after session party. Lisa Land lets the group know that the next session will be Sept. 22-24 to “teach prop building and design — with nothing left out.”
Some members of the group tell her they wouldn’t miss it for the world.
They’re not just stringing her along.
PHOTOS: Scott Land School of Puppetry and Design. Used by permission.