Spotlight On Local Talent: Mike O’Brien and ‘The Clothespin Puppets’ Bringing Stories To Life

EVERYBODY LOVES PUPPETS

PUPPETS!! What is there not to love? A great puppeteer can capture the love and imagination of all ages and that’s exactly what Mike and Maggie O’Brien of Clothespin Puppets do!

 Nick: First off, thank you both for taking the time to talk with Shallow Graves Magazine. How are you guys doing today?

Mike: I’m doing great!

Maggie: Same here haha!

Nick: So for the record, what is the name of your company and what part do both of you play?

Mike: My name is Mike O’Brien, and I am the head honcho/top banana of Clothespin Puppets, in Gibson City, IL.

Maggie: I’m Maggie O’Brien! I am the puppeteer, voice actor, and part-time storyteller of Clothespin Puppets!

Nick: And how long have you guys been in operation?

Mike: This is our seventh year. We officially had our 1st gig in 2010.

Nick: Nice! As I’ve read from your website, your main goal is to do shows that educate the children with reading by making the experience more interactive through puppet shows! How did you come up with such a brilliant idea?

Mike: It was kind of an accident really. I was working at Barnes and Noble in the kids section and loved  reading the picture books and came across a one titled “Little Pea” and it hit me, “this would make a beautiful little puppet show”…and here we are today!

Maggie: And we’ve been doing that show for 7 years. Every time we go to elementary schools, or somewhere that we’ve been before, they go MAD for us! A lot of the little kids get blown away by “Little Pea”!

Mike: It was one little show I did for story time with puppets and the kids loved it, the parents loved it, and so the idea to do puppet shows based on a kids book started there. After doing a few shows for a couple schools, the school principal gave me a call and said “we have a 15 person waiting list for “Little Pea”.

 

Maggie: I remember that!

Mike: The school had to order more copies for the library because of that show. It was then that we realized we had a niche. A way of promoting the arts and books for education!

Maggie: For our first couple of shows, we did 2 books “Little Pea” and Swimmy  and one original called “Daddy Sitting” in which we used Punch and Judy style puppets and the crowd loved it. Our company has since grown and we do larger scale productions where we are able to perform 8 or 9 books in one show.

Nick: It’s awesome that you’ve also introduced originals. Will you be writing more original stories in the future?

Maggie:I think so. We have two and hope for more.

Mike: With “Daddy Sitting” my wife wrote it as something to fill in. I had made the puppets years ago…

Maggie: named Sam and Ella

Mike: …One was the overbearing mother, and the other an obtuse father. After a few years we got pretty good at it.

Maggie: It was at that time our acting genes kicked in haha!

Mike: It was also the time we found out, we have a very similar sense of  humor.

Nick: See, that’s perfect!

Mike: Exactly, my wife, also wrote a Punch and Judy style Christmas show that we perform with Santa Claus and Elf puppets.

Santa Claus and Elf

Maggie: And a Halloween show which is one of our biggest performances we’ve done at the Allerton mansion. The show is tons of fun and we got utilized one of our old puppets, Marley, which was used for ‘A Christmas Carol’ from a long time ago. Marley is a skeleton head on a rod with a trigger for the mouth, tattered clothes, chains and a ghostly arm. The show was In a Dark, Dark Room and most of the show is a shadow piece until the end where it goes “and in the dark, dark box there was a ..GHOST HAAHAHAHA!!!”, we yank the big ugly puppet up to the top of the screen and I cackle as loud as I can which made people jumped and screamed. and the kids love it!

Nick:Now, that is a show I would like to see! It reminds me of when my school would take field trips each year to the Providence Performing Arts Center to see ‘A Christmas Carol’. Each year was completely different, and for one of the shows the ghost of Christmas Future was a huge black head with two hands. When it came on stage there was a giant wave of “whoa” that came upon everyone.

Maggie: We’ve actually done something similar to that. For the agonizing 9 months we did build that we nicknamed “Big Fred”.  He was the Ghost of Christmas Future. The head of this puppet was huge!

Mike: It was great because we were working in a theater that had the space with about 40 foot wide walls, so we took advantage of it. All of the cast were actors except for the ghosts. The Ghost of Christmas Past was a small childlike ghost I made a cast from my other daughters face with plastic so it lit up from the inside and was only a few feet tall. We designed them so that every ghost got bigger, and the ghost of Christmas Present was slightly larger than human size with his entire head made of fruit like a Cornucopia.

The Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come was freakin’ huge with 20 yards of gauze. The head was made out of a basket weave so it was light weight. Two people moved the head and 2 people worked each hand which were made by young engineering students The rig was actually able to hold Scrooge and point its finger.

Maggie: What made the entrance even better, was while Scrooge was talking, the whole stage filled with fog so when the ghost came up, fog was radiating from his face!

Nick: Nice! So from what you’ve been mentioning, is there anyone else that’s part of the company?

Duck! Rabbit!

Mike: Maggie and I started it, and my wife (Maggie’s Mom) has written for us, and helps paint sets when needed.

Nick: Is your whole family into theater, and if so how long?

Maggie: I’ve been doing theater since I was about 3, in productions such as “Killroy Was Here” and “Joseph And The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat”. I’m pretty sure I came out of the womb singing! The only thing we wish we were able to do was the production Avenue Q that came through recently, but we missed auditions by one day.

Nick: Nooo!! That stinks.

Mike: Yeah, we were bummed.

Maggie: I already do Kate Monster all the time!

Mike: We found out at an early age she loves to mimic voices.

Maggie: And from that I do things like “Pigeon And Ducky“, Ducky has a voice that’s higher up and a little raspy. I am a voice actor at heart.

Nick: So Mike, how did you get into acting?

Mike: I started in High School which a huge theater department. We did 2 big shows a year and by the time I graduated, I had an acting resume which helped me with jobs and college. in which I got a degree in acting and a Phd in performance theory. I have also done special effects makeup and learned how to juggle when I was 8. The juggling also carried on through high school and college where I met another guy that had a huge passion for juggling. So one day he grabbed me and we just started juggling for hours. He grabbed everything from clubs to machetes. By the end of the summer I became a great juggler and also learned how to ride a unicycle.

Nick: Damn, that’s impressive! Do you have any other talents you are hiding?

Mike: There was a unicycle and juggling club that took place in the park too in the summer. It was crazy! So, my theater experience is a bit fringed.

Nick: Is there one performance that stands out in your mind?

Maggie: I would definitely say ‘A Christmas Carol’. Even though it was a lot of work, it was so much big and we had the opportunity to be as ambitious as possible.

Nick: Any parting words to get your message of Clothespin Puppets across to our audience?

Maggie: I’m happy just getting kids interested, even if it’s one kid. Having schools call us and say that they’ve got books on order is amazing.

Mike: For some of these kids, this is the closest they’ve come to live theater. So, I’d have to agree. Hearing that the show influenced a child is an amazing feeling.

Nick: Well thank you both for taking the time to talk, I had a lot of fun!

Mike O’Brien and the Clothespin Puppets visit Reading Across America