Growing up in Rockwood, Tennessee, my first taste of wanting to perform probably started when I was in elementary school. My dad bought me a mandolin and got me lessons from a really great teacher named David Niedig.
I usually competed in the talent shows, and was cast in a few small school productions. Our middle school and high school didn’t really have a drama department so I started making my own short films, usually stop motion and monster movies.
I did my own version of Little Shop of Horrors and built the Audrey II puppet, using forced perspective to make it larger as it grew during the movie.
After I graduated high school, I went to Austin Peay State University for a year, and joined the campus sketch group, “Campus Wild.” After a year, I moved back to my home town and worked at the local radio station, doing tech work but also doing voice work for local commercials and on the morning show with Tony Perry.
After about a year of that I moved to Chicago and started taking classes at Second City and the Annoyance before settling in to performing in and directing shows regularly at the Annoyance and gravitating back to puppetry.
First Job in Entertainment
My first real entertainment paid job was working in local radio.
After moving back home from my one year at college, I needed a job and really wanted to find something doing what I liked. So, I sat down with a Tascam multi track audio tape recorder and recorded myself doing different voices, (Cartoons, characters I made up myself, celebrity impressions, etc.).
I dropped it off at the station and said “I would like a job here, here’s my phone number, and here’s a tape of the different voices I do.”
The station manager called me and had me come in for an interview, and offered me a job doing tech “and occasionally appearing on air as characters.”
I learned about editing audio, timing out punchlines. It was really good experience for what I went on to do.
Classic animation has inspired a lot of my work, I’m a huge fan of silly and absurd things, trying to incorporate that style into live action situations. That’s part of why puppetry appeals to me, honestly.
In a way it’s very much a live action form of animation, and you can do so many things with it that with a real person might come across as too shocking.
Role As Resident Director at the Annoyance Theatre
As a resident director, aside from directing my own projects, the Annoyance will call me, or one of the other resident directors, to watch a preview of a new show that’s opening soon.
We’ll watch the show and take notes on how the show is going (pacing, crowd reaction, the humor) and we give these notes to the director of the show that’s previewing to help them find out what’s working and what’s not working in the show.
It’s worked out very well so far.
Speaking from experience, sometimes when you’ve been in process for a couple of months to put together a show, you need a set of fresh eyes to look in and help point out things that could help make the piece work better.
How did you get involved in Props & Puppetry?
For props, it goes back to when I was a kid. As opposed to today, when every single cartoon and tv show has an action figure, stuffed animal or some other toy made out of it, in the late 80’s early 90’s that was only beginning to become a trend.
So, I would sometimes take apart my toys and put them back together as something I’d seen on tv or in a movie so I could play with it.
I would take apart a small space ship, for example, and put together parts of other vehicles and put a satellite on top of it and made it into the Millennium Falcon.
As I got older I started using these in stop motion films. After I moved up here (Chicago) and started performing in shows, I found I could use that same thought process to build props for the stage.
For puppetry, as a kid, in elementary school, we were given a project to tell a story to a younger class, (I believe I was in third grade, visiting the first graders). I had just seen a clip of Jim Henson explaining how different puppets worked on PBS during fundraising week.
So, I had my mom help me put together a sock puppet of a fox and used an old bunny rabbit puppet I’d had passed down to me and used them to tell an old Bre’r Rabbit story to the younger kids.
When I got older, I started building puppets for special effects in little short films I would shoot, including an Audrey II for my own take on Little Shop of Horrors.
Aside from Jim Henson and The Muppets, I was a big fan of Joel Hodgson and MST3K, so a lot of my props and puppets were just found items that I put together to form something new.
When I moved to Chicago, I didn’t do a lot of puppet stuff for a while, though I was still a big fan.
A few of my shows had small puppet parts to them, but it wasn’t until after doing a live late night horror talk show that I realized some of the more successful things I was doing involved puppetry, and brought me back to it.
There are several things I enjoy about puppetry.
First, it allows me (or anyone, really), to perform characters without the audience having already made a decision about the character from their appearance.
Being a regular person you can get type cast a lot.
With the puppets, I can use all the voices I’ve cultivated over the years and place them on certain characters, without the audience thinking “he doesn’t look like he’d sound like that.”
Second, you can do things with puppets that you can’t do with people.
If a guy walks on stage and whacks himself on the head with a mallet and falls over, you’re not going to have the same reaction as you would an overly excited puppet being so happy they can’t take it anymore and they hit themselves on the head with a mallet over and over, their head changing shape slightly with each hit before they fall over.
It’s similar to animation. You go in knowing they aren’t real so anything can happen. The difference being you can reach out and actually touch a puppet as opposed to a cartoon character.
And like animation, it can appeal to children and adults.
I started directing at the Annoyance with a show called Splatter Theatre, a parody of 80’s horror films. It was a remount of the first show that was ever performed at the Annoyance.
Mick Napier directed the original and I was lucky enough to perform in two runs of the show, so I had a little experience with how the show was supposed to go. Along with that I was the person who put together the special effects every night.
I directed the show for two years before passing it on to someone else. It was definitely a training ground. I’d never really directed before, but knew I had an interest in it.
Splatter has a cast of thirteen people, so it’s hard to get everyone together at once, block everything out so that everyone can be seen while also dealing with the special effects to make sure everything’s working properly and looks right.
It helped that I’d been in the show so I knew what I could ask of people and what I couldn’t ask of them.
I think Mick, Jen and Mike were very smart to give me Splatter for my first feature length show to direct, instead of something original because I might not have been as able to handle all the ins and out quite as comfortably.
After a few years of Splatter, and directing small shows, I took a break before talking to the theater about trying out some matinees for kids. They’d always done all ages matinees during the holiday season with The Annoyance Christmas Pageant, but nothing really in the summer months.
This lead to me bringing puppetry to the theater with Weirdos, Weirdos Presents: Strange Tales and Weirdos of Oz, as well as getting a chance to use what I learned on those shows and on the Annoyance Christmas Pageant.
I try to keep everything very collaborative and make sure everyone’s voice is heard in creating the shows.
My favorite approach is using improvisation to create the scripts, with the cast improvising characters and scenes before letting one person write the scene, and eventually putting each piece together to fit a whole.
"It Came From Kentucky."
The new show I’m creating for the Annoyance is called “It Came From Kentucky,” it’s inspired by the Kelly-Hopkinsville alien encounter that occurred in Kentucky in 1955.
Essentially it’s a musical about a family of former carnival workers who end up running afoul of a group of extraterrestrials.
Did I mention that it’s inspired by a true story? The show actually falls on the 60th anniversary of the event.
The show uses puppetry to represent the aliens. The puppeteers are visible to the audience but wear all black. It adds an interesting dynamic and allows us to do things with the aliens that otherwise we wouldn’t have been able to, (For example, in the account from the Sutton family from 1955, the aliens could fly).
Underhanded Improv is an improv group I perform in with Peter Robards. The show features puppets I’ve built being performed opposite Peter, who may be one of the best improvisers in the city.
We take a suggestion from the audience and do a series of scenes inspired by the suggestion. Each scene I put on a different puppet to change characters and Peter and I play off of each other for each scene.
We’ve performed at several festivals, including the Alaska State Improv Fest and the Gatlinburg Improv Festival in Tennessee.
The original idea had been for a full on puppet improv extravaganza: hand puppets, life sized characters, rod puppets, all performed by a group of core puppeteers with special guest puppeteers using their puppets and hosted by Peter getting suggestions from the crowd to set up different scenarios.
We pitched the idea a couple of different places, but no one could figure out how to market the idea to adults.
So, one night Peter called and said he’d booked an appearance at a variety show in a bar and wanted to know if I wanted to try “Underhanded Improv,” out (he’d come up with the title as a way to let people know it was a more grown up puppet show).
But I felt the original idea wouldn’t work in that situation, (for example, putting up and taking down the stage quickly, having person sized puppets, etc. etc.) but after talking to him we decided to tweak it a bit.
I’d wear all black and bring the puppets on stage in a suitcase and between scenes I’d pick different puppets. We did a few small runs of this take on the show and it slowly evolved into what it is now.
The biggest advice I can give is to always learn from your mistakes.
No matter how long you do something, you will always hit stumbling blocks and there’s a good chance you’ll get discouraged. But, if you to succeed at what you love, you have to take a deep breath, look over what happened and move forward in a new way.
I would say my biggest stumbling block came from type casting.
I’m a pretty average guy, and try to be a nice guy off stage, and so most people try to cast me as that on stage. In a few cases I’ve talked people into letting me do other parts and it’s worked out well, but I started to get a little bored with the roles I was getting.
That went away a bit with the puppets, because it wasn’t based on my appearance but the appearance of the piece of fleece covering my hand, but at the same time puppetry itself tends to get type cast as only for children.
Even with shows like “Avenue Q” and “Stuffed and Unstrung,” some people still think that puppetry only appeals to Children.
We’re sort of where animation was in the 80’s before “The Simpsons,” came out. We’re waiting on our mainstream puppet show for adults to come out and show that the art can really appeal to anyone.
The main thing Social Media has done for me is that it allows me to do my own videos and share my work more easily.
When I was a kid in the 90’s, digital cameras were in their infancy. I used a VHS-C camera to film everything from my stop motion pieces to my little short “horror,” films.
The only way to edit was to hook the camera to a VCR and hit pause and record onto a VHS, and then take the VHS with me in case I could talk someone into watching it.
This led to so many lost projects/films.
Now, if I want to share something, all I have to do is load it to YouTube, or anything of that nature, and then send a link out on Twitter, Facebook, or another site and anyone who wants to check it out can take a look.
It also makes it easier to reach out to groups who might be drawn to a project I’m working on. Like with the “It Came from Kentucky” show, I’d like to reach out to some UFO groups and invite them to come check it out.
Top Five Moments in Entertainment
1. When I first moved to Chicago, I got a job at Second City as the main cook in the kitchen. On Wednesdays it was my job to clean the fryer, and the stuff we used to clean the gunk off of it was so strong that I would have to leave the room until the fumes dissipated.
Around the same time Mick Napier was working on directing “Red Scare,” at the Second City Main Stage.
I feel comfortable saying this, now that I’m no longer the cook, but I would go into an alcove where you could watch the main stage, and watch the process of putting together a Second City show without anyone knowing.
I learned a lot about how to put together the kinds of shows I put on now just by watching those rehearsals.
2. Any Underhanded Improv trip to a festival. Peter and I cut up, and just in general have a good time exploring the places we do our shows. We were able to explore Juneau, Alaska because of this, (how many people get to say that)?
3. The first show I proposed at the Annoyance was called “The Sam Show,” I was in it with two of my friends, Dustin Levell and Elise Dubois. I still remember closing night, and this mixture of being proud I had pulled off the run of the show, and sadness that it was over and happiness to move on to something else.
4. Around 2011, Myself, John Hartman, Kate Duffy, and Mark Sutton performed a collection of Shel Silverstein poems at the Shel-ebration in Chicago’s Grant Park.
I got to hang out back stage and have an extremely fun conversation with Tim Kazurinsky just about fun Chicago stuff and what it’s like performing in front of that many people, etc.
It was just really cool to see someone who’s done as much as he has is still a normal guy.
5. In general just being around so many people who are doing what they love, whether it’s acting, directing, writing, music, etc. It’s nice finally having all that time I spent as a nerdy kid pay off.
Something About Your Career People Might Not Know?
As a puppeteer you’re thinking of the voice, while also remembering to lip synch your thumb in time with what you’re saying, and also making sure not to draw attention to yourself as opposed to the puppet.
A lot of people just think of it as voice work, but that’s only a small part of it. It’s actually a very physical way of telling a story.
I studied at the Second City and the Annoyance for improv, and the Annoyance for directing.
For puppetry, I learned a lot watching old videos of Jim Henson talking about how the Muppets worked, as well as taking a few classes, such as one taught by David Stephens at the Center for Puppetry Arts in Georgia, and L.A.’s Puppet School with Michael Earl when he made a trip through Chicago.
I would say two of my biggest supporters are the owners of the Annoyance Theater, Mick Napier and Jen Estlin. They’ve always supported whatever weird show idea I’ve come to them with.
Mick actually taught me how to do all the effects in Splatter Theater, the first show they let me direct. He was also one of my best teachers, having taught me both improv and directing.
Jennifer actually gave me one of the best pieces of advice, when I was in a really rough spot once, which was “Sam, we’re doing sketches and making people laugh. You’re not performing brain surgery on someone,” reminding me that no matter what happened, show wise, things were going to be okay.
In puppetry one of the people who has helped me out has been Noah Ginex, who has given me a lot of advice on building puppets, as well as bringing me into being a part of his puppet company with the show SNORF, and allowing me to play several characters.
One huge supporter has been Michael Earl. Michael was a puppeteer with the Jim Henson company in the 70’s and teaches with the L.A. Puppet School. He taught a class in Chicago one summer that I took, and remained in contact afterwards, always happy to give advice and put me in contact with people who could answer things he couldn’t, as well as offer kind words about my work.
He’s actually been having health problems in the past few years, and since leaving the Screen Actor’s Guild has lacked insurance, so if anyone would like to donate there’s a "You Caring," page for him (click the link in red below).
Michael Ear's - "You Caring," Page
And, my greatest support has been my parents, Jim and Jan. Since I was a kid they’ve supported my crazy projects, from the stop motion movies I made, to deciding to move to Chicago to pursue my dreams.
They’re both wonderful, loving parents and I couldn’t ask for better.
Where Can People Go To Learn More?
If people would like to know more about me, they can visit
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