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Fredonia alumni transition puppet theatre business in face of pandemic

Submitted Photo Lindsey “Z” Briggs and Chad Williams with their puppet theatre.

With the entertainment industry in New York City grinding to a halt due to the coronavirus pandemic, a pair of State University of New York at Fredonia graduates, Chad Williams, ’03, and Lindsey “Z” Briggs, ’01, made a quick turn in their livelihood, transitioning their puppet theatre company to live streaming.

The couple established WonderSpark Puppets 10 years ago to present live puppet shows in New York City to audiences of all ages. WonderSpark Puppets has been phenomenally successful, growing to perform as many as 400 shows a year – in theatres, libraries, museums, schools and stores and even at children’s birthday parties. Puppet shows have also been presented internationally.

“Puppetry is alive and well; in fact, we’re in a renaissance right now. There’s so much happening, in local theatres around the country, on Broadway and off-Broadway, in schools and on the Internet,” Mr. Williams said.

“In New York, it’s very popular to have entertainers come into your space; schools bring in different storytellers, magicians or anyone who can give some kind of awesome performance,” Williams explained. He’s found that, in many cases, puppet theatre is often the first exposure children have to live theatre.

Being nimble, as well as passionate about the art of puppetry and performance, was an integral part of WonderSpark Puppets’ winning formula.

“We’re small enough we can go into any small apartment in New York City or any classroom or library. Our flexibility, where we can go anywhere in this city that has nothing but small spaces, is how we established ourselves as a mobile theatre,” he said.

But the puppet theatre scene was upended when New York City, whose more than 1,000 schools and countless libraries and museums regularly host live puppet shows, became the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic. WonderSpark’s scheduled bookings dried up almost overnight. “The puppet company’s entire income just evaporated,” Williams said.

It was time for the WonderSpark team, which had grown to five performers, to pivot away from on-site performances, at least temporarily, to live streaming.

Williams and Ms. Briggs have undergraduate degrees in Fredonia’s former Media Arts program, so they knew the technical aspects of film and television production. Ms. Briggs also studied Puppetry Arts at the master’s level at the University of Connecticut. Williams is a filmmaker, creator of four documentaries about puppetry and has also worked on the production side of major network television dramas.

“But we didn’t know streaming,” he added.

So the Western New Yorkers immersed themselves into learning how to become professional streamers, with an emphasis on the financial aspect that involves seeking donations, sponsorships and business support. Online tutorials were a major source of vital information.

“We quickly adapted our business to streaming shows and doing live workshops with the idea of growing our online community, offering services that would sustain us through the long term,” Williams said. Weekly live puppet shows are carried on Facebook on Fridays at 11 a.m., do-it-yourself puppet workshops, Monday through Friday, at 4 p.m., and Saturday and Saturday, 10 a.m.

With those streaming plans coming to fruition with the start of live streaming on March 17, Williams and Briggs believe it’s their duty to help others – puppet theatre is a close-knit community in New York City -facing similar challenges. They present online lectures and workshops for fellow puppeteers. “It’s been successful. We’re getting a huge turnout,” Williams said.

An online store selling branded WonderSpark Puppets gear and memberships, which offer video library access and live weekly puppet chats, and a WonderSpark Puppets insider newsletter have also been launched to generate revenue.

“Every day is a new challenge, but we are happy to share what we have learned and how our unique art form is actually well suited to pivot towards streaming. We are in the middle of figuring out with our fellow puppeteers how to best help each other and spread useful information,” Williams said.

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