Welcome to the second installment of 4 Foam Fingers. This week we’re with Fred Chong Rutherford of The Help Machine.
Well, the answers are hopefully useful to you! I’m having a very slow go at getting my art out there, now that I’m focused on the puppets, but I’ll get there!
What is The Help Machine?
The primary focus for my art is something I call ‘The Help Machine.‘ The website copy needs some updates, but my dream is a benefit corporation that produces media. The profits from the media go into programs, like helping fund school art programs. The companies I admire, like Warby Parker, Newman’s Own, Unilever, they all do big business. And they all dedicate substantial amounts of profit to actually helping people. That’s what I want, but with my art, puppets and media as the vehicle.
Here’s a few links! The YouTube one is so sad right now, I’m really clenched up about just putting my videos up for people. This summer is about unclenching, and just putting up content.
Good luck with your project! I hope it goes smashing!
1 – Where did you get your start in Puppetry? Was there a moment where you knew puppets would consume your life?
It happened twice. The first time, I was five. I loved Sesame Street and The Muppet Show. My older brother had left behind this little bird puppet. I picked it up, and then it hit me, “I can put this on my hand.” And I did, and the puppet could talk. I realized this must be what’s happening on those shows. Except, when I made the puppet talk, it didn’t look right. Mine looked like a floppy mouth, but the ones on TV looked alive. I practiced, then made some of my own very crude puppets out of paper bags and socks. I kept practicing, and got a little better at it. Something still looked off. Then on a Sunday afternoon a few years later, I saw, “Of Muppets and Men.” I missed the beginning, was just channel surfing, and then stopped when I realized what I was watching. I got Birdie, and started to watch and practice. That’s when I saw it.
The top of the mouth didn’t go up. The bottom did.
If you watched what some of the puppeteers were doing, you could see that a lot of the ones with characters I thought looked alive, they sort of pushed their hands forward. I took Birdie off, tried that, and suddenly my bottom thumb was dropping on its own. I started to practice just making my thumb move (at least trying) and that ‘push’ technique. A while later, at least to my kid brain, Birdie looked alive. The thing is, as a kid, I didn’t practice all the time. I picked Birdie up, put Birdie away, all the time. I learned accents, spent time by myself, and then felt really shy about the puppets. I learned as a kid to be outgoing and gregarious, but the truth is, I’m shy. It’s almost like I’m wearing myself as a puppet when I’m out in the world, and that’s how I can be more outgoing. By the time I got to highschool, I’d formed a plan. I’d move to Hollywood. I’d meet Jim Henson. He would take me as an apprentice, and I’d learn from him. I would do voices and really terrible impressions (and slightly better accents) for my friends. I acted in some plays, played football. That summer, I’d be 16 years old, I’d have my car. I was contemplating, “Could I drive to California on my own in the summer?”
And then Jim Henson died. For whatever reason, my 15-going-on-16 year old brain tossed the puppets aside. The dream was impossible now. Jim Henson was dead. I kept up with the performance, and acting, but acting on stage got more and more uncomfortable. The shy me hated the lights. The shy me liked when people were laughing, and having fun, but being the center of attention bothered me.
In college, I started to make short films (and help other people make their own stuff). I did some professional acting in Canada, a few plays here and there, and then realized, “No, not for me. Not like this.” Occasionally, at night when we were drunk, I’d do puppet performances for my friends using whatever was around. Pick up a doll, or a bucket, and turn it into a puppet and make it talk. Graduated, moved to Seattle, took a job, took a different job, started a business (IT and miscellaneous stuff for the company I worked for, plus their clients, all freelancers working for me). And I made short films. In each one, I appeared as a character, but the character was hidden with wigs, make-up, some affectation that kind of let me be a character instead of someone with my own face. We showed them at some film festivals. I focused on writing screenplays. And then I decided to grow up a little, focus on my business, and go to grad school. I’d get my MBA and learn how to do what I was doing better. I got a scholarship from a school in NYC (just lucky!) and moved here. And never left. I fell into the ‘Silicon Alley’ in here, and was able to just work and do well.
A few years ago, in December 2013, I got sick again. I got diagnosed with ulcerative colitis in 2001. Ever since, it meant medication, diets, steroids, and the occasional collapse of my body, and the need to go into the hospital. My weight had always gone up and down, but ever since I got the UC, it was always going up. I never even got the best part of UC, being skinny. I’d do some steroids and suddenly I’m 10 pounds heavier.
I was in the hospital, thinking about what I’d wanted to do, the creative projects I’d been sketching, including an animated series I’d been working on after work based on one of my short films. I got the voices down cold, but I wasn’t getting any better at the animation. I did an assessment. I could write, act, produce, direct. Every short I’d edited myself won some kind of award. I’d done small-scale professional work (industrials for the shorts, a few paid acting gigs). I could have a go at this if I could balance my day job and my real life (ie, the artistic life). But my drawing wasn’t up to snuff, the animation wasn’t getting any better. There were a lot of liabilities with trying to make cartoons. And then I popped the TV on, turned to Sesame Street, remembered “Of Muppets and Men,” and said outloud, “hey dummy, what about the puppets?” I spent 2014 up to now taking a puppetry for TV performance class, which helped me fine tune all the stuff I saw and learned when I was a kid. I started to shoot videos. Writing sketches. And learning to build puppets.
I wanted something better than the stuff I made as a kid, so took some classes from The Puppet School. And now it’s practice, practice, practice, both the building and the characters. I have to get over some anxiety I have about the videos I’m shooting. Intellectually, I know things like, “Jim Henson constantly pitched his work, and maybe 5-10% of the actual art he and his company produced ever made it to the public.” But emotionally, I get clenched up a little if something isn’t quite right. I’ve shot so much video by this point, but need to just start putting it out there. I’d rather let people see something and judge it harshly then never let them see it all. At least, that’s what I tell myself! That’s the next hump, just putting work out there for people, and letting come what may.
2 – Do you have a favorite moment in your career, or a project that you feel defines your body of work?
I did a performance for a small group of Buddhists a few months ago, using “Uncle Prunce.” He’s kind of a groovy beach bum. If you met him, he might say something like, “Hey baby, didn’t I meet you at a Grateful Dead show? Or was it Doctor Teeth and the Electric Mayhem? Maybe the Riverbottom Nightmare Band a few years back? Well, whatever, the cosmic strings say me and you are buddies, so put ‘er there!” Prunce did a talk for the Buddhists about Right Speech (part of what Buddhists call ‘The 8 Fold Path’, something most Buddhists agree on). He was able to answer questions, give his talk, and find that place, where he’s funny, but sincere, and it’s not all laughs. All of it improvised, spontaneous yet planned, something meaningful for the people there.
A gift, I guess. That’s what I want it to be like for people.
Not Prunce preaching religion to people. Just, a performance that’s real and moving. Maybe that movement is laughter, maybe it’s tears, maybe it’s aha moments, or maybe it’s some kind of combination of all of it at once. But that’s the spirit I’m driving for the stuff I’m making.
3 – Where do you draw character inspiration from? Do you have a set way of creating or do you allow spontaneity to take over?
I start sketching. Then I imagine what the sketch would sound like. Sometimes I just make up characters, do silly voices or accents, and then let my imagination build out who that person is. Sometimes I read published screenplays, and imagine an audition with a character, who then becomes a new version of the character in the screenplay. But with the puppets, it’s so far sketching, voice, then doing my best to make the puppet. There’s a character I need to finish, I’ve been working on him off and on for almost a year now. I’ve built two other characters, essentially as learning prototypes, to get to this character. And those other characters, I’ve made them as puppets so many times, just learning something new about sewing or gluing or cutting fabric or fur as I go.
It’s good in a sense, because I’m making myself get better. But in another sense, it’s making things slow. It’s been 17 months since I had that epiphany. I need to speed things up!Anyway, apologies for the digression, I have a set way of creating right now, at least until it changes. Sketch, voice, build, obsess, go back to build if not happy.
4 – Name one tip you would give an aspiring puppet builder / performer?
Do.I’m too hung up on getting it right with whatever I’m doing, which slows down the doing. It’s not about comparing yourself to other people. It’s about connecting with an audience, in whatever way makes sense. Kermit the Frog started life as an old coat and ping pong balls. He’s now perfected, molded, the performance Kermit puppets are beautiful, have continuity to them, and are used by amazing performers. But the first one was an old coat, some ping pong balls, and a lot of imagination.
Jim Henson did the work, and he performed. So, as much as I’m offering this as advice, I’m reminding myself, to Do.
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