Wednesday, June 08, 2005

pastor of muppets

You wouldn’t know it to look at me now, but I was quite the puppeteer back in the late eighties. The First Baptist Church in Muscle Shoals, AL was my forum and a trunk full of musty and uncomfortable handpuppets was my art. Each was a bit frayed at the edges and sported fashion from the seventies sewn onto it’s anything but flesh-colored body, as the church hadn’t supplied the “puppet ministry” with new characters in quite some time. Each had an expression that was both caring and stern, a combination that came across in puppet form as concerned and anxious, as if they feared the proctology involved in their roles. Their yarn hair was thinning a bit and some of the eyes had been sewn back on at various times, sometimes by unskilled seamstresses who left the puppets looking like something that crawled from a Picasso work. Occasionally an eye would fall off in mid-performance and cause some younger children to shriek in horror.

Those were the times a young puppeteer would live for—the puppet malfunctions and occasional arm spasms that left the door open for improvisation in an otherwise restrictive genre. If an eye fell off one could feign an Old Testament tribulation of some sort. If one’s arm began giving away at the end of an especially long scene fellow puppeteers could either attribute the visible quaking of a puppet to it’s being filled with the spirit or a clear-cut case of demon possession. I preferred the latter. Though it was often a difficult scene to pull off in front of young and impressionable audiences, it made for the most compelling drama and rewarding performances.

And those long performances hurt like hell. Those who haven’t been around puppets simply do not understand the stamina required to hold one of those things up for minutes at a time. A good five-minute performance is the most your average puppeteer could hope to go for a scene. Puppets need to be constantly moving, and the coordination required to keep them lifelike and entertaining—not to mention the dialogue, interaction, and obligatory walking up and down imaginary staircases to enter and exit the scene—takes years to master.

We did all this behind a two level set of blue velvet curtain draped over a pvc pipe frame of our own construction. There were nine of us and we took this stage and the trunk full of puppets to various churches throughout rural north Alabama, taking the show on the road and spreading the word abroad when the home crowd grew tired of the same skits. We sometimes wrote our own material and sometimes lipsynched to professional puppet ministry tapes or songs. Once we even stepped into the secular a bit for an interpretation of Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” I think I was a turtle and mimicked one of the higher parts in that one.

I didn’t mind the religiousness of my art at the time. I think many middle schoolers go through that religious phase when they start to contemplate things like death and how stupid everyone else is, and subsequently find a way to combine the two into a comforting thought of everybody who doesn’t agree with them going to hell. Many adults still cling to similar mantras. When people get into high school they generally trade it for a mantra of non-conformity, a tone-deaf garage band, and a keg party every weekend. When people get into college they generally trade it in for an intellectual elitism, thinking more along the lines having a more fulfilling life by getting rid of their televisions and replacing them with shelves of books about exhistentialism. Were there a team of puppeteers who set up outside theaters showing Jim Carrey movies, I probably would’ve joined up at one point in my long college career. But there was not, and puppeteering platform sadly disappeared alongside my enthusiasm for church and organized religion.

I still bitterly recall my last performance. The Alabama Baptist Association (or some such entity) held a puppet ministry competition each year at one of the small city-sized churches around Birmingham. This particular year we had chose to lip-synch along with a taped a skit, a light-hearted gameshow parody, as I recall, and I had the sacred duty of manning the host puppet. It was flawless. We had the timing, the moves, the enthusiasm, and the energy, and made all the other puppet ministries look like rank amateurs—all with just a trunk full of shabby second hand puppets.

Then the home team went on last. Their puppets were new, sporting current fashions, and smelling of fresh laundry. Their tapes were original and recorded at the church recording studios. They had all they needed to make up for puppeteering imperfections and provide us with a worthy adversary. And still we would have defeated them soundly, had the bastards not incorporated film into their presentation. It wasn’t something prohibited in the rules, yet I still feel to this day that such an action was underhanded and went against a number of unspoken agreements that should’ve been in place.

They had chosen a musical number, something upbeat and expressing a general happiness for Jesus. They pulled that part of it off well, yet we would’ve still handed their asses to them had the movie screen not come down. A general groan came from the audience as it did so. There was much wailing and gnashing of teeth, as it were. The film shown was of a rollercoaster, taken from the inside looking back on the occupants and thus giving the impression that the puppets had suddenly boarded a rollercoaster and were still able to enthusiastically sing to Jesus without being liberated of their little puppet lunches.

Of course we came in second to the sum’bitches. I won’t go into the argument of how all their additions were nothing more than a smokescreen to divert one’s attention away from their lack of puppetry and how some feeble minded judges were obviously swayed away from the real purpose of this puppetry competition. I can only hope that karma has led those good people to fall victim to a nasty crack addiction, and that they currently wander the shadier streets of Birmingham having hallucinogenic conversations with their once shiny and new puppets.

No, I don’t. Not really. That would make me sound bitter and as if my life has somehow been lessened by a puppeteering defeat at an early age.
I do, however, hope that at some point their unethical film screen fell upon the lot of them in mid-performance, causing a number of minor injuries and quite a few foul and unchurchlike exclamations to be made over their microphones.


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