WitOut: Can you give a brief history of Friends of Alcatraz? What sparked your interest in combining improv and puppetry?
Joe Sabatino: I’ve been making puppets since I was a kid, and I was always too nervous to actually put them on display or admit to anyone that I like puppets. But when Kelly and I started dating…
Kelly Vrooman: By the way, we’re dating.
JS: When we first started, I knew we shared a common interest in puppets. So, I decided to do the creepiest thing for someone you’ve only been dating for a month and I built a puppet of Kelly’s cat Alcatraz. With it came the idea to do an improvised puppet show called Friends of Alcatraz.
KV: It was a weird yet endearing gesture…but mostly weird. He put the puppet in my arms and said, “I was thinking, um, maybe… you would want to create an improv puppet show with me?” I reluctantly said yes.
JS: We gathered a group of our funniest friends, that happen to also be some of the best puppeteers in the city: Dave Jadico, Jason Stockdale and Rob Cutler. It was a fascinating group of inventive people that know how to make a puppet come alive. Thus, FoA was born.
KV: I work with puppets on TV, so I knew I wanted to have monitors for the puppeteers, which led us to want a screen the audience could watch. Once the “impropputeers” (a mind-blowingly awesome name I made up) got used to working with the monitors, the show took off. We took it to the next level by adding an a capella opening number and musical edits (Music by Liz Filios, Lyrics by Kelly and Joe). Oh, and Joe designed and made a ton of incredible puppets for us to use. That should probably be mentioned.
WO: What would you say are some of the key differences/challenges between regular improvising and improvising with a puppet?
JS: I think the world is even more infinite than human improv. The things puppets can do is borderline scary in terms of bringing imagination to life. Especially the way we present our show. The puppets can literally do anything we want them to do: fly, twist into a pretzel, enter the scene from the side of another puppet’s head, eat another puppet whole, be as big as a building… The possibilities are endless and with a camera it makes the execution of these things more real. Because of all of these different elements to play with our minds need to be a clean slate away from reality, almost. We still play grounded scenes but our “If this, then what” mentality is stretched. One or two people have questioned this project in terms of legit scene work because we never interact or make eye contact with our scene partners. When in reality it’s the exact opposite. We are in tune with one another, watching every single nuance of the puppets and reading the body language of our human scene partners. It’s also easier because we, the puppeteers, have monitors we are watching which is the same image as the projection the audience is watching. This makes it MUCH easier to really know what is going on all around the puppets, and helps us create a scene that not only makes sense, but also looks good in terms of staging, spacing and scene action. Plus… your arm gets tired.
KV: Well put Joe! In addition, improvising with puppets is one thing, improvising with puppets for the camera is another thing. And doing it well, is yet another thing! It’s kind of like singing and dancing while acting and juggling. A bunch of skills have to come together for it to be good. Sometimes a great improviser can put on a puppet and feel restricted. Sometimes, an inexperienced improviser can put on a puppet and become great.
WO: What’s the origin story of Alcatraz the Cat, the star of the show?
JS: Kelly knows how the cat got his name and what not, but I’ve always felt like Alcatraz the real cat is a little bit of a dick. I’ve NEVER been a cat guy. In fact I’m comfortable to say that before I started hanging around Kelly’s cat I hated cats. But Alcatraz always fascinated me. The defining moment for me was when I made a delicious dinner, one night. I dressed the plate nicely, set the mood and it smelled wonderful. I locked eyes with Alcatraz and he walked over to where I was sitting and eating, which was all the way on the other side of the room. He slowly walked over, climbed into my lap and put his asshole right into my food. He got up and walked away. He made a statement. So, I made a puppet of him.
KV: I adopted him off the street and held a naming competition with my family. My sister was in the lead with “The Great Catsby” or “AlCATraz”. Then, that night, the cat escaped out my second story window and got wedged in the bars of the first story window. Therefore…Alcatraz won. I really wanted Joe to perform Alcatraz the puppet because I heard Alcatraz’s voice in my head as a deep man’s voice, but Joe insisted I was the person who should do it. I reluctantly gave in. He ended up with an ambiguous European accent that hurts my throat to perform, but it’s worth it. We started to joke around about Alcatraz being a sophisticated world traveler, incredibly popular with everyone he meets, the most desired cat in the world. And if he’s that amazing, he’d totally be able to gather a group of weirdos he’s met on his travels and convince them to perform in a show, right? We discovered that he shouldn’t even perform in the show because he’s too much of a character to be able to pretend to be anyone else in a scene. So, he introduces the show, the cast of characters and gets the suggestion.
WO: Can you give some details on the format and staging of the show?
KV: Friends of Alcatraz is a long form improvised puppet show. We don’t stick to a rigid format, but we look to play out several scenes then see how those stories intersect. And spice it up with a happy dose of randomness and frivolous puppet-y fun.
One side of the stage is the “show”—a projected image of the puppets’ world. It’s like watching a puppet TV show. The other side of the stage is the behind-the-scenes creation of that show. You can watch the finished product projected on the screen while you simultaneously watch the puppeteers create the show.
JS: Our format is very catering to the puppeteers/improvisers.
JS: It was important for me that the presence of our powerhouse improvisers didn’t get upstaged by a big screen. People love to see improvisers’ minds work and the audience rarely gets to see what it’s like beneath the camera of a puppet show. We’ve really nailed it on the head in terms of being able to allow the audience to split focus. It’s great to be able to see all the work that goes into the projected image on the screen: shuffling around getting the right puppet, making a prop for a puppet to use, someone helping one puppeteer manipulate their puppet so it can do something specific…etc. Plus we are a great group of people who are really good at making each other laugh, so the audience gets to see how much fun we are having. It was important to me to really showcase the humans. It’s an experience to see our show. It’s almost like seeing five shows at once: a puppet show, a TV show, an improv show, a blooper reel and a musical.