Puppet show finds handhold in community after eight years

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Puppeteer and creator of The Felt Show, Paul Santos is pictured with his puppet self, Paul, on Wednesday, June 4, 2014. The puppet show for grown-ups, which is often performed at bars is in its eighth year of production.

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From left are Ug, Michelangelo, Paul and Norman.

When college graduation rolls around, you think you know exactly what you’ll be doing in life, but you really have no idea, Paul Santos says. Turns out what Santos would be doing is directing, writing and producing a Lawrence-based puppet show called The Felt Show for the next eight years.

Santos, a Kansas University film graduate, never would have thought that the puppets his friend Ben Rumback made in college would eventually be the stars of an oddball bar act.

The Felt Show is a puppet variety show that incorporates comedy sketches written by Santos, videos and music, and is aimed at an adult audience (instead of "impressionable youth"). Having gone through a rotating cast over the past several years, Santos finally feels the group has settled on a core group of three dedicated puppeteers.

Shortly after college, Santos mentioned to former classmate Rumback that he had an idea to use puppets in an awards show he had been commissioned to animate by the KU film department, but he didn’t know anyone who made them. Turns out he was talking to one.

“He brought me out to his car where he showed me a puppet that he made when he was in eighth grade,” Santos says. “He was home sick from school, and he and his dad figured out how to make puppets.”

The two got to work collaborating, with Santos generating ideas for music videos and television pilots that he wanted to create with puppets and Rumback making the puppets. But each idea fell through, Santos says, as a result of inexperience and youthfulness. They had 15 puppets and nowhere to go.

“I feel like when you’re just starting, you feel like you’re running but you don’t know where you’re going,” Santos says.

Santos then began writing characters for puppets they already had. One who resembled Edgar Allan Poe became “lucky Edgar Allen Poe” who was miserable because all he wanted was to tell sad stories, but positive things kept happening to him.

“Now that we’re in the middle of it, I feel like we’re firing on all cylinders,” he says.

His first show was a solo act at The Replay to about 10 confused people. One man was laughing at the sketch, but a woman in the audience who had no idea what to make of the performance tried to quiet him, as she thought it was supposed to be a serious piece.

“She was hushing the one guy that was reacting to the show,” Santos says. “It was definitely character building. Or character crushing.”

The Felt Show cast — having played several bar venues over the years — has space at SeedCo. Studios where they now have a regular practice spot, stage and monitor where they can watch themselves to see what their audience will be seeing.

“Doing a puppet show in a bar, you have to be able to hold the audience’s attention,” he says. “With music, you can drown out the crowd, but it’s not like that with puppets. A soon as people can’t hear what’s going on, they don’t care anymore.”

Santos reached out to a fellow puppeteer through Facebook this past year who brought another friend on board. The three-person Felt Show is now comprised of Santos, Cody Kiser and Jon Miller, and will be performing Tuesday at The Bottleneck, 737 New Hampshire St. Starting at 8:30 p.m., band Electric Needle Room, led by Matt Beat, will open the show, as well as contribute as a backing band for a couple of original songs they hope to turn into a puppet musical, and a few parodies— “Lean on Me” is turned into “D and D” or “Dungeons and Dragons” — some of which include puppets. Free Felt Show T-shirts will be given to attendees.

Rumback still makes puppet heads and flier artwork, and performs when time allows.

Their entire 45-minute show is made up of live and recorded sketches (to give the cast time to rest their arms) and music. They will tape the upcoming performance to use in a press kit where they hope to book a university tour across the states.

The Felt Show will also be making regular appearances at Jackpot, 943 Massachusetts St., for a monthly sketch night (dates and times TBD). Santos hopes the sketch night will provide an opportunity for writers from different backgrounds to meet and work together in the future.

"It's forming a community," he says. "I know there's a lot of funny people here in town. People that would be perfect for it but may night have the inspiration."

Headed to a writer’s retreat in Italy later this month, Santos, sees writing for puppet shows as a stepping stone to reach his goal of writing for television. Currently working at Minsky’s and Gaslight Gardens, in addition to The Felt Show, he’s never felt more confident about taking advantage of the comedic talent in Lawrence and following his dreams.

A message he tries to deliver in his skits is that you shouldn’t give up on any dream, despite any misery you may have faced in life.

“Usually people only see one path in front of them,” he says. “Put your life in order and do the things you want to do, and it’s probably taken me eight years to realize that.”

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