Katy Williams fell into puppeteering through her love of theater and now shares her enthusiasm with puppet performances and workshops for all ages. From a pair of eyeballs perched on her hand to a life-sized Pegasus puppet, Williams works in all sizes and flits through theatrical mediums like the pro that she is, demonstrating expertise in both traditional forms and multimedia shadow puppetry. And she's a community-minded puppeteer, single-handedly producing the quarterly Rocky Mountain Puppet Slam and otherwise boosting her preferred art form.
Learn how she pulls all those strings as Williams answers the Colorado Creatives questionnaire.
Westword: What (or who) is your creative muse?
Katy Williams: Oh, man…so many people. But as far as puppetry goes, I would have to say Handspring Puppet Company. They are the geniuses behind the War Horse stage-play puppets. The Joey horse puppet was one of the first puppets I saw that made me say, “That. I want to do that.” I loved them so much, I built a life-sized Pegasus puppet inspired by them for my senior thesis at the University of Denver. If you have never seen the puppet, Google it now! It's worth it. Locally, I am in love with all the puppets Cory Mooseman creates, and literally everything Pandemic Collective’s artistic director, Rhea Amos, puts her hands on.
Which three people, dead or alive, would you like to invite to your next party, and why?
I finally have been asked this question! Coming from a purely creative perspective (I could go on so many tangents otherwise, haha), I would love to meet Rachel Chavkin. She is the director of the recent Tony Award-winning Hadestown — and all-time lady boss. I think her directing style and the way she uses the Viewpoints system (architecture, space, rhythm, etc.) is just astounding. I was lucky enough to see Hadestown in previews this April and was absolutely blown away by every element.
Another one of my passions is teaching fitness. I teach a dance class called Oula, but recently I have started teaching mermaid swim lessons! And boy, it is freaking magical. There is a company called Finfolk Productions that creates these absolutely gorgeous silicone tails. Their work is breathtaking, and I would love to talk to the creators, Abby and Bryn Roberts (also lady bosses), about their process in designing and fabricating their functional works of art.
Kirk Thatcher is a huge name in the puppet/special effect/movie world. He seems like a dude who would be the life of the party, telling crazy stories from the set and sharing his fabricating techniques as he goes. He worked with Jim Henson, among other things, and produced/designed the Netflix show The Curious Creations of Christine McConnell.
How did you end up a puppeteer in the first place?
I started puppetry in high school in a production of Avenue Q. A local builder, Cory Moosman (who is still my puppet friend today), built these gorgeous puppets, and as soon as I tried on Kate Monster, I felt it. I had always loved acting, but something about taking all the energy from my body and giving it to something else so that it can be alive was just magical. I always liked any kind of animation games as a kid, playing with toys, making things come alive, putting on shows, so it was a natural progression for me to become a puppeteer.
My mom was a huge influence in my creative life. She was always making art, perhaps sewing a costume, painting or helping me with projects. I definitely got my creative side and talents from her. And my dad is a brilliant businessman and full of logic, so he was a great influence on me for the business side. Honestly, they were a perfect pair to give me the skills I needed to get where I am today.
My career didn't really start, though, until my last year of college. I was studying theater and neuroscience at the University of Denver, and every time there was an opportunity for a research project, I turned to puppetry (probably much to my professors’ annoyance). At DU, seniors have to produce a show for their thesis. I decided to take that a level further and do a completely original, large-scale puppet show. It told the Greek myth of Pegasus and included three styles of puppetry, one being a seven-foot-long, life-sized Pegasus. I remounted that show with Rhen Hirsh at the Fort Collins Fringe Festival last summer.
Finally, my background as an artist and a performer was coming together in the best way possible. The success of that huge risk I took in college jump-started everything else. In 2014, I graduated and did an internship at a theater in Maine, where I continued to build and be a puppeteer.
When I got back to Colorado, I was a bit lost. I knew I needed money to live in Denver, and there was this puppetry thing that I loved, but I wasn’t sure how to put them together. I got a fantastic day job as a trainer at a hospital, and soon after was looking for any puppetry gigs in town. But here's the thing: There really weren’t any.
I had been to the National Puppet Festival a few times, and at the festival there is an event called the Puppet Slam. Puppet slams are like open-mic nights for puppetry. Performers get a five-minute slot to do any kind of puppetry. Puppet slams happen all over the country, but we had a huge hole in Colorado. I knew this might not be the Denver theater scene's typical night out, so I organized the slam at a bar. This made the slam much more low-key and accessible to patrons.
I finally had met enough puppeteers crawling out of the woodwork to have an actual event. I had no idea how much work it would be to produce the slam, but I am so thankful for it, because out of that has come puppetry awareness, job offers and, of course, three slams a year.
Currently, I am working on my biggest gig to date: building puppets for Phamaly Theatre Company’s summer production of Chicago at the Denver Performing Arts Complex. I can sense that I am on the precipice of the next big step in my career. I am not sure what it looks like, but I am oh-so-excited to be stepping closer to the edge.
What advice would you give a young hopeful in your field?
You have to love the hustle. My friends and family are always telling me that they don’t know how I do it, or how do I keep getting all these gigs, or when do I have time for four jobs! Well, because I love the hustle. I love being busy and meeting people and networking. But it took me a while to realize how important and hard the hustle is.
So often I see artists who are crazy-talented but are not getting any work. You have to have talent to be an artist, but you need to have perseverance and dedication to make it as one. I am nowhere near “making it” yet, but I have been working hard every day toward that goal. I probably put in about ten, twenty hours a week on top of my day job and fitness classes to “make it.”
Also, if you want to do something and there is not any opportunity to do it, carve a path for yourself! Make the gigs come to you. That is exactly what I had to do with puppetry. There was not a huge need for it in Denver, but as people started coming to the slams and seeing the potential, beyond Sesame Street or Avenue Q, I started getting more job offers. If your dream job doesn’t really exist, then create it!
There is this silly picture I have hanging in my studio that says “Bless This Mess,” and I feel like that really encapsulates my life as an artist. And, yes, it is very tiring. But when I see a room full of 200 people who are all there to support me and watch some puppetry, that is the ultimate reward.
You’ve come this far in life. What’s still on your bucket list?
Someday I would love to be working full-time as an artist. I want to be known in Colorado as “that one puppet lady”! But it would be a dream come true to do this full-time and maybe someday get into the big leagues. I recently saw King Kong on Broadway. (Quick side note: Please go Google the twenty-foot, 2,000-pound King Kong marionette puppet that is on Broadway right now. It’s unreal.) When he came on stage and reached out his hand above the audience, I started bawling because so many people were enjoying this thing that I love so much. Seeing the joy on their faces was the best feeling. And as I was leaving the theater, I was excited that my art form is becoming more mainstream, and that theater artists are recognizing it for its true potential. I want to be a person who creates bridges, who is innovative, who is successful. And most important, who is happy.
What’s your dream project?
I would love to be fabricating and building puppets for big theatrical stage shows, such as Disney productions. (Anyone see the Sven puppet in Frozen ? Dang, this “to Google” list is growing by the second!) Owning my own production company where I can collaborate and work with the best humans every day is the dream. And I really love puppeteering.
More often, I am asked to fabricate rather than perform, which is great, but way deep down I am still a nerdy theater kid at heart who needs the stage! Thankfully, there are not too many puppeteers in Colorado — or the world — so there is definitely a need to be filled. But I prefer lifelike and shadow-puppetry over the typical hand puppet, like the Muppets or Avenue Q. I am much more fascinated by bringing something to life fully, and not having to remember lines or come up with voices. Hence why I love the life-sized creature puppets so much!
Denver, love it or leave it? What keeps you here — or makes you want to leave?
I am a native (whoop whoop!) who grew up in the mountains of Manitou Springs. I definitely have a wanderlust and want to live in other places, but most of my family is here, and Colorado is obviously the best state, so I decided to stay. And now I am at this point in my career where people in Denver are starting to know my name. I want to build that up more before I move and have to start all over again. Denver is also a great theater town! It’s very established, but also has that up-and-coming kind of feel. And there is hardly any puppetry here, so I am working hard to change that.
Who is your favorite Colorado Creative?
Right now I would have to shout out to my friend Rhea Amos. I have known Rhea a long time, and we grew up doing theater together. We reconnected after a while, and I have always been so impressed with her hustle and creativity. We talk all the time about how we are both (very exhausted) kindred spirits. She started her own horror theater company, the Pandemic Collective. Last April I finally got the chance to collaborate with her on a spooky shadow show called Laveau. That collaboration really let me see how much of a badass lady boss Rhea is. I want to be her when I grow up, even though she is also in her twenties and has her own company!
What's on your agenda in the coming year?
So many fun things! Every three months I produce the Rocky Mountain Puppet Slam, which is an event that feels like a puppet open-mic night. It is a curated (free!) night at a local bar where puppeteers from all over the region get to perform five-minute acts. And the work that is coming out of these slams is astonishing. The last slam in March had 200 people crammed into the Black Buzzard downtown. It was so inspiring. The next slam is July 11 at the Black Buzzard.
I am also starting a new festival this year called Puppet Palooza. It is going to be a puppetry festival geared toward kids. The slam is mostly for adults, and I saw a need for a family-friendly puppet event, so I decided to fill it! That event will feature performers, interactive workshops, vendor booths and more! It is August 17 at the Stanley Marketplace.
I am always busy doing one-off puppetry workshops and renting out my puppets to local theaters, so I have some of that coming up as well. I have really been loving this new venture, where I do live shadow puppetry for bands as they perform. I did a house show with Estival on Memorial Day weekend, and it was incredible, so I am looking forward to collaborating with more local bands on live concert puppetry and music videos.
Right now I am also designing the puppets for my biggest client yet, Phamaly Theatre Company. I am creating puppets for two songs in their summer show, Chicago, at the Denver Performing Arts Complex. I am thrilled to be a part of this company for the summer.
In addition to puppetry design, I do a lot of prop design for local theaters in town. My next one will be for the Aurora Fox’s Twist Your Dickens. I also do prosthetic fabrication and special-effects makeup, so I will be returning to the Denver Zombie Crawl this October to sell my work!
Who do you think will (or should) get noticed in the local arts community in the coming year?
Oh, man, as far as puppetry goes, there are some fantastic artists here. I mentioned Cory Moosman. He and Sammy Gleason run a company in Pueblo called WYNOT Productions, and the stuff they make is screen-ready quality. They are my favorite people to go to with build questions, and I love helping out in the studio because it is so dang inspiring and educational.
Last slam I met Meghan Casey, who is a fantastic local puppeteer. She is a young, enthusiastic ventriloquist (the only one I know in Colorado so far) who can really light up a room and is extremely talented.
On the not-puppet side, I am expecting big things from some local musicians. Erik Fellenstein is like a god of music, and I had the pleasure of working with him on a couple of puppet projects recently. He and his bandmates in Lapompe are super-cool dudes who are wickedly talented. I hope they get big this year.
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Another musician I love is Bellhoss. Becky [Hostetler] is a down-to-earth songwriter who has a smokey voice that fits so well in our current music scene. She is definitely going to be big here in the near future.
See Katy Williams and others in the Front Range puppeteering community at the Summer Rocky Mountain Puppet Slam, 7:30 to 10:30 p.m. Thursday July 11, at the Black Buzzard, 1624 Market Street. Admission is free, but donations of $5 to $10 to benefit the Denver Actors Fund are suggested; pre-register at the Facebook event page.
Phamaly Theatre Company presents Chicago August 1 through 25 in the Studio Loft at the Ellie Caulkins Opera House, Denver Performing Arts Complex. Tickets for August 1 and 2 previews start at $25; tickets for the regular run, opening August 3, start at $40. Learn more and get tickets at denvercenter.org.