Puppeteer Brad Brewer directs The Brewery Troupe, an African-American puppet company bringing American history to life in innovative ways. In 1998, The Brewery Troupe and the Lemelson Center created a puppet play that shines a light on African-American inventor Lewis Latimer. In this podcast, Brewer outlines the opportunities and challenges of using puppets for biography.
"Prototype Online: Inventive Voices" is a podcast series produced by the Smithsonian's Lemelson Center. Written and hosted by Paul Rosenthal. Audio production by Benjamin Bloom. Theme music by Will Eastman. Art Molella, executive producer. Brad Brewer was originally interviewed on 20 March 2007 by Paul Rosenthal; podcast released 20 June 2007.
Tell us what you think! Take our podcast survey.
Paul Rosenthal: From the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, welcome to "Prototype Online: Inventive Voices," brought to you by the Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation, where we bring you a first person look at many of the interesting, thoughtful, and successful inventors and innovators of our time. I'm Paul Rosenthal.
Puppet 1: Inventions?
Puppet 2: That's what they do here. They help people register their inventions. Then a draftsman prepares invention drawings that show how they work.
Puppet 1: I can do that! I can learn how to be a draftsman. I'm pretty good at drawing.
Puppet 2: Why don't you watch how it's done? See what tools a draftsman uses.
Puppet 1: I'll do more than that. I believe that whatever people know, they put into a book. I'm going to get books on drafting. I'm going to teach myself.
Puppet 2: Say, that's good thinking!
Paul: It's probably not at the forefront of your mind, but if you were ever wondering how a man named Lewis Latimer got into the invention business back in the 19th century, you now have some of the answer. Of course, how you got that little history lesson may not have been in a manner you're used to. Because not everybody learns in the same way, being creative in how we present history is important. And insuring that the stories of lesser known, yet critically important, inventors is an important part of what we do at the Lemelson Center.
The clip you just heard about Lewis Latimer was taken from a project we commissioned to celebrate Latimer's 150th birthday in 1998. The son of slaves, this self educated man rose to become an inventor, poet and activist, and his story is one about the African American experience that every American should know.
With the help of the Brewery Troupe, we turned Latimer's story into a puppet play, which was performed here at the museum in December 1998 for school and family audiences. Founded by Brad Brewer in 1973, the Brewery Troupe interprets African American literature, music and humor through the multifaceted arts of puppet theater.
At first thought, the idea of mixing biography and puppets may seem a bit strange. After all, puppets are usually thought of first with comedy and light entertainment, but many biographies and film are entertainment by design, and just think of the rich and long history of puppetry across cultures. From the slick productions of modern Hollywood to the exquisite shadow puppetry of Southeast Asia, It's actually an art form that's well suited to biography.
I talked with Brad about the innovative art of puppetry and the challenges of bringing real history to life with puppets.
Brad Brewer: Well, I think a lot of children were first introduced to puppetry through television, and that's basically how I started. I watched a lot of puppets on television. I actually started as a ventriloquist, and by the time I was six years old I had a dummy. Every two years I would get a larger dummy, and by the time I was ten years old I was performing shows for parties.
Sometimes my parents' friends would have parties -- adult parties -- and they would invite me up and I would do a show, and most of the time, make fun of them. Always, I got some money. Sometimes $10. I even got $50 once.
And that coincided with the fact that I became interested in hand puppets and marionettes. Again, from watching television. By the time I was ten I had probably about 100 puppets.
My uncle, being an architectural student, built me this marionette puppet stage. We used to put on shows -- my sisters and my best friend and I put on shows every weekendand we would invite children down into the basement. We'd go all through the neighborhood and we'd have kids come over. We'd charge admission, my sisters would buy a box of Oreo cookies and we'd sell them for a nickel each.
The shows usually lasted for about two hours, and they were shows along the lines of "Little Red Riding Hood meets Godzilla."
Brad: They were very wild, free flowing shows, a lot of it improvised. I took the time to write the show during the week. Maybe out of ten pages of written script, one page would actually be spoken, the rest was improvised.
The kids would always be going wild, which would cause my mother to come to the top of the basement and yell down and tell us to be quiet.
But to me it was a business. I paid my friends, and kept the rest of the money and bought more art supplies.
Paul: That's interesting. You seem to catch on to a few different things there with regards to support from family and friends, looking at this as a creative outlet and an artistic outlet, and at the same time you said right there "This is a business, too." I think a lot of inventors can look at things in that same way.
It's a long way, if you want to track puppets and types of puppets to get from a Senor Wences to a Lambchop, Kermit the Frog and now all the animatronics that we see in films...
Brad: Sure, sure.
Paul: Tell me a little bit about the art of puppetry and the freedom you have to be inventive and innovative in your work. And I know that you had said, "Godzilla and Little Red Riding Hood," so the storyline, clearly, is an opportunity to be creative. What about the puppets themselves?
Brad: Well, again, that allows you to be as creative as you want it to be. My puppets, as an example, range from store bought puppets to hand made puppets, to taking the store bought puppets and transferring them into other characters, changing their anatomy, and their heads, and all sort of stuff.
Through that, I was able to experiment. And looking back on that time, it was basically experimenting. We saw what we liked on television, and we always thought to take it a step further. I was always very good in getting friends of mine to work with me, which proved to be very helpful when I went into it professionally. It's an unlimited process and it's unlimited imagination. Puppetry basically is animating the inanimate. You can take tennis balls and do a show with that, just by moving them around with your hands or tying a string onto them. It's endless.
Paul: Sometimes experiments go awry, have you ever had an experience where one of your experiments went wrong?
Brad: Oh, yeah.
Paul: Tell me about it.
Brad: Everything from knocking over the stage to doing a Godzilla puppet, for example, which had I don't know maybe about 50 strings, and the strings would pop. Or I would try to do something and the puppet would lose control, or we would lose actual control of the puppets, them coming out of our hands and everything.
Ventriloquism was the same thing. That was primarily my money making vehicle to fund the theater shows that we did. With ventriloquism, I was always playing around with testing the boundaries, sometimes getting in trouble for it in school. A lot of times antagonizing my sisters with it.
It allowed me to try different things. Different sounds, techniques. Again, as a student of puppetry, I watched very carefully any time a puppeteer would be on television.
Paul: You work now as a teacher of puppetry, as well. I know that some of the programs that you've joined us here at the Smithsonian have been even to lead workshops, and teaching young people to make puppets, and to use puppets. Tell me a little bit about that, and how the ties that you're able to connect with a child, and teaching them puppetry. Is it something with which you think it opens their eyes up in new ways about being inventive and innovative and...
Brad: Oh, certainly. You have an advantage, from the beginning, once you introduce puppetry into a program with children. Not that long ago I was working with Mister Rogers down in Pittsburgh on a project, and we were standing behind the camera. He came up to me and asked me how I got involved.
I told him how, like yourself, I used to go see Bill Baird whenever he came to New York. I was a big fan of Bill Baird. My mother and my sisters would be there, and he came over to me one day, backstage, and he put his arm around me, and he took me on a tour of every puppet backstage. I never forgot that. Because I was such a big fan of his, it really meant a lot to me.
I was telling Mister Rogers this story, and I make it a policy whenever we perform to allow kids to come backstage and see the puppets and sometimes pull the strings, or even put a puppet on their hand. I told Mister Rogers I did this because you never knew who was going to be the next Bill Baird.
Mister Rogers characteristically replied, "Or the next you." I never thought about that, and it kind of brought it home to me. Now with teaching puppetry, I teach language arts skills through puppetry, and reading, and writing. I take that very seriously. It is something I never really thought about, but then again, why not?
Paul: Have you had an opportunity to be with any kids who have continued with it? Who have stuck with it and have learned from you and realized that this is something that they want to do?
Brad: Yeah, I have a... There's a kid, I cannot remember his name, out of Chicago. He had seen puppets that I built in the Puppetry Journal, which is the magazine published by the Puppeteers of America. He wrote me a letter, and I corresponded with him. I sent him some pictures. Now, he's doing it professionally.
When I first started my own company as an adult, just about everyone who worked with me had never had any previous experience with puppets. They were either actors or artists. They were just fascinated with the whole idea of doing the type of shows that we were doing. Many of them have gone on and formed their own companies or they do it on a solo basis. It's what it's all about. Passing it along.
Paul: How do you think the Brewery Troupe stands as an unique and innovative organization, to be able to tell these stories through puppets?
Brad: Well, first of all, our company is an African-American company. We have achieved a distinctive accomplishment. We're the only African American puppet theater to ever appear on network television, in a motion picture, on Broadway, and on television. Our stories pretty much reflect our cultural background. A lot of shows involve jazz. Even when we did the show for the Lemelson Center, Lewis Latimer, jazz was very important in terms of moving the story along.
In a lot of ways, we not only introduced them to the stories and the subject, but to the music itself, and so that's been a cornerstone of the Brewery Troupe since we've started.
Paul: I want to get to Lewis Latimer and that program in a moment, but let me ask you first... This idea of using puppets to present a biography. Are all individuals able to have stories told with puppets, or does it take a certain special kind of person?
Brad: Yeah. Lewis Latimer was unique. It was a scientific program so some of the inventions that were very scientific, we had to find a way of presenting that within the framework of the puppets themselves.
Not every story, I think, lends itself to a puppet show, but there are ways to introduce the subject individually with puppets. It's a definite guarantee that you'll have the children's attention.
Paul: What are the kinds of challenges that you think that you faced in bringing to life a dead inventor in Lewis Latimer, someone who rightly deserves a prominent place in American History? The record on him is not as popular as some of his contemporaries at the time.
Brad: No, it's not. Working for the Smithsonian itself. Working for the Lemelson Center itself was a very unique experience for myself. A lot of our shows... To give you an example, we a show that's kind of like Duke Ellington. It's a fantasy about Duke Ellington, and I took a lot of liberties with the story. It's not a biography. It's a fantasy about two boys who run away from home to go join the Duke Ellington Band.
When we were doing Lewis Latimer, and I wanted to write the script. I had to write the script. There were many things that I wanted to include that were not historically accurate, but I thought it would help move along the story. We were held on a tight rope. Everything that we included had to be documented historically.
Sometimes it was very frustrating. It was always challenging. In the end, I was glad that we did. I'm glad that we had that criteria placed on us because we were able to tell the story. We were able to tell the story in an interesting way. In doing research to justify certain elements of the story that I wanted to include, I learned much more about him, and so that found it's way into the script, and think it gave a more full biography of this man.
Paul: Yeah, moving from historic fact into historical fiction, it's how much do you have to do in order to have a nice moving storyline, I guess, but still be able to ensure that the story that you're telling is one that isn't really embellished, in a way.
Did you find that you had to cut things out about Lewis Latimer's life?
Brad: Yeah. Very little. What we didn't include was some of the things that he did over in Europe. That was just more of a logistical problem, in terms of how we were going to set up the scene for that. We had so much stuff included, just from what he did here in the United States. Some of his accomplishments included street lamps.
It was just a matter of space for us to do that, and we weren't able to really put it into the story so that it flowed the way I wanted it to.
I think that Lewis Latimer was very interesting in that his story actually started before he was born. The historical figures that played a major role in his life was something that I was not familiar with before I started doing the research. We were able to include that into the show. Frederick Douglass, Alexander Graham Bell, Maxim.
And with further research, we found out that his father's case, being an escaped slave, actually influenced the Supreme Court Dred Scott decision. That was something that I was not aware of, but yet I thought it was something that needed to be told and included into the story.
I was happy that the Lemelson Center allowed me to do that. They were not easy with me about that. I had to read about the Dred Scott case. I had to justify it, and sometimes it was frustrating, but it was always exciting. It was always interesting.
Paul: Brad, what do you think is the future of puppetry? Where do we go from here? What are some of the things that we'll be seeing in coming years that may be the next steps, if there are any, in terms of what we see with puppetry?
Brad: I think for that, we have to really thank Jim Henson. Jim Henson was a genius who really looked beyond the simple puppet of Kermit the Frog. In fact, he revolutionized puppetry. People began to look at puppets on television in a different way. The lip syncing. Playing to the cameras as opposed to playing to a live audience.
He was the one who introduced automatronics, which is now a staple of a lot of special effects movies. I think with the success of the Lion King on Broadway, tremendous success that showed a different way of presenting puppets.
Puppetry is all about the imagination. I think what it did was give a green light to everybody. If you didn't know it before, you definitely know now that it has no boundaries. I think, no matter what the technology is, puppetry will always be around, and will always play a major role in the arts.
Paul: Do you think that, in some sense though, that there might be a danger that computer graphics, and the computer generated images might take away some of that?
Brad: I don't think so because with all of the technology that that involves, the human element still exists. The human element is the articulation of the form by somebody's hand. Animating it by hand. You get a nice 3D look through the computerized animation, but there's something very distinct, and all you have to do is look at a typical Muppet movie and look at any of these current movies "Happy Feet," "Shrek" any of those types of films.
Even if you compare Yoda in the "Star Wars" films, if you compare the Yoda of let me see if I can get this right the last three chapters to the Yoda of the first three chapters. There's something very human about Yoda when he was directly manipulated by Frank Oz as opposed to how he appeared in the last trilogy that was released. I think that when you look at it years from now, people will agree that there was something very lifelike, and I don't think that that is something that is going to disappear.
Paul: Brad Brewer, always a pleasure to speak with you, and looking forward to seeing you again when you run through town.
Brad: Thank you very much.
Paul: Thanks, Brad.
Doc: Yeah, Buddy. Lewis Latimer had lots of talents. He could draw, and he could invent. He could play music and write poetry. He could figure out how to do things when there weren't any instructions.
Buddy: Man, Doc! What more could he have done?
Doc: Well, he was also one of Edison's patent investigators, and a prime expert witness in court when other inventors or manufacturers tried to use Edison's patents without Edison's permission.
Lewis Latimer could explain things so people could understand easily. We was even asked to write a book about Thomas Edison's electric light system, and it sold a lot of copies. You can bet on that.
Buddy: You know, Doc. I saw a movie about Thomas Edison starring Spencer Tracy. No Lewis Latimer.
Doc: And you probably won't find him in that movie about Alexander Graham Bell staring Don Ameche, but if someone decides to make another one about Bell and Edison, I'm sure they will include Lewis Latimer.
Buddy: Hey, they can make a whole movie on Lewis by himself. They could make big goofy money! I mean, they could do all kinds of things! Every... Well, you know. People could learn a lot about American history.
Doc: You know something Buddy, all through Lewis' life, he believed that education and a touch of innovation held the key to success. And when young inventors needed inspiration, he hoped they would look to his career just as he looked to his parents, George and Rebecca, for guidance.
Paul: Thanks for listening to Prototype Online: Inventive Voices. Brought to you from the Smithsonian's Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation at the National Museum of American History. I'm Paul Rosenthal.
We're anxious to hear your thoughts about this program, or any others from the Lemelson Center. Send us an email. The address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Learn more about the Smithsonian's Lemelson Center on the web at invention.smithsonian.org.
We'll be back again soon with another edition of "Prototype Online: Inventive Voices" for another look at the great inventors and innovators of the 20th and 21st centuries.