My Soapbox: Terrence Burke, Wump Mucket Puppets

Terrence Burke is dedicated to sharing joy and spreading knowledge with Wump Mucket Puppets, a silly, colorful show he puts on with help from his own family. All original characters such as Coleman the Sasquatch and Cyril the Sea Serpent delight children and adults alike with their irreverent brand of goofiness. Stemmed from a lifetime love of the art, Burke’s kid-friendly performances are available for booking now.

How would you describe your act?

I have created a puppet show that I would have wanted to watch when I was seven years old in 1971. Saturday morning kids' TV had me glued to our set; I soaked enough of it up that I can still share what I enjoyed with the children in my audience today. 

My show is broken up into to collection of two- to three-minute bits, much like the television shows from my youth, to keep the audience engaged with what's happening on the puppet stage. My puppet characters are inspired by my interests in cryptozoology, UFOs and strange beasts. Nothing scary though—I do not want children to develop a fear of puppets—my cast is sweet and silly.

During the show, the puppets sing original tunes, tell silly jokes or riddles, play a game, even adapt a classic fairy tale with a Wump Mucket Puppets spin of course. This year we are presenting “Elvis and The Shoemaker” which came about during a brainstorming session with my wife and daughter this past winter. The puppets even pitch a make-believe cereal, “Super Sugar Crunchy Things”!

As a father of two youngsters, I perform puppetry that is entertainment for the entire family. Sadly, I find that good clean humor is lacking in so much of the entertainment that is offered these days. You do not have to resort to a burp or fart joke to get a laugh. That's lazy. I find that silliness works very well. In fact, I have performed shows where children and their parents, or grandparents, approach me after the puppet show to tell me how much they enjoyed my show. Good humor is ageless.

What made you decide to begin professional puppetry? 

In 2001, I was trying to cope with my father's very sudden death. Things were not looking bright for me, so with my wife's urging I sought professional help to deal with the depression that was consuming me. During a session, the question “What makes you happy?” came up. 

My answer was puppets. The doctor then asked what I was going to do about it. Within a week I joined the Cincinnati Area Puppetry Guild and Puppeteers of America. In 2003, I organized Cincinnati's very first puppet slam at the Monmouth Theatre and continued to learn all I could about puppetry through books and videos.

When our daughter and son were born, I would entertain them with the puppets that I was creating. I would sing little songs, or put on an act for them. Then, when my daughter Eleanor was in preschool, her teacher approached me. My daughter had told her that I was a puppeteer and built puppets. The teacher asked if I would bring them in to show them to the class. I agreed and recall wondering just how I was going to do that. I knocked together a 10-minute show that the students enjoyed, even though my hands were shaking quite a bit. As I packed up the puppets, the teacher came up to me and said that she really enjoyed what I was doing and that I should do it more often. With that vote of confidence I was ready to take my puppets to the public.

My early performances were at the Northside Farmers Market and Sidewinder Coffee Shop, where I performed for spare change. Friends and neighbors would come to the shows and encourage me. Their laughter and applause was all I needed to know that I had found my calling in life, to be the puppeteer that I had dreamed of being as a young boy.

What's the best venue for a puppet show? Parties? Theaters?

Every venue is unique. I have squished myself into the corner of a basement for a birthday party and performed for a festival on Fountain Square. If given the choice, I would have to say that libraries or classrooms are preferable. First off, I do not have to worry about the wind or the weather. Puppet stages turn into giant kites quickly with a sudden gust of wind. Where my puppets are just a little larger than my hands, the intimacy of a smaller hall or classroom helps my audience connect with the characters.

In the end, though, I 'll perform whereever I am wanted.

Do you ever do shows just for adults?

When I was first starting out, I performed short pieces at puppet slams for adults. However, these days, as a performer for children and families, I am very cautious of using my characters in a performance that deals with adult material. My wife Lara and I have been developing some material that we plan to perform for adults, but it will not be using any of the Wump Mucket Puppets characters. One of these acts will be a version of Punch and Judy set in late 1970s London.

What's the most underrated puppet show that everyone should know about?

All puppeteers deserve the attention and love from an audience. It's not an easy artform, and very few people are getting rich from being a puppeteer. To see a room full of people motivates the performer to connect with their audience, whether they are children or adults.

Cincinnati is fortunate to have several puppet troupes of varying styles, and each of them is worthy of a full house. I am very fond of the work of Kevin Frisch and Jesse Mooney-Bullock, both of whom I have had the pleasure of sharing the stage with. They are extremely talented craftsmen, and wonderful storytellers.

Our city has a rich history in the world of puppetry, and I encourage everyone to enjoy a puppet show when they have the opportunity.

Why is puppetry an important art?

It is important because so many artistic skills must be used to give pieces of fabric or wood the illusion of life. With my show I create the initial designs of the puppets, build them with my wife, write the skits, compose the songs and finally perform the entire show live. We are playwrights, musicians, craftsmen, actors, even website designers all rolled into one. 

Puppeteers are truly jacks of all trades, and that is what I love about it!

What advice would you give to burgeoning performers?

Be yourself. Several years ago, I was asked if I wanted to be the next Jim Henson; my reply was that I was happy being the first Terrence Burke. Henson certainly inspired many puppeteers, myself included, yet if he were alive today, I am sure he would encourage everyone to develop their own style. Hone your skills to create the puppet show that you want to see first—your audience will find you. Experiment with different styles, make a few mistakes along the way, and you'll come out a stronger puppeteer in the end. Through puppetry, you can take your audience anywhere that your imagination wishes. That is the magic of it allyour imagination is limitless. 

The two rules that I follow are share the knowledge and spread the joy. It is my desire that this joy comes through in my performance and inspires others to create and keep this ancient art alive. As I have the puppets say at the end of every show, puppets ROCK!
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