Leslie Carrara-Rudolph — puppeteer, Muppeteer and featured performer at the Orlando Puppet Festival — was having a rough day when we spoke on the morning after Halloween. A shipping- company snafu was forcing her to entrust her felt friends to the tender mercies of airline baggage handlers.
"Don't tell anyone this, but I'm not cutting any air holes. The puppets will just have to hold their breath," she joked, understandably anxious about their odds of safe arrival.
You might consider this cross-continent trek not to be worth the travel hassle for one of the hottest talents in children's television. But for Carrara-Rudolph, this weekend's shows are more than a gig; they're a homecoming.Her Orlando roots go back to storytelling at Downtown Disney (when it was still called the Village Marketplace) and performing in the Hoop-De-Doo Revue dinner show. She was also active in the local non-tourist theater community, starring in The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe and Parallel Lives at the former Civic Theatres of Central Florida (now the Orlando Repertory Theatre).
"I love the Civic because they were so supportive of me as an artist," she says, crediting the theater for helping launch her career. She's remembered that debt, returning for fundraisers at Mad Cow to cover hospice expenses for Debbie Dean, the former Civic's beloved box-office manager.
Connections forged while warming up audiences at the defunct Disney-MGM soundstages led Carrara-Rudolph to a black-box showcase in Los Angeles. Her performance of Life in Other People's Shoes, the one-woman show she developed at the Civic, caught the attention of some of the Jim Henson Company writers. That led to a cattle-call audition for veteran Muppeteer Bill Barretta (Pepe the King Prawn), at which she acted out The Wizard of Oz in three minutes, a "trick" she used to perform while playing the maid at Pleasure Island's Adventurers Club. Before she knew it, Carrara-Rudolph was playing Spamela Hamderson and other characters on the short-lived Muppets Tonight with no prior puppeteering experience. "I went to work every day thinking, ‘I'm going to get fired.'?"
But she learned quickly enough to outlast the series and went on to portray popular characters like Ginger on Johnny and the Sprites and Abby Cadabby on Sesame Street alongside her "hero" Fran Brill, the "incredibly loving" first female puppeteer hired by Jim Henson.
Carrara-Rudolph's puppet career hasn't been strictly kid-oriented. She was in the classic evil-puppet "Smile Time" episode of Angel and the raunchy Judd Apatow—produced Forgetting Sarah Marshall (check the DVD's deleted scenes). And she's effusive about her experience with the "brilliant" Patrick Bristow of the Groundlings, who coached Brian Henson's Puppet Up! improv troupe.
Puppet Up! grew from an informal employee-only show on the Henson lot to a well-received outing at the Aspen Comedy Festival, and eventually went on a four-week tour of Australia.
"There are 60 puppets on stage," she explains. "You get a suggestion … you pick a character, and all of the sudden you are a caveman and a beaver on a date."
Despite these adult-oriented entries on her résumé, don't expect her OPF show Lolly Learns to be R-rated like her Johnny and the Sprites co-star John Tartaglia's Avenue Q. "I'd rather not have my puppets swear and have sex to be funny," she says, admitting to unease with blue material. But neither is her show, involving a girl who takes her brain out for a walk because "it won't shut up at night," geared to the under-age-5 set: "I take my brain out of my head, people. That can be scary."
While her art is "intergenerational," her target audience is around 11 years old, the age that she was when a motorcycle accident claimed her older brother's life. The tragedy had a profound impact on her family, and community theater, after-school activities and television comedy provided an vital artistic outlet for her emotions.
"I remember sitting and watching Carol Burnett with my mom and dad, and grandpa and grandma, three generations. … Friday nights were the only time my family laughed and was happy," she says. "Everyone was taken out of reality and had a moment to feel something together … that's what I want to be."
As a result, her show has a handmade aesthetic — the sock-puppet star is a "modern-day Raggedy Ann," and other characters are cobbled together from dryer hoses and old slippers — designed to encourage "old-fashioned creative play." The work-in-progress piece is heavily audience-participatory, so that "kids in the audience feel like they have an artistic impact on the show." Her ultimate aim is to encourage creative expression in kids who aspire, like she did, "to be Mary Poppins and Willy Wonka" when they grow up.
"I feel like I fell down the rabbit hole," she effuses about her life and career. "I have no idea what's at the end of the roller coaster, if it's water or Jell-O." Either way, it sounds like an interesting ride.
FOURTH ANNUAL ORLANDO PUPPET FESTIVAL
Find full details for all events at www.orlandopuppetfestival.com
- 6 p.m. Opening reception at Gallery at Avalon Island; free.
- 7 p.m. Performance Shorts: A Show of Shows Round 1! at Mad Cow Theatre and Gallery at Avalon Island; $15.
- 9 p.m. Orlando Film Festival Presents: Puppet Shorts With Artist TalkBack at CityArts Factory; free.
- 8 a.m.-10 a.m. Breakfast with the artists at the Breakfast Club.
- 10 a.m.-noon City of Orlando Veteran's Day Parade, starts on Robinson Street, between Rosalind Avenue and Eola Drive.
- 12:30 p.m. Helvetia 1965 at Gallery at Avalon Island; free.
- 1 p.m. Post Parade Shows!; free.
- 4 p.m. Somebunny Special at Mad Cow Theatre; $5.
- 6 p.m. Performance Shorts: A Show of Shows Round 2! at Mad Cow Theatre; $15.
- 8 p.m. Lolly Learns at Mad Cow Theatre; $15.
- 9:30 p.m. Puppets From the Edge at Mad Cow Theatre; adults only; $8.
- 8 a.m.-10 a.m. Breakfast with the artists at the Breakfast Club.
- 10 a.m.-1 p.m. Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sesame Street but Didn't Know Who to Ask, brunch with Fran Brill, principal puppeteer of Prairie Dawn and Zoe from Sesame Street, at Orange County Regional History Center; $25; RSVP by Nov. 6; 407-836-6751.
- 11 a.m. Orlando Film Festival Presents: Puppet Shorts With Artist TalkBack at Gallery at Avalon Island; free.
- 12:30 p.m. and 2 p.m. Cracker Cinderella at Mad Cow Theatre; $5.
- 1 p.m. and 7 p.m. Lolly Learns at Mad Cow Theatre; $15.
- 2:30 p.m. Polichinelle and the Big Surprise at Gallery at Avalon Island; free.
- 3 p.m. Danny the Diver and Luna at Orange County Regional History Center; $8.
- 4 p.m. Mad Hatter Tea Party on lawn outside Lake Eola amphitheater; free.
- 4:30 p.m. Puss N Boots at Lake Eola amphitheater; free.
- 8:30 p.m. Potpourri of Puppets Cabaret at Mad Cow Theatre; adults only; $8.