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Puppeteer lends hand to local cast

  • JAMM AQUINO / JAQUINO@STARADVERTISER.COM
    During rehearsals for the musical “Avenue Q” last month puppet character Kate (Jody Bill), left, laughs with Princeton (Elitei Tatafu Jr.), and “Gary Coleman,” right, played by Alison Maldonado at Manoa Valley Theatre.
  • COURTESY PHOTO
    Pam Arciero with Grundgetta of “Sesame Street.”
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Having multiple personalities is considered an affliction, or at least a little weird, but it’s provided fun and happiness — and an enriching career — for Pam Arciero for decades.

‘AVENUE Q’

When: 7:30 p.m. Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 4 p.m. Sundays; through April 3
Where: Manoa Valley Theatre, 2833 E. Manoa Road
Cost: $24-$39
Info: 988-6131, www.manoavalleytheatre.com
Note: Due to mature content, recommended for ages 14 and up

The Kalani High School and University of Hawaii graduate is a puppeteer, one of the best in the business, bringing life to Grundgetta on "Sesame Street" for more than two decades and inhabiting the mind, body and souls of countless puppets over the years.

"You can be anybody when you’re a puppeteer," said Arciero, who returned to Hawaii from her home in Connecticut recently to coach Manoa Valley Theatre’s production of "Avenue Q."

"As an actor, right now, I would be a 50ish-year-old woman. When I walk out on stage, there’s no choice, that’s what I am. (But) as a puppeteer, I can be a little girl, I can be an old man. I can be anything that I can find the wherewithal to find the character and the voice and the movement."

It is a skill that is both liberating and useful. When her children were small, Arciero used her Grundgetta voice to keep them from bothering her in the bathroom. She said one of her "Sesame Street" colleagues regularly slips into her alter ego to make snide comments about others. "Puppets can be incredibly insulting and people just take it," Arciero said.

During an interview with a reporter, she leaps from voice to voice and personality to personality. She is able to conjure an entire persona merely asking for bologna in a whiny, New York-accented voice. "They kind of live inside you and then they come out," Arciero said. "Sometimes they say things before I even know what they’re going to say."

Even as she grew up in Hawaii, she experimented with a French accent. More recently, her Hawaii background helped her in portraying Nani Bird, Big Bird’s auntie, a pidgin-speaking Muppet for a children’s video series.

A dance and theater major at UH, Arciero decided to study puppetry after Kermit Love, designer of the "Sesame Street" characters Big Bird and Snuffleupagus, gave a class on puppetry at Manoa. "I always liked to dance, I liked singing, and I liked acting, but I was also artsy-farty. I liked to make things, I liked sculpting. When you hit puppetry you combine all those skills," she said.

Arciero went on to graduate studies at the University of Connecticut, which has the largest puppetry program in the country. The college offers comprehensive training in stagecraft as well as instruction in the history and construction of puppets. Though Arciero was originally drawn to the Muppets — "How could you not like Grover?" — she has performed with all types of puppets, from marionettes to shadow and rod puppets.

Puppetry can be extremely physical work, Arciero said. For "Sesame Street," the puppeteers move around the set while kneeling on scooters, holding their puppets above their heads. Her dance background helped keep her in shape, but more importantly, it gave her insight into body movement.

"Basically you’re taking everything you do with your body and your face, and you’re putting it between your hand and your elbow," she said. "So you do need to have a sense of how things move and timing … It’s a lot of practice to make it look right, so you do it in the mirror, you do it on camera, you practice it over and over to get the right moves."

With the advent of computer-generated imagery in film and TV, one might wonder if puppetry on screen will become obsolete, but Arciero, one of perhaps 40 or 50 people in the country making a living as a puppeteer, believes it will continue to have a place. She points out that Yoda, the gremlinlike character in the "Star Wars" films, was a puppet in the earlier movies, but when the subsequent films used CGI to create him, fans didn’t like it. She has done commercials that combine puppetry and CGI.

Ultimately, puppetry appeals because it is a very "organic, very natural form" of expression, she said.

"What we all tend to do is anthropomorphize whatever it is we do. We want to see that human touch in whatever it is, whether it’s a car or a book or shoe that comes to life. And you want to know the story.

"I’ve seen shows where a teapot … brings tears to your eyes because of the movement and character that it embodies."

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