I met a man who can literally make magic. Any creature, be it real or imagined, if you can dream it, he can make it, using just his imagination and a little bit of elbow grease.
His name is Seth Chappell, and he creates puppets.
For about the last 15 years, Chappell has owned and operated the Quad Cities-based puppetry workshop FoamFoolery. He’s created puppets for many local theatre companies, including Davenport Junior Theatre, Circa ’21 and Playcrafters, as well as props for music videos.
This year, he will be completing his seventh show with Lancer Productions.
Chappell’s first show with LP was in the spring of 2017, when he created Flotsam and Jetsam puppets for Disney’s “The Little Mermaid.” Since then, he’s done a puppet of Aslan for “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” singing fruits and various other creatures for “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” a group of Oompa Loompas for “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” the Sour Kangaroo’s baby for “Seussical,” head-gear and accessories for Maleficent in Disney’s “The Descendants,” and now, this weekend and next, you’ll be able to see his latest creations, Olaf and Sven the Reindeer in Disney’s “Frozen Jr.”
Chappell might be one of the luckiest people in the world, because he gets to work an actual dream job. He describes himself as a giant kid with a “Santa Claus/Willy Wonka complex, because that’s what I do, that’s where I live, in that world of imagination that doesn’t really technically exist. And I love it there.”
Coming to puppets was easy in terms of the why – Chappell has always been a creative person. “I was always doing something with my hands, always trying to create in one way or another.” The how is a little less straightforward.
“I have no formal training. Literally none,” he laughs. “Anything and everything I’ve done with FoamFoolery has literally come from my head … I’m self-taught as far as legitimately being a puppet creator.”
As a child, he began building models for his Star Wars action figures out of masking tape and cardboard – things he thought would be fun, as opposed to models that could be store-bought. Eventually, this led to making 3-D things with paper and masking tape. When he was 10, he was able to take a puppet-making class through Augustana College’s Kaleidoscope art program, and created his very first puppet, a three-foot-tall monster.
While attending Moline High School, he participated in the theatre program, doing set construction, tech work and props. He continued doing theatre when he moved on to Black Hawk College, both onstage and off, where he learned he loved being in front of an audience.
At the time, he entertained notions of becoming a drama teacher, but after graduating from Black Hawk, he went into restaurant and retail management. And then about 15 years ago, while managing a Hot Topic store, he got his big break.
Hot Topic has an inter-company magazine, and Chappell wanted to get a piece in. Through the years, he’d made friends with a number of musicians, including members of the heavy-metal band Anthrax. So he arranged an interview with drummer Charlie Benante. The phone conversation went great. Writing an article … less so. The piece was rejected by Hot Topic.
But Chappell had a ton of audio that he still wanted to do something with. Benante is a fan of Tim Burton’s “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” so Chappell originally entertained doing a stop-motion version of the interview, but scrapped that idea as being far too time consuming. “So I made my first puppet of Charlie. And then it was this video of me, and then his responses with the puppet. And that’s where it all started. Taking other people’s audio and lip syncing it to a puppet of themselves.”
From there, Chappell began taking commissions for puppets while working in retail. Then, Jessica Sheridan from Davenport Junior Theatre approached him about creating a monkey puppet for a production of “Aladdin.”
Since then, Chappell’s done nothing but puppets, and FoamFoolery was born.
“It all kind of blossomed from there,” he says. “I saw an opportunity, and I said to myself, “Wow, if I have the opportunity to not only return to theatre in one way, shape or form, but I have the opportunity to teach the puppeteers and really kind of be that person that I always kind of saw myself being down the road.
“I had an employer at one point in my life who was very much the kind of person that’s ‘You want to be remembered.’ He would say, ‘If I can offer you one little thing that you remember from here on out, then I’ve done my job.’ So I’ve always tried to do that in my previous jobs, and then I’ve tried to do that now. I try to make a mark for the positive. Try to give a little bit back to the people, and they can maybe share that out with their own performance and art.”
Olaf for Lancer Productions
In a way, Chappell is now living out his dreams of being a drama teacher. He now teaches his own Kaleidoscope classes, as well as puppetry workshops, including at North Scott’s Children’s Theatre Workshop. In addition to working with North Scott, he also created puppets for a production of “Shrek” at Bettendorf High School that was unfortunately cancelled due to Covid. “I’ve been really lucky with the organizations that I’ve worked with that they see the positivity of puppetry or having puppets in a production,” he says.
So how does Chappell go about building a puppet? In most cases, it starts with a phone call. Specifically, in the case of “Frozen Jr.,” it started with a text from LP’s Stacie Kintigh that literally said, “Do you want to build a snowman?”
“And I was like, ‘Yes, I do,’” he laughs.
After the initial inquiry, Chappell learns more about the parameters for the puppets, starts with some sketches, and designs blueprints. Sometimes, if he’s doing a show that commonly uses puppets, he’ll go online to see how other companies have done it. Currently, Chappell’s workshop features a large drawing of Olaf, and a wall in his house sports a lifesized drawing of Sven the reindeer.
“Sven and Olaf each offered their own individual challenges, but I think they turned out really great.
“Olaf has a look. Olaf has a vibe. If you made Olaf as a regular snowman, say a Frosty the Snowman from the Rankin and Bass cartoon, no one would recognize that as being Olaf. You have to have it look like Olaf, which is similar to the same thing that I ran across when I did Flotsam and Jetsam for ‘Little Mermaid’ at LP – I could have just done random eels, I could have created something very different, and a lot of productions have done exactly that, but I wanted something that was defined. Something that you looked at that and thought that is Flotsam and Jetsam from Disney’s ‘Little Mermaid,’ specifically.
“So that’s where doing Olaf became a little bit of a challenge, because I had to work with those parameters, and I had to work within the limits of what that character already looks like.
Sven the reindeer
“Sven, as a reindeer, was a little bit different situation. I was told very specifically by the director, Ashley Becher, that she did not want the Disney version of Sven the reindeer. So the job was to create a reindeer, along the lines of the Broadway version, similar to that, and that’s where I kind of started. And then I springboarded into what has become what we have now, which is a full-body puppet that is manipulated by the puppeteer. There is one person inside that puppet.”
That person is Chappell’s son, Ru.
“Because the puppeteer is my son, I had him put on the rear legs and feet to kind of get an idea of what he would look like within that framework. And then I scaled it down to make it work with a human body, which is very different obviously than a human body.”
Many different materials
Chappell uses many different materials when making a puppet – usually a lot of polyfoam. Sven is covered in faux fur, and both Sven and Olaf have aluminum frames that are strapped to the puppeteer. Olaf puppeteer Ava Hagedorn also sports ski-style footwear to help give the impression that the snowman can walk.
But Chappell’s also used household materials to help bring his creations to life. He’s used the backs of plastic spoons to create eyes. For the most recent Children’s Theatre Workshop, he used large Christmas lights to make noses for snowmen heads.
So what’s so special about puppets in theatre? Chappell views his creations as a way to take the audience even further into a production.
“Puppetry allows you to get away with something you can’t do with a human,” he says.
“I create something that you would not normally be able to see. Could Flotsam and Jetsam have been done other ways? Sure. All of the things I’ve done here could have been done other ways. But I think what I’ve brought to the table is a completely different way of looking at theatre. And it’s a way that in the Quad Cities we really don’t have.”
Praise for Lancer Productions
He also has nothing but praise for his colleagues at Lancer Productions. He gets support from Renae Mohr, who is also a puppeteer, and he says Stacie Kintigh just sees his vision.
“She sees the vision, she sees the positive side of what adding this does to an audience. She could have just as easily said, ‘Can you do Olaf?’ and that would have been it, but she also said, ‘Would you also do Sven?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, I can make a giant reindeer. That sounds fun.’
“It’s a beautiful thing about working with Lancer Productions. They have movie vision, and then Josh (Tipsword) pulls it all back in and puts it on a stage. That’s why I enjoy working here, because they allow me to do what I do with very little ‘no.’ I’ve done seven shows now with these guys, and it’s never been boring. It’s always something new; it’s always something fun. They always let me have my fun with it. That’s why I really enjoy it here.”
And he sees the benefit for the students, too.
“These students are getting a theatrical education in something that nobody else is getting. Unless your school does something like this, like what LP is doing, you miss out on that. I think these guys get that ‘stepping away from yourself into something else’ experience. The greatest thing about it is, you could take the most introverted actor in the world and give them a puppet and suddenly they’re extroverted and they can get it out. I think that’s really, really important. It’s very important to say anybody, if you have the drive and ambition, can get on a stage and do something. With a puppet, it’s easier. It allows you to have a voice, without necessarily using your own. And that’s been really important to a lot of kids.”
Positive effect on children
I’ve seen the effect Chappell’s creations can have on children. At CTW, the kids start off a little skeptical, a little shy when you ask them to name a puppet. But by the end of the workshop, once they’ve spent a little time learning and working with the puppet, they light up. They’re doing voices. They’re active participants in the educational experience.
While he’s quick to credit the support of family and friends for his success, Chappell knows he’s lucky.
“I have the best job ever. I get to create magic on a daily basis. I get to suspend disbelief in what I do, and I also have the opportunity of working not only with children, but with teens and adults as well, and get to spread the word about an art that isn’t really around the Quad Cities very heavily, and I really enjoy doing that.
“I think it’s an amazing medium for reaching out to people – kids, adults. You can reach a really wide audience if you say to people, ‘Hey, there’s puppets’ and they say ‘Oh, what are they going to do?’ And I like that ability to reach out to multitudes of people.
“I also really like to make people smile. So, this is an easy way for me to get that, and to feed off of their serotonin.”
He’s proud of the work he’s done so far and has big dreams for the future, including the possibility of an all-puppet version of “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” and “Little Shop of Horrors” with an Audrey 2 unlike anything seen in the Quad Cities. And he’s always looking for new challenges.
“You stand to really create something special when you do something like that with puppets. It kind of dives into the heart of being a kid a little bit more that maybe sometimes human theatre does. It kind of brings you back and helps you remember some things, simpler times or when there was less worry in the world. This takes you away from the reality, and that’s why I like to do that. I like to take people out of whatever problems they have going on and just put them in this world of magic.
“I’m always up for something new; I’m always up for something exciting. I look forward to whatever challenges come my way in the future.”
Sven and Olaf can be seen the next two weeks in the North Scott Fine Arts Auditorium (see accompanying story on page 2A). To see more of Seth Chappell’s work, visit FoamFoolery’s Instagram and Facebook pages.