Five minutes with Jim West

Updated: 2 Dec 2013

For over three decades, New York puppeteer and author Jim West (pictured right) has performed in numerous shows including a children's favourite, Aesop's Fables. Ahead of his performance in Penang, he shares with Cheng Sim about the perks of being a puppeteer.

Can you tell us more about yourself?
Well, I'm a puppeteer based in New York City and I am currently on tour in Malaysia with Aesop's Fables, a puppet show for children that incorporates puppet making ideas, timeless tales, and classical music. I'm working with an actor and puppeteer, Joshua Dixon (pictured left). It is his first time to Malaysia and we are having lots of fun eating our way through your country.

You've been involved in puppetry for 30 years. What keeps you going?
Ibuprofen [laugh] Jokes aside, I really enjoy performing for children. Theatre has been described as the willing suspension of disbelief and I have found that there is no one more willing to suspend it more than a child. When you look out into the audience and see their faces and hear their laughter, it's very fulfilling. I also enjoy the traveling, very much. Last but not least, I have a mortgage so have to keep working.

What inspired you and what was the appeal then?
Can I be frank? Have you ever tried to make a living in show business? I was trying to be an actor in New York and I went to an audition and got cast as a puppeteer. Then, I got cast as a puppeteer again. Producers started calling me as opposed to me lining up for auditions, so it seemed a good idea to focus on puppetry. Eventually, I started creating and designing my own shows which gave me a lot of creative freedom. I was my own writer, director, actor, designer, worst enemy... I say that because when something goes wrong you have no one to blame but yourself.

How many puppets do you have in your collection to date?
I have no idea. A lot. But yes they are all handmade. Those that I did not build myself I designed and had constructed.

I'm sure you have a personal favourite. Tell us about it.
I do have a favorite puppet and he is in our current show. It's a dog puppet named Moral. When I was approached to create a production of Aesop's Fables, I was challenged as how to best introduce the concept of moral to young children - and all the fables have a moral at the end - So, I decided to give Aesop an irreverent, silly sidekick, in the form of a dog, Aesop's pet named Moral, who would pop up at the end of each fable and recite the moral. He turned out to be a particular favorite of children because he steals many scenes. He gets tossed in the air, eats props, and genuinely amuses the children while keeping the show moving along. He pretty much gets away with anything.

You use large animal puppets in some of your shows. What made you decide to go big?
Well the spectacle of it all! The size of the auditorium of the venues we were being booked required larger visuals. A sock puppet will only read so far. So, I went big and the children love it. They "ooh" and "ah" when they see the large puppet constructions. They are very simple designs that the children can make themselves, we just do it on a grander scale.

What is the funniest puppet show you've experienced?
If you are asking about my show, there have been so many funny moments over the years I couldn't really begin to choose one. It usually has to do with an ad lib from the audience, a child calling out something that is funnier than anything we could have scripted. If you are asking about a show I have seen and found very enjoyable, it would be Beach Blanket Babylon which has been running in San Francisco for years. What makes it such a success is its constant revisions. It incorporates the latest news, current events, and scandals and features incredible puppetry, amazing costumes, and music in a very witty, yet clever way.

What are the ultimate perks of being a puppeteer?
The cast never talks back [smile]

Have you ever sneaked out a puppet to charm the ladies?

No. I don't know that many people who find puppets sexy and if these people exist I have not met them. So, alas no, I have not used puppets to charm the ladies.

What's in your itinerary when you're in Penang?
Aside from the shows, we hope to eat some more wonderful food and as I mentioned earlier, my second puppeteer, Joshua Dixon, has never been to Malaysia before and I hope to get him out on a Jet Ski. It's our last stop so I am looking forward to the beach.

What are the three things a puppeteer must have?
Two hands and mouth. You have to be able to act with your hands and not be afraid to make silly voices.

Catch puppeteer and author Jim West in 'Aesop's Fables' happening at penangpac on Dec 9-15. For more on this event, see listing. You can also follow Jim West's latest updates on his website and Facebook page.

Tags: Features