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Puppetmasters: Siblings ride into Rockland with ‘Banana Kid’

By Christine Dunkle | Dec 31, 2019
Brothers Erik and Brian Torbeck and sister Robin (Torbeck) Erlandsen make up Frogtown Mountain Puppeteers. The troupe performs Jan. 4 at Rockland's Strand Theatre.

Rockland — Kids and kids-at-heart can’t help but smile at those googly-eyed gals and felt-covered fellas that have entertained generations from the street of Sesame to the Muppets’ stage, and there’s nothing quite like seeing them live.

Frogtown Mountain Puppeteers is a puppetry troupe based in Bar Harbor and comprised of three siblings — brothers Erik and Brian Torbeck and sister Robin (Torbeck) Erlandsen. Their “The Legend of the Banana Kid” kicks off the 2020 Strand Family Series Saturday, Jan. 4, at 11 a.m.

“As far as working and traveling together goes… luckily we're all pretty laid back, so we haven't tried to kill each other too much,” Erik said. He thinks it is a huge benefit to work on shows with people you have grown up with. “We have similar experiences to draw from, and similar ideas and styles, so we rarely argue over major issues because we typically have a shared vision of how we'd like the shows to go.”

In "Banana Kid," Little Chucky heads to the Wild West to outwit outlaws in a cowboy adventure. With a fistful of bananas, Chucky rides into town on his trusty goat for a showdown with Big Bart and his band of bandits. The show features 20 hand-crafted glove, mouth and rod puppets; and a slew of flying and twirling Styrofoam bananas.

The story of the group’s beginning is certainly not an age-old one. Or maybe it is. Adulting after years in school can take the fresh graduate down some interesting roads. Erik had taken a college class in puppetry at College of the Atlantic and ended up making a puppet movie for his senior project.

“After graduation, in an effort to make some money — and not get jobs — Brian and Erik started making puppets to sell at craft fairs,” Robin said. Thinking it would be more fun to perform, they were hired by the Pennsylvania Renaissance Faire to put on a puppet show for children. Robin joined in, and after she graduated from college, the trio created and performed its first full-length show — "The Headless Horseman of Sleepy Hollow" — in 2000 in Bar Harbor.

“A teacher saw our show and invited us to her school, a librarian invited us to her library, and more invitations kept coming over the next few years,” Robin said. “After about five years we realized that we could quit our other jobs and perform full-time.”

Frogtown has received three Citations of Excellence from UNIMA-USA, the highest national award in puppetry. After nearly two decades, the siblings are performance experts, having come up with ways to make equipment easier to transport and set up for shows to run as smoothly as possible.

“When we put together our first show, we had no idea that we'd ever do the show again, let alone still be performing the same show 20 years later,” Robin said. “After about 10 years of touring, we finally bought a cart to wheel in our gear that also converts into a stepladder. I think it was the best $80 we ever spent!”

Brian, who has become the main puppet builder, has learned a lot about puppet construction — from what materials hold up better to wear and tear, to how to make moving eyebrows and other mechanisms. Erik, who deals with all the sound equipment, has a lot of knowledge now compared to the first show when they rented hand-held microphones and strung them along the front of the stage.

Robin takes care of the business side of running the puppet company. “I have had to learn about taxes and other fun non-puppet business stuff like that,” she said.

“[We’ve] also learned some things about performing, such as how to do certain character voices in a sustainable way that doesn't hurt your vocal chords or throat,” Erik said.

Still, having done hundreds of performances together doesn’t mean things always go according to plan. Robin recalls a time when Erik's elbow accidentally pushed her head microphone strap over her eyes. So, she couldn't see and her mic was pushed too far away from her mouth. “I had a puppet on each hand, so there was nothing I could do,” she said. “I ended up trying to move my mic back to my mouth with my tongue, while still having both eyes covered with the strap, which is when Erik looked over and of course started to laugh seeing me like that. It's always dangerous when one of us starts laughing during a show because it is really contagious!”

The troupe writes and creates all the shows they perform and their mastery of movement and jokes is contagious for the audience as well.

“What we really enjoy the most is hearing the laughter of an audience enjoying the humor in our shows,” Brian said. “Having an audience member recount favorite parts or lines of a show afterward, sometimes days or even years later, is also a real benefit of our profession.”

Frogtown Mountain Puppeteers has performed at festivals, schools, libraries and theaters in the United States and Canada. Other shows besides “The Banana Kid” are the aforementioned “Sleepy Hollow” and “Everybody Loves Pirates,” where 8-year-old Lucy and her goofy pal, Little Chucky, are searching for buried treasure, but a gang of bumbling pirates keeps getting in the way. Their version of “The Grinch” is a fan favorite at the Farnsworth’s annual Share the Wonder event Thanksgiving weekend.

“We have been working on a musical about dinosaurs,” Robin said. “Erik wrote music and lyrics for 12 songs, and Brian has made about 20 dinosaur and cave people puppets.”

Erik said they also made a recycling-themed DVD a few years ago that was originally created as a pilot episode of an environmental kids show. It can be found on YouTube. “It's called ‘Up On Frogtown Mountain’ and we hope someday to make more about other subjects, such as solar energy.”

For people who hang out with puppets on a regular basis, they are well-versed in puppet theatrics and must have a pop culture character that really speaks to them. (Pun intended.)

Brian said, “Tough decision, [there are] so many great characters. I would say I felt the most connection with some of the characters that Jim Henson performed: Kermit, Rowlf, Ernie, Dr. Teeth. I guess that's more than one!”

“I've always liked Gonzo and his zany weirdness,” Robin said.

And from Erik: “I second Gonzo, I love that weirdo!”

Such zany weirdness is present in the Frogtown shows as well, and it doesn’t stop with this generation of puppet lovers.

Robin’s 7-year-old son, Otto, states that he not only wants to be a puppeteer when he grows up, but that he is one now. “He has his own puppet stage and a huge collection of puppets, many that he's made himself,” Brian said. “Just this past year he has started to perform a couple small roles in our shows and often gives us honest, constructive criticism.” Uncle Brian hints that Otto may be liable to change his mind about future career plans, as he also wants to be an underwater explorer.

Here’s where Otto jumps in with his two cents and to correct his uncle — he does not want to be an underwater explorer anymore because he doesn't want "his submarine to get crushed."

Otto said, "Yeah, I'm already part of the crew! Frogtown Puppets are the greatest puppets ever!"

Yes, Otto, they certainly are.

As part of the Strand Family Series, admission to this show is “Pay-What-You-Can;” ticket prices are set at $20, $10, $5 or $0 per person, so that cost is not a barrier to attend. The Strand is located at 345 Main St. The show length is approximately 45 minutes; learn more at rocklandstrand.com. For more information about the Frogtown Mountain Puppeteers, visit frogtownpuppets.com.

 

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