Birthday greetings from a dancing purple unicorn, anniversary wishes from a talking burger and “get well” messages from a canine space pilot.

Owner Laurie Everitt launched her in-home puppet making business Puppet Laurieate LLC in February to bring such characters to life with foam and fabric. She builds custom puppets for stage productions by Madison theater companies including Are We Delicious and Children’s Theatre of Madison. But she also has a growing cast of characters available for Puppet Laurieate Messages – personalized videos starring her colorful creations that can be commissioned to send messages of cheer or congratulations to friends or families for events such as graduations.

Back in January, when she first had the idea for the Messages, Everitt thought she would have plenty of time to figure out the logistics to that side of her business and planned to start that half of her company this summer or fall. But when the theater industry as a whole shut down in March due to COVID-19, she got going with them faster than she had planned.

Now, the four characters she’s made include Periwinkle the Unicorn, Zib the canine space explorer, Hampton J. Patrick the vegan burger and Matilda LuPone – a fashion icon and social maven. Through the playfulness and humor of three actors, these puppets are given personalities.

“I think a lot of us are feeling a little lost, lonely, and sad these days,” Everitt said. “Before COVID, I wanted to market my Messages to be available to kids in hospitals, seniors in nursing homes, and anyone else who was feeling a little despondent and blue.”

Everitt’s initial foray into building puppets came in 2016 when she was asked to create two man-eating plant puppets for a stage show her friend Jenni Schwaner Ladd was designing.

That stemmed from a love of costuming that began in 2012 when her youngest child acted in a Verona Area Community Theatre production.

Now, Everitt said that love has taken over her home.

Puppets, puppets everywhere

Everitt said she now has two rooms in her house that are reserved for puppet building.

One room has the hardware tools such as a drill, saws and glues. The other room contains her sewing tools, puppet patterns, fabrics and foam. Although supplies are now filling bins in her basement and fabric is piling up in a spare bedroom, too.

The space is not ideal for all seasons, as she said she’s seeking a well-ventilated area in which she could do spray painting and contact cement work in winter. She gets many of her supplies at nearby hardware and craft stores, but turns online for specialty materials such as nylon fleece and higher quality foam or fur.

Everitt said that a professional puppet can take about 30 to 40 hours to build, if she already has the patterns on hand. But if she is designing something entirely new, that time can easily be at least doubled, if not more.

She said she has some arm and hand issues that prevent her from building many hours at a time.

She said designing the puppet and building mockups takes the most time, but building the accessories takes a lot of time, as well, which includes making the arm rods, sanding and painting eyes, dyeing the fabric and sewing or altering.

“Did you know that there are a lot of different types of puppetry?” she said. “I have so much to learn — it’s great. I like a steep learning curve.”

From hobby to business

When Everitt’s youngest acted in the VACT production, her many hobbies gave her an advantage.

“I am constantly making things – sewing, basketry, knitting, dyeing, quilting — I have too many hobbies – so I offered to help with costumes,” she said.

The costume designer for that show, Sharon White, introduced Everitt to other designers in Madison.

With that introduction, Everitt went on to build costumes or do alterations for the Madison Opera, Madison Ballet, Music Theatre of Madison, Children’s Theatre of Madison, Four Seasons Theatre, Opera for the Young, Capital City Theatre, Are We Delicious and Broom Street Theatre.

Following the man-eating puppets in 2016, she began to hone her skills in 2018, attending Puppetry Plus School of Puppetry in Los Angeles, where she returned for a second round of classes this January. It was through those studies in 2018 that she built her first professional basic and intermediate puppets. Periwinkle the unicorn was the first puppet she designed from scratch.

She also took a workshop through Project Puppet in Keller, Texas, and will be taking a class through University of Wisconsin-Madison Continuing Studies in October. She said she even uses free online tutorials.

“There aren’t many puppet building classes available,” Everitt said. “I am happy to learn puppet things from anywhere.”

Inspiration in isolation

For Everitt, the COVID-19 pandemic has been a time of inspiration.

“I wasn’t planning to terminate my work with the wonderful Madison costume designers, but we’ll have to see what work there is going forward,” she said. “There is a possibility of some work for a show next year, and I’m hopeful theaters will be able to put shows on again. Safety for the company members and audience comes first.”

The pandemic has provided her some time to find inspiration from shows such as The Muppets and Sesame Street.

“I am just now watching all the old Muppet shows,” she said. “My husband and I watch one almost every night, it’s been a fun distraction during lockdown.”

She is also watching all the Pixar animated movies.

“I call it my writing homework, they really know how to tell a story,” she said.

She grew up on the comics ‘The Far Side’ and ‘Calvin and Hobbes’ and has always loved goofball comedies including ‘The Carol Burnett show,’ ‘The Apple Dumpling Gang’ and ‘Mystery Science Theater 3000’ and said she enjoys musicals with “funny and clever lyrics” such as ‘The Book of Mormon’ and ‘Be More Chill.’

She is even working on a screenplay, although she said it’s just for fun, called ‘Davey Crochedd,’ based on a crocodile puppet she made for Children’s Theatre of Madison.

“I took a class online on developing a solo puppet act,” she said. “Developing my idea was a lot of fun. Filming it – not so much. I will leave the onstage work to those who can act and stay backstage myself.”

Neal Patten, community reporter, can be contacted at neal.patten@wcinet.com.