Eleven years ago, Erik Torbeck locked himself into his apartment in upstate New York to sew hundreds of sheep puppets. He and his brother, Brian, decided to put on puppet shows like The Three Little Pigs – but using sheep instead, since they were an easier pattern. The brothers called it “Operation Make a Million Dollars by Christmas.”
While their plans didn’t exactly pan out, that summer was the beginning of their careers in puppetry. Now, Erik, the eldest of three, belongs to a puppeteering troupe comprised of himself, Brian, and his sister Robin – more commonly known as the Frogtown Mountain Puppeteers.
The trio travels around New England in a large van – with hand-stitched polar fleece pirates, birds, and headless horsemen in tow – and performs hundreds of shows each year at schools, libraries, and churches.
Graduated from: College of the Atlantic, degree in human ecology with a focus on video production
Frogtown Mountain Puppeteers has existed for: 11 years
Based in: Bar Harbor, Maine
Previous jobs: Gave tours around Bar Harbor on a “lobster bike”; held various nightly janitorial jobs
What sparked your interest in puppetry? In college, I took an elective on puppetry because it sounded fun and easy. That got me started – I did a few video projects with puppets as the main characters. Then, when my brother graduated, we started putting on shows together at the Renaissance Fair and other festivals.
Did you create the puppets yourselves? Yes, because I had learned how to sew. We locked ourselves in our apartment in upstate New York and made hundreds of sheep puppets.
Your sister is now also part of your troupe. When my brother took off for the Peace Corps, it just so happened that my sister was available, so I pulled her into doing puppeteering with me. [Editor’s note: Brian Torbeck rejoined the group upon returning from the Peace Corps.]
Are you the oldest? Yes.
So I guess that means they had to do as you said. [Laughs.] We were all interested in the arts even though we didn’t have a background in the arts – so puppeteering was perfect. We hacked our way through it, and were eventually able to quit our janitorial night jobs and do puppet shows full-time.
Where do you draw inspiration for your shows? I grew up with The Muppet Show and Sesame Street, so my main inspiration is Jim Henson and the Muppets. I created many of my puppets by piecing them together from stuff I tore apart, including my brother’s Kermit. He never let me forget that.
Your repertoire includes four regular shows, correct? Yes. We have “Everybody Loves Pirates,” “The Legend of the Banana Kid,” “The Headless Horseman,” and “Tales From the Nest.”
Which is most popular? Probably “Everybody Loves Pirates.” Pirates have had a real resurgence lately.
You mentioned ripping apart other puppets to create yours. Can you elaborate on the process? We originally mainly used felt, but now we’re using polar fleece to trace out big patterns. A stick supports the weight of the body, and extended rods are attached to the neck with a rubber band. Two sticks pull a rope to open the puppet’s mouth so that we don’t have to reach up and open it with our hands.
Do you kneel behind a stage? The stage we most commonly use is 20 feet across and 6 feet high, which is just above our heads. So we stand with our hands above our heads. We enjoy working on our feet – the knees are just too uncomfortable.
Don’t your arms get tired? If you can put your hands down for just a few seconds, you can usually get a few more minutes out of them. [My arms] get most tired when we’re rehearsing.
Do you play the same characters in each show? We actually switch characters during shows. My sister is shorter [than my brother and me], so we gave her Frankenstein shoes to add another three inches in height. If I’m switching characters with her, the character can’t all of a sudden be three inches shorter!
Typically performs at: Schools and libraries in the New England area. We’ve spread out in the last four years: we’ve been to Canada, as far south as Key West, Fla., and as far west as Arizona. We also perform at the National Puppetry Festival every two years, and have done three or four colleges.
Where did the troupe’s name originate? We grew up on a mountain in south-central Pennsylvania called Frogtown Mountain. We didn’t know that growing up, but our friend had a crazy old grandpa who pulled out a map one day and showed us.
Are you working on anything new right now? We’ve been working on a new dinosaur show for about three or four years, piecing it together in our time between other shows. We have about 10 dinosaurs built so far, and it’s a musical. We hope to be done by the end of the year.
Cost per show: If hired to perform at a school or library, we charge $500 per show plus travel costs. We try to keep local shows in Maine affordable, though, at $4 per ticket. Our rate is flexible so we’re not denying people puppet shows.
Wildest audience: In our early days performing at the Renaissance Fair, we did a show in a petting zoo, which was really distracting. The animals were loud and kids were picking up rocks and throwing them, so there were rocks flying backstage.
Most embarrassing moment during a show: I had accidentally bumped my sister’s headset so it covered her eyes. During the show, her microphone slid over her head, and she was reaching out with her tongue, trying to pull it back in. I had trouble getting back in the groove after laughing so hard.
If you could have any superpower in the world, it would be: The ability to control squirrel’s minds. I feel like that could come in handy.
Watch Frogtown Mountain Puppeteers’ Sausage Boy/Susan Boyle parody:
LAUNCHING YOUR CAREER>>
1. Jump right in and put on a show. You can talk about doing something forever, but until you actually do it, you won’t gain momentum.
2. Attend national festivals and look into the Puppeteers of America. It’s a great resource with so many people willing to help, like writing consultants and puppet-making consultants.
3. Go out and see as many puppet shows as you can. You’ll see what’s working and know how it’s being perceived by the audience.
Unless otherwise stated, all photos courtesy of Frogtown Mountain Puppeteers/Robin Erlandsen. Check out more of their work on their YouTube channel.