Brian Hull, director of the Nashville Public Library’s renowned puppet program, Wishing Chair Productions, arranges shadow puppets backstage before a performance at the library. Photo by Steven S. Harman / The Tennessean.
SEIU member Brian Hull is featured in a fantastic story by The Tennessean.
Brian is the director of the Nashville Public Library’s Wishing Horse Productions program, which has been called “the top puppetry program of any library in the United States” by the man who created marionettes for the film “Being John Malkovich”.
Congratulations to Brian and his team at the Nashville Public Library!
For Nashville puppeteer, pretty much everything he did led up to dream job
Tony Gonzalez | The Tennessean
Aug. 1, 2013
He’d already done the puppet show a dozen times to big crowds and rave reviews, but Brian Hull paused a few moments before a recent performance to tinker with one little detail.
The toy train — it had to roll onstage at exactly the right moment.
“It just didn’t feel right,” he said.
A slight change — a difference of a couple seconds — would make for a bigger surprise for the audience, Hull thought. So he made the change.
Whether anyone noticed, well, that’s hard to say.
But getting those little things right is what Hull is all about. And it’s why his job as the director of the Nashville Public Library’s renowned puppet program, Wishing Chair Productions, is just about the perfect place for him to be.
He’d been preparing for this moment in this place for most of his life — without knowing it — by working in animation, theater, songwriting, dance, sculpture and painting.
“He can sing, he can dance, he’s a great artist — a Renaissance man,” said Barbi Bailey-Smith, a regular at the library’s puppet shows. “What I love is, he’s still here. A lot of times, with people with talent like that, they start here (and leave). But it’s like his home.”
Those tools come together in the art of puppetry. But he didn’t know it when he first applied to take the director position for the library’s puppet program in 1997. He had just finished performing a children’s show as a character he called “the Professor” at Opryland theme park.
“When I was doing the Professor at the park I thought, ‘Boy, it would be great if I had a place where I could do this where kids could see it for free.’ It really seemed impossible,” Hull said. “But it’s not impossible, because that’s exactly what it is here. This really is the job — what I do here at the library.”
It has been 16 years since the guy who could do a bit of everything found the job that required it.
“It’s outrageous,” Hull said. “It overwhelms me if I think about it too much — Holy smokes! How did I get here?”
An unexpected turn
Hull can dream up imaginary lands, characters and storylines, but for his own life he hadn’t planned on puppetry. He was interested in cartoon animation. “I just thought that’s what I would do, because it’s all I did, was sit and draw — draw, draw, draw, draw draw draw draw draw draw draw draw — day and night.”
He also counts Ernie Kovacs, an experimental TV actor from the 1950s, among influences for his daring use of camera tricks and animation.
“He tried things that people weren’t trying. He was fearless. It was sort of a no-apologies style of performing. And his attitude was an inspiration,” Hull said. “It’s the same thing with our puppet shows. This is what we do and you don’t have to come in — but people do.”
There’s a bit of Charlie Chaplin in the mix, too, but not for his big on-screen antics. Hull appreciates how Chaplin could handle every aspect of production.
Hull got his first taste of that as the Professor at Opryland, where he “became the one in charge of my own show, starring me,” he said, laughing.
“I am very thankful to Opryland for allowing me to fail, because in the beginning, it was a disaster.”
His challenge, he said, was learning to hold an audience of children while roller coasters, water rides and trains whizzed past.
By the time Hull landed at the library, he’d performed in at least 50 professional theater shows and was flirting with a major TV deal for an animated show of his own.
The library gig would be temporary, he thought. He really wanted to finish the animated show — about a band of bugs trying to make it big in the music industry — and this was way before “A Bug’s Life.”
But he soon found animation and puppetry to be “sister” art forms.
“Because puppetry is animation done in real time,” he said.
And the animated thing? That fell through. But to see Hull’s most recent production — “String City,” a telling of the musical history of Nashville — is to see his range of talents without seeing a whole lot of Hull, who stays mostly backstage above the puppet strings.
The show includes animations on a screen, hand-painted scenery, shadow puppets, delicate marionettes, visual puns and short movies. (“String City” ended its first run at the library and is scheduled to return in late October at the Country Music Hall of Fame.)
One collaborator on “String City,” Phillip Huber — perhaps the nation’s most well-known marionette maker for his work on the film “Being John Malkovich” — called Hull’s work “a cut above” typical puppet shows.
“He has a very rich background in the theatrical arts, which is essential to this art form,” Huber said. “As far as I’m aware of, this is the top puppetry program of any library in the United States. Most of the credit for that strength belongs to Brian.”
Puppetry, Huber said, isn’t particularly lucrative, but “pays you with dividends of the heart.”
Not slowing down
Hull has clearly made it big in that respect, leading a life that’s about as glamorous as it gets for a puppeteer.
And he has seen too much inspiring art to slow down now.
“When I see things that are great, I think, ‘I wish I could do that. I wish I had done that,’ ” he said.
Now, he feels as if he has been given the chance to so something great.
“It is being handed right to you,” he said.
He can feel when he has done things right through the tiny handshakes and fist bumps that kids rush to give him after a show — or before it even begins.
Standing outside the theater doors last week before the performance, Hull saluted a dad he knew, then offered a high-five to a little blond-haired boy. Almost everyone walking through the door knew him.
Standing nearby, library employee Jackie Sims shook his head and smiled.
“He’s the man,” Sims said.
Hull leaned over.
“Well, you know,” he said, lowering his voice for comic effect, “I do the puppet show at the library.”