Behind the scenes of the new children’s puppet show ‘Donkey Hodie’
A purple spaceship has landed among the lush green hills of WTTW’s Grainger Studio, leading an adorable lilac panda to enjoy the company of a determined young donkey with a shock of magenta hair. The studio has become a new place – it has transformed into Someplace Else.
Somewhere else is near the Make-Believe puppet-filled neighborhood of Monsieur Rogers’ neighborhood. It was created by Donkey Hodie when King Friday ordered him to build his windmill house âsomewhere elseâ. It is now the playground for the founder’s granddaughter – her name is also Donkey Hodie, when he is now known as Grampy Hodie – and the setting for a new show aimed at the children of 3 to 5 years. Her name? You guessed it: Donkey Hodie.
âWe decided we wanted to do a preschool show about big dreams and overcoming obstacles with a rebooted version of Donkey Hodie, the character created by Fred Rogers,â says Ellen Doherty, Creative Director of Fred Rogers Productions and Executive Producer. of Donkey Hodie. âWe wanted to do it like a puppet show because the expressiveness of the puppets is different from the kind of expression you get in animation. This kind of emotion that one can feel with the puppets is very similar to the great emotions of young children.
âWhen we decided we wanted this to be a puppet show, Adam and David were the first to call.
Adam and David Rudman are brothers who have worked on children’s shows ranging from Sesame Street at Nature cat, produced by their company Spiffy Pictures, co-producer of Donkey Hodie with Fred Rogers Productions. David is among others a puppeteer who plays Cookie Monster on Sesame Street, while Adam is a screenwriter who first worked with Doherty on PBS KIDS ‘ Cyberchase.
âWe grew up watching Sesame and Fred Rogers and we loved them, and we love the opportunity to work with and be a part of Fred Rogers’ legacy and find ways to update it when needed, âsays Adam. âWe feel very lucky.â
While Donkey Hodie is inspired by Fred Rogers and includes some of his songs, it’s a whole new show, with new characters, updated favorites and new songs too. âWe based a lot of the characters on existing characters that Fred Rogers created, but then we redesigned them, we gave them new personalities. So it’s all new, âexplains David.
âIt was fun doing research, going through all the characters he created,â adds Adam. “Some of the secondary characters in the third level were so interesting and funny and weird that we turned to some of them.”
One of those lesser-known characters that has been completely redesigned for Donkey Hodie is the Purple Panda owner of the spaceship. âThey weren’t necessarily trying to emulate the voice or the character of the Purple Panda from the original series Fred Rogers, so they gave me the freedom to explore new things with him,â says Frankie Cordero, the puppeteer behind. Panda.
Like the Rudmans, Cordero is a native of Chicagoland who continued to work on Sesame Street. (Cordero plays Rudy and has trained puppeteers for the international versions of the show). The son of a children’s magician, he met David through a former classmate his father connected with at a conference. The summer after his freshman year of college, Cordero worked with the Rudmans on a Nickelodeon DVD series called Curious friends; a few years later he worked on their Jack’s Great Music Show.
âEvery now and then I get caught on my way to work at WTTW,â he says. âWhen I was a child, I was a big fan of Sesame Street and Mr. Rogers, so it’s just a little surreal to go to our local station here to work on a production of Fred Rogers. Sometimes I feel like it’s a dream come true.
At Donkey Hodie, Cordero not only plays Panda and a few other characters (including one of Adam’s favorites, a penguin referee), but also builds puppets and will direct some episodes.
Take a look at some of the Donkey Hodie sets being built in WTTW’s Grainger Studio in the video below.
Most of the episodes were directed by David, who also plays Bob Dog. âSometimes it’s easier, because I know what I want and I don’t have to explain it – I can just do it,â he says of directing and performing. âBut it’s very difficult to keep an eye on everything when you’re playing. Reading is quite important. “
Another video tool has become particularly important over the past year: Zoom. Shooting on Donkey Hodie began in the WTTW studio in the fall of 2019. When the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the country in the spring of 2020, production on the show halted. After several months, he rebooted with security protocols in place, including limiting the number of people in the studio.
Doherty and the supervising producer began overseeing shoots from afar through Zoom, constantly texting and emailing and calling the crew in Chicago. âEveryone is trying to do a lot of what Donkey does: be resilient and persevere in these very difficult times,â Doherty says. “The theme of the show is therefore a metaphor for the last year of production of a show under a pandemic.”
Work on an episode begins with a premise based on the show’s schedule, which is then turned into a sketch and eventually a screenplay, says Adam, the show’s lead writer. Each step involves input from many people, and a script typically takes about two months to write.
The artistic department and the puppet makers then set about creating the new props, costumes, sets or characters requested by the script. Meanwhile, Rudmans’ storyboard on the episode, determining what happens in each shot. âSometimes it becomes very difficult to deal with the limits of the puppet: they can’t pick things up; they don’t have hands, âexplains David.
A list of shots is made up from the storyboards to make the shoot as efficient as possible. âWe’ll set up Panda’s spaceship and shoot all the scenes that take place there, and then we’ll set up Donkey’s windmill and shoot all the scenes that take place there,â David says.
After all this, production begins. âUsually, before we shoot a scene, we read the scene as characters, and then we’ll notice if there are any props that need to be handled,â Cordero explains. âSometimes we’ll do a rehearsal in front of the camera, but sometimes we’ll just go straight to the shoot.â
âWe try to anticipate as much as possible in advance,â Doherty says. She then offers comments as the shoot unfolds, for example: âThere is a lack of clarity in this line read, or this gesture does not really pass. Live action is a lot like basketball or hockey, which are very fast-paced. You are always in the moment where things are happening. It’s true that every image should be correct, but you really look more at the whole. “
A full two-part episode takes a week to film, and there are five or six puppeteers on set, including assistants. âThere are some things you can’t do with one person, like clapping or handling books and different props,â Cordero explains. Some ad-libbing does happen. âOur performers are so talented and funny that they’re going to create lines, something that hasn’t been figured out beforehand, and we like to encourage that,â David says.
“We’re definitely going into the wacky, silly, fun way of physical comedy, as long as there’s a big character-driven story,” says Adam. âWe just want the kids to enjoy it and have fun, and indeed the parents too. And certainly to learn while laughing.
“We are inspired by the playful and funny side of Fred [Rogers]âDoherty says. âIt’s clear that Fred had a very creative and playful side. It’s always about helping kids navigate their childhood and really respecting the fact that kids go through tough things. We want to give them tools that they can use in their daily life, but in a fun way, with great music and great characters who embody empathy, persistence and courage.
“We hope the kids watch the show and feel that they too, just like Donkey, can do difficult things.” Like building a vibrant Someplace Else land in an empty studio, landing a spaceship there, and producing a children’s show during a pandemic.