KU grad finds niche in New York with puppets

NEW YORK (WIBW) - A lot of people seek out the bright lights of New York City with dreams, one day, everyone will know their face.

But for Spencer Lott, success means you likely don't see him at all.

"I do have a kindergarten paper that says, 'Oh, I'm going to be the next Jim Henson!'" he recalls.

Lott, who graduated from Lawrence Free State High School and the University of Kansas, fell in love with puppeteering as a kid. He says he had parents and teachers who encouraged his passion, which is why he's now living his dream in theaters around New York City.

"Puppetry is exciting because it's just a tool, so you can use it for whatever means necessary," Lott said. "You can use it for education and for kids, which is profound; and you can also use it for adults. It's got a tradition of being political and subversive. You can do and say things with puppets that you can't as people."

13 NEWS visited Lott at HERE theater in New York, where he's currently an artist in residence. He and his collaborators are developing a show based on the true story from World War II of thousands of paper balloons floating across the Pacific toward the U.S.

Front and center in the small theater is a set anchored by a series of clotheslines. Lott shows how he'll make stores, churches and chimneys come to life, and the papier mache girl who is his star, all of which eventually end up in a cloud.

"The goal of this piece as we go over the next couple of years it is to evoke those feelings in our audience: a moment of terror, a moment of isolation and a moment of awe, inspired by history but not just recreating it," he explained.

If that doesn't sound like the stuff of a puppet show, that's the point.

"Imagination is the limit here," he said. "Puppets can fly; puppets can transform; puppets can do all kinds of magical things that we have trouble as a six-foot, balding man wearing glasses might; so puppets provide an angle to tell a different kind of story in a different way, which I find super exciting."

Perhaps most exciting in career so far, though, was finding his way to Sesame Street!

"It's just as much fun, it's just as lovely as you might imagine!" he gushes, with a smile.

Lott said most of the puppeteers who fill the main characters have been part of the cast for a long time.

"I'm at the bottom of the ladder. When they need extra hands, they call me up," he said. "I've right-handed for Cookie Monster - and when I say right handed, I'm literally the right hand! They hire me to slide in and just be the right arm of Cookie, the Count, Big Bird, whoever needs a second performer."

In all, Lott has more than a dozen television and film credits. But he's also gained a reputation for his skills in making the props and puppets. He said there's really no store to buy the specific things you might need for a show, so he's learned how to build and make things, skills honed by starting young with classes and workshops in sewing, welding, crafting and anything else that might teach tricks to construct.

He's also busy writing and directing. As associate artistic director for Trusty Sidekick Theater Company, he's helped develop shows specifically for children on the autism spectrum, which have run at Lincoln Center.

"You get to use all the tools that make good theater and good storytelling but it's kind of through a sensory lens because interaction with that audience isn't going to look as traditional as it might with a neurotypical audience - but it's just as rich and just as important that they get told engaging stories," he said.

What seemed a dream in that kindergarten paper continues fueling Lott's childlike enthusiasm as he makes it reality. He said New York may seem like a scary step to take, but, in reality, it's a city filled with nomads who want to be there, and are often willing to help each other along.

"Be nice to everyone you meet because you never know who might have an opportunity or an idea or a way to get you in somewhere," he said. "There's a magic to this city, and if you come check it out and you feel like you get the magic and you get the rhythm, it's so worth it."