by Ramona Pilar
Claps and Cheers is a column dedicated to honoring pioneers and visionary storytellers who have forged their own path in their creative careers.
Leaving a solid, creative job, with fantastic health care and retirement plans to found your own creative business with no template is frightening. Not having a creative precursor on either side of one’s family, pursuing low-paying, artistic gigs with no long-term health or retirement benefits can be a hard sell both to family, friends, and especially to one’s self. I find myself in the throes of this conundrum and I know I’m not alone.
I have been fortunate enough and hashtag blessed to have found myself in the company of a community of creative hustlers who are eking out their own path in service of creating a life that serves both personal and professional needs.
I met Michelle Zamora when she was an undergrad at Cal State Los Angeles. She moved from Brownsville Texas in 2000 to study acting. We were both working on a theatre project with my roommate at the time (Selene Santiago), who was in graduate school at CSULA.
“I was going to school for acting and working on a lot of experimental productions, and I woke up one day and decided, ‘I want to make a puppet!’ So I went to the scenic shop and told the shop foreman, ‘Hey! I wanna make a puppet!’ … So he threw some materials at me – foam, and whatever they had lying around and said, ‘okay! Go for it!’ So she did! Her first puppet was a minimalist, green, felt puppet that played the role of a teacher in the theatre project we were working on.
Her fascination with puppetry didn’t begin with this first puppet, however. Michelle’s love of storytelling began long ago in her youth, “Me and my sister would grab our Cabbage Patch Dolls, and I had a video where I stretched my Cabbage Patch’s head all the way to the back, and I connected the Cabbage Patch’s body to my head, and I became a humanette! I didn’t even know what I was doing at the time!”
Michelle fell in love with the medium and went on to teach the first puppetry class at CSULA. Her dream was to have her own puppetry studio akin to Jim Henson’s company that created puppets that populated pop culture throughout the 1970s, 1980s and beyond.
Driven by curiosity and the drive to get better at the medium propelled her towards researching an actual career in puppetry. Having access to the theater and theater professionals at her college, she asked as many people as many questions as she could, which led her to discover The Los Angeles Guild of Puppetry. She let her inquisitive nature guide her towards making connections, developing a style of “networking” that fit her personality.
After graduation, she found creative, full-time work with an educational theatre project while searching out and taking on puppetry projects, essentially working two full-time jobs. “When I finished [my day job], I would go straight to the shop. Same thing on the weekends. I would finish my job on Friday and then have a shoot on Saturday… If you really go for it… to stop the day job… that transition is never easy.” Over the course of 10 years, at least once a month, she would have severe moments of doubt. “The more I did work [at the puppetry], the less those moments would happen.” She describes an overlapping of time and figuring out time management, she was able to recognize the bridge she was building for herself.
The opportunities for puppetry came more frequently and she realized she had learned enough about the industry she wanted to enter and could step away from the security of a traditional work environment to create her own. She sought out help in developing a business plan and after much hard work, dedication, and hustling, she founded Viva La Puppet, along with her husband Matias Farias. Since then their work has been featured in music videos, on television shows, and commercials.
As one dream is achieved, more are created and/or expanded, fueled by goals completed and lessons learned. “Especially in the beginning, there’s no way to understand how long it’s going to take you to make a puppet until you just do it a bunch of times… Over time you get more efficient in your processes and in the different ways that you do things.”
Making a “dream” happen isn’t as much about luck as Exceptionalism would have one believe. Especially now when we, as creative folks, have so much control over our creative media and our ability to promote our own work and the work of folks in our respective communities. Sometimes there is no template. For visionaries and pioneers, especially. As creative individuals, we have the ability to see what has worked for others, try it out, take what works and then leave what doesn’t. And it will take the amount of time it will take.
Viva La Puppet continues to thrive and expand. What started out as an earnest student taking an opportunity with some leftover materials has now become a growing business, with a team of fellow musicians, artists, and creative entrepreneurs supporting each other’s visionary and pioneering spirit. I am clearly inspired. And taking notes.