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DESPITE THE CREEPINESS INHERENT TO THE ART FORM, KANJA CHEN HAS BEEN CREATING PUPPETS FOR YEARS. WHETHER FOR A STAGE PRODUCTION OR A FIRST-GRADE CLASSROOM, CHEN'S PUPPETS ALWAYS PUSH THE ENVELOPE. RECENTLY, KANJA PUT HIS GLUE GUN AND FELT DOWN TO EXPLAIN TO NONNIE WHY HE SPENDS HIS DAYS PUTTING HIS HANDS IN LITTLE PEOPLE MADE OF FOAM.
Nonnie: First, who are you and what do you do?
Kanja Chen: You'd think that's a simple question, but I always seem to have the need to think about how I want to prioritize what it is I do. I guess for this interview I will say I am a puppet builder, puppeteer, and teacher here in Toronto. I've been doing all three professionally for about six years. As a puppet builder, I build professional custom foam puppets in a style I would call "cartoon puppets". Most people see them and mistakenly call them "Muppets". A lot of people don't realize that name refers to the puppets created by Jim Henson and his Muppet Workshop. I have never worked for the Henson Workshop, so they are not Muppets. But they are not your usual store-bought puppet either. There is a lot more art that goes into the puppets I build. I'm not knocking store-bought puppets, because there are some amazing ones out there. But I put a lot of my artistic talents to work when building. When I build I often design as well, so there is tons of drawing, sculpting, and painting that goes into the puppet-building process. As a puppeteer Iím slowly getting more recognized, which is nice. Iíve done a few different projects, including being a Spanish-speaking beaver and a ten-year-old singing monkey. Those were incredibly fun. I performed as the beaver for a series of commercials that ran on the Telelatino Network here in Canada. It was totally surreal. I don't know how to speak Spanish, so the production had a Spanish-speaking voice actor off-camera saying his lines live. So I had to try and lip-synch to a live actor who ended up changing speed and intonation according to the director's requests. Half of the time I didn't even know what the puppet was saying, so I'd have to ask someone what the English translation was. It was great though. I had a wonderful time working on the set. I love puppeteering. And as a teacher I am able to feel really proud of myself as a person. I can think of very few other jobs that would allow me to make such a profound effect on a child's life the way teaching does. Iíve taught kindergarten through second grade in six years, and I have taught art and puppetry from third through eighth grade. This past year I took a group of students through a puppet-building project. We started with character design, then went on to building puppets, puppeteering, and then using a monitor. Finally, the students wrote and performed scenarios in front of a camera. The video was edited, and I was blown away at how amazing it all looked. Kids are amazing. I feel they are often underestimated. The plan is to upload the video so people can see it.
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