By Annette Hinkle
Three years ago when Joshua Holden performed a 10-minute puppet slam piece at the Nasty, Brutish & Short Puppet Cabaret in Chicago, little did he know he was on the brink of inventing a whole new life for himself.
But with The Joshua Show, a full-length performance piece which grew out of that short offering, Mr. Holden has done just that. Along the way he has also found his place in the world — and being true to oneself is really what the Joshua Show is all about.
“I’m singing and dancing. I’m able to use everything I love in performing,” explains Mr. Holden. “It’s been great. I’m lucky I have all these tools to brighten peoples’ day and make an entertaining show.”
This weekend, Mr. Holden brings The Joshua Show to Sag Harbor’s Goat on a Boat Puppet Theater. Part vaudeville act and part classic kids TV program, in the Joshua Show, Mr. Holden sings, tap dances, tells jokes and interacts with his original cast of puppet characters.
“In The Joshua Show we teach that when things get difficult, don’t give in,” he explains. “That’s when you need to take a deep breath and face the challenge head on. It’s hard to be yourself, to be authentic. That’s the word of the day.”
Mr. Holden’s message is positive, his disposition cheerful and his material, upbeat. When taken together, it sounds like the perfect formula to keep children entertained. But ironically, until very recently Mr. Holden’s primary audience has been a decidedly older crowd.
“I’ve been performing the show for three years exclusively for adults,” says Mr. Holden. “This January was the first time I performed for kids.”
Talk about a tough audience. Mr. Holden admits that when he comes out singing his theme song and faces a room full of 100 adults, he notices some of the older guys in the audience squirming uncomfortably and looking at their friends as if to say, “What did I get to myself into.”
“Then Mr. Nicholas comes out and it changes,” says Mr. Holden. “He says, ‘I’m not in the mood for this today.’ Its an amazing shift.”
For the record, Mr. Nicholas is a puppet — a very basic puppet to be exact. On the surface there’s not a lot to him. He’s just a simple sock with a tuft of black hair, two eyes and a stitch at the bridge of his nose. But what he lacks in outward appearances he makes up for in interior complexity. It’s an incongruity that works.
“He’s incredibly vulnerable and the audiences connect with him,” says Mr. Holden.
He’s also a character who a lot to say, and he isn’t afraid to share his phobias and concerns with the audience and Mr. Holden.
“He’s my way to voice my worries and woes about the world,” explains Mr. Holden. “I’m a positive and happy person, but no one is just one thing. This gives me an opportunity to have a dynamic conversation with myself and the audience members.”
“Mr. Nicholas is genuinely sad, but instead of me squandering that, I say it’s totally fine to feel sad and everyone feels that way,” notes Mr. Holden. “You should allow yourself to feel that. I’m your best friend and I’m going to cheer you up no matter how sad you are. That’s the message I’m trying to convey. I find that if I’m really truthful, allowing Mr. Nicholas to get to a dark place, kids and adults both get it.”
With his British accent and pessimistic way of looking at the world (this sock puppet sighs a lot, drops his head when dejected and breathes heavily when upset), Mr. Nicholas just has a way of winning over the more jaded audience members at his shows — the adults. So getting the kids to go along for the ride has been a breeze for Mr. Holden in the few months he’s been performing for them. When you get right down to it, there isn’t a lot of difference between the two groups — as long as you don’t talk down to either of them.
“Even in the beginning, I didn’t want to go into the world talking down to anybody, like, “Hey, boys and girls…’” notes Mr. Holden. “If it comes from the heart and a place of truth, that’s where you get adults involved.”
“Otherwise, who is this positive little weirdo telling us to be ourselves?” he adds. “You need that darkness.”
Speaking of darkness, other puppet characters who populate the Joshua Show include Larry the Lint, a Russian who comes from the dark recesses Mr. Holden’s pocket and plays the voice of wisdom in the show, Wonder Book, a puppet that Mr. Holden constructed out of a cookbook who offers the wonder of the day, and Snail Male who rides around on a paper airplane delivering the mail and lamenting that no one writes letters anymore (his wife is Snail Female by the way).
While many puppeteers are out of sight when they perform and let their characters do the talking, Mr. Holden is not hidden behind a wall when he interacts with his puppets. Instead, he meets them on their own terms, face to face.
“I’m not a ventriloquist,” says Mr. Holden. “I’m in full view of the audience and my lips are moving. I acknowledge I’m a puppeteer and these are my puppets. The style I’m doing is unique in that while I am on stage voicing the puppet, it’s amazing how I disappear even though I’m right there.”
“This inanimate object comes to life,” he adds. “That’s really the goal.”
The Joshua Show is this Saturday, April 4, 2015 at 11 a.m. at Goat on a Boat Puppet Theater, 4 Hampton Street, Sag Harbor. Tickets are $12 ($8 ages 3 and under and for additional siblings) $10 grandparents and goat members). Call (631) 725-4193 to reserve or visit goatonaboat.org.