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An Interview with a Barbarian and a Troll

Cat Rock talks to Drew Massey (Co-creator/Puppeteer) and Colleen Smith (Puppeteer) on the upcoming Barbarian and the Troll TV puppet series being released this April on Nickelodeon. Get a behind the scenes look at the next big puppet series.

Hail and well met my friends! Have you heard the news sweeping across the land? A tale of adventure, mystery, and sentient axes?! The Barbarian and the Troll is an upcoming live-action puppet comedy series set to hit our screens later this year on Nickelodeon. Created by Drew Massey and Mike Mitchell the show will feature original puppet characters, beautiful visuals, and an all star comedy cast. This series is a must see for any lover of puppets, barbarians, wizards, trolls, or fantasy adventure. I caught up with Drew Massey, co-creator and puppeteer, and Colleen Smith, lead puppeteer of the show’s protagonist Brendar, about the production.

Drew, can you tell us a bit about yourself? 

Drew Massey (DM): Hi! I’m Drew Massey, a regular guy from a middle class family who grew up watching the Muppet Show, Sesame Street, Krofft shows, and tons of fantasy films. I’ve always loved to draw and tell stories, and I’ve always loved puppets. For years I’ve seen a lot of potential in that medium to tell stories in an engaging way. So I became a puppeteer. I’ve worked on television shows, movies with budgets big and small, and lots of commercials. 

Where did the story for the Barbarian and the Troll come from? 

DM: Mike (Mitchell, co-creator and director of The Barbarian and the Troll) and I had lunch one day. We had known each other for many years and were both excited about the idea of doing a show with puppets together. He suggested a show with a barbarian and I suggested adding a troll to it. There it was. Barbarian and troll. From there we tossed ideas back and forth to nail down the specifics. We both love fantasy films and have lots of similar references from which we draw inspiration, so it was a very smooth collaboration. We inspire and amuse each other, so we just kept pitching funny ideas and building this world.

Colleen, can you tell us a bit about the show? 

Colleen Smith (CS): It follows the adventures of Brendar the Barbarian and Evan the Troll. They travel across the land of Gothmoria searching for Brendar’s missing brother, picking up a hapless Wizard (Allan Trautman), a teen Owl (Sarah Sarang Oh) and a talking axe (James Murray) along the way. The cool part is, it’s all puppets. No humans to be found. There are only eight puppeteers on the whole show. So we all played a bunch of different characters, sometimes dropping one puppet to run and grab another one to enter the same shot. We filmed the whole thing in Vancouver, during Covid, so there was a lot of quarantining and nose swabs. 

Those who swab together slay together!

Photo by Sarah Oh

So Drew, why puppets to tell this story? 

DM: Puppets shows are very hard to pitch and sell, especially if they aren’t either super nasty or for very young children. We knew going in that selling our show was going to be an uphill battle, but we were determined to try to hit a sweet spot – a middle ground ripe for what we now know are called “co-viewing” opportunities, where hopefully there’s something for everyone, parents and kids alike. I think maybe because we had tried to do a show like this for so many years, each on our own, we knew the pitfalls. But we were doggedly determined to show people what we saw in our heads as being something really unique.

But to answer the question, ‘Why puppets?’ I would have to say because we wanted to break through a certain barrier with puppets the same way animation had done years before with Anime and CG. We were intent on removing the stigma of the medium and telling cool stories in a fantasy world without people being conscious of the fact that they are watching a puppet show. Time will tell whether or not we were successful. But we tried our hardest.

Colleen, tell us how you got into puppetry?

CS: I got into puppetry through improv. I trained, and now teach, at a theatre in Los Angeles called The Groundlings. It’s an improv and sketch theatre/school. When Brian Henson decided to train his puppeteers in improv, he brought in improvisers as well and trained them to puppeteer. That’s how I started to work for The Jim Henson Co. – first in the live improv show Puppet Up! and then in various projects like The Curious Creations of Christine McConnell (Netflix), The Happytime Murders (2018), and That Puppet Game Show (BBC).

How did you take to puppetry coming from your improv background? 

CS: One of the main rules of improv is eye contact. Which is impossible with puppets. I had to quickly readjust how I connected to my scene partners. I became a much better listener.  And I was so used to conveying emotion and intent through my body and facial expressions. Getting a puppet to cry, glare, or wince is not as easy as it seems. Watching people like Leslie Carrera Rudolph or Louise Gold taught me a lot about how to convey emotion through a puppet. Or, how to bend a puppet to your will.

Photo by Sarah Oh

You puppeteer Brendar, the fierce female warrior and protagonist of the show, what was it like to puppeteer her? 

CS: Fun and hard. The fun part is how still and small I got to be with her. My natural sense of humour and style is more subtle than what is wanted on most puppet shows, and sometimes I get lectured about going bigger. It was great to get to keep Brendar really still and stoic. (I mean really small; our director Mike says I barely moved her mouth in some takes.) But then, I get to flip to over-dramatic speeches or petulant and cranky speeches. If anyone saw That Puppet Game Show, Brendar has some similarities with Mancie. Frustrated, driven, and usually right. The hard part was the puppet is very long and heavy. If you’ve puppeteered, you understand what that means. But if you haven’t, it means you are fully extending your arm all the time. It leads to weird body angles and strange back pain. Brendar has a LOT of speeches, so by the end my right arm was jacked.

Spencer Grammer is the voice of Brendar, how does it compare to doing the voice yourself? Which came first, the puppet or the voice? How does working in a team like this affect the character development/performance?

CS: The vocals weren’t prerecorded for Brendar or any of the characters on this show. The shows were edited together and Spencer and the other voice actors did ADR after. All of the voices that are dubbed were cast about halfway into filming. I think pre-recorded vocals work when everything is set in stone or with short sketches, like with Crank Yankers. All of us were improvising throughout production. If we had a locked vocal track that would have limited what we could have done in the moment. So we took ownership of our characters. I’ve never worked on a puppet project where I was dubbed, so this was a first. I had a few moments where it was hard to figure out how to put so much of myself in her when I knew she would eventually be voiced by someone else. But I called Brian Henson and he reminded me that puppetry has always been a collaborative art form. Even if Brendar had my voice, Nicolette Santino would be responsible for so many of the funny and awesome things Brendar did with her hands. And when Brendar fought/interacted with other characters I played, or even herself, the other puppeteers all stepped in. I haven’t seen much of Brendar with Spencer’s voice yet, but I think it just adds a new layer to the performance. Basically Brendar is all of us, and we are all Brendar!

Put that on a T-shirt! Drew, how much of the show was pre-scripted versus improvised, given you had an amazing comedy team working on the show?

DM: Our writers were so great at hammering out the stories and keeping everything moving, the scripts were pretty much complete when we hit the stage. But there’s almost always room to put in extra jokes and find different character dynamics on the day, so that’s what we would often do when running scenes. Sometimes things wouldn’t be apparent until the actors and puppets were all on set together and scenes would get a few new jokes or attitude adjustments on the fly. And sometimes our cast would improvise something in the moment that was just so funny and true to the scene we would have to incorporate it. So I would say it was all scripted… but liberally enhanced.

Photo by Sarah Oh

What’s new and different about The Barbarian and the Troll, what exciting things can we hope to see when it’s released?

DM: The unique thing about The Barbarian and the Troll is that it’s an all-puppet fantasy comedy for adults and kids and it is gorgeous. Our Directors of Photography were just phenomenal in giving these puppets a visually cinematic treatment in a way that hasn’t been seen on television much. The stories are full of drama, comedy, magic, battles, and explosions.  The world of Gothmoria, where The Barbarian and the Troll takes place, is chock full of wondrous creatures and lush landscapes. It’s got posh dragons, hungry evil trees, creepy-cute gnomes, talking peppers, disgruntled skeletons, frosty ogres, wacky witches, mini-krakens, zombies, ghosts, and a mace-wielding Knight named Steve, just to name a few.  That doesn’t even cover our main cast! There are over a hundred new puppet characters in our show, which is just nuts. Prepare yourself an ocular insulin shot, because this show is wall-to-wall eye candy.

CS: I think the tone of the show is really different. It’s a show for kids, but we all let our humour creep in. Or I shoved mine in. And almost all of the puppeteers have worked together for a long time; we’ve been working as a ‘troupe’ for many years, so there is a familiarity to how we work together and how we interact. I think it will feel like a gaggle of friends rather than a cast. We also shot some scenes on location (in the freezing cold and rain) so the whole show is really beautiful. Tyler Walzak, our DP, the set designers, set dec, the camera crew, the puppet builders, wranglers, effects, props, and everyone are so talented! And the puppet designs by Mike and Drew are really fucking cool. Every time a new puppet came from LA, it was like Christmas. Oh, and the builders Jurgen Ferguson and Russ Walko, and Carol Binion who made the costumes… Everyone did incredible work. 

Wow, so a lot of the puppeteers had worked together before on puppet comedies, that must have been great to work with a group you are so comfortable with?

CS: It made the whole shoot fun and relaxed. We would trade lines and punch up each other’s jokes. Sometimes we would just change a line in the moment and trust that everyone else would just adjust in the moment. It also made assisting a lot more dynamic. Nikki would make Brendar do hand gestures that I do in real life. And Jeny (Cassady), who met us at the beginning of this shoot, did sillier and more fantastical gestures and poses for Drew and Allan’s characters as the weeks progressed. And Sarah on gnome hands… You’ll see!

Photo by Sarah Oh

Any show production stories you want to share?

CS: I believe I got hit in the head by every weapon in the show – Brendar’s sword, Axe, Sharon’s sword, a mace, a cup. And once I plowed directly into the camera jib. Don’t worry, Catering/Medical checked me for a concussion. And since we had so many fun new locations and sets it meant I got to pull fun new debris from my bra each week. Sand, snow (paper and or potato flakes), wood chips, yarn, and so on.

Or, there was a scene where Brendar had a dramatic line and I wanted a ‘nails on a chalkboard’ moment. I asked the director if we could have something like that. “Maybe she could sharpen her sword,” and before I even finished the question, props handed me a sharpening stone they had made ‘just in case’. That was how great everyone was. When you see the sombrero in that same episode, it has a similar backstory. 

Colleen, what was your favourite part of this production, any characters, scenes or experiences stand out? 

CS: The whole thing was such a crash course for me. I’ve been a puppeteer for about ten years now, but I’ve never been the lead character, especially on an action show. All the sword fights and stunts were really challenging and awesome. I also loved how collaborative Mike and Drew were about our characters. They really let me mess with Brendar and make her my own.

The last week was super intense. Lots of fight sequences and dance numbers and we were all exhausted. On one of the last days Nikki, Jeny (Cassady), Peggy (Etra) and I had to make a character run. The character had so many various limbs that it needed that many assists. The whole time we’d been filming, I kept getting the note to have my characters walk slower, but this time they let me run almost full out. The four of us booking it with this puppet while B Cam raced along with us was so much fun. I can’t wait for people to see it. It’s very much the definition of collaboration between the puppeteers and everyone else. It’s a short moment, but it’s my favourite. If you had seen me in the pilot presentation, when I was all too happy to have Alice Dinnean handle all the hard stuff, you would be real proud of my growth. 

Photo by Sarah Oh

Drew anything else about the production you want to share?

DM: This show was incredibly challenging to make, but I think it came out great and people are going to love it. Mike and I have already discussed where to go story wise with subsequent seasons and even with all the cool stuff in season one, there’s a lot more in our brains that we want to put on screen!

Oh, and some of us do ‘British-style’ accents in this, so I ask in advance for your forgiveness. Just remember that it all takes place in Gothmoria, which is a land of many accents, and not anywhere in the UK. There. Disclaimer over.

Ultimately, we all had so much fun making this show, and I think we made something pretty great. I hope people like it enough that they watch it again and again.

The Barbarian and the Troll is set to hit Nickelodeon in April 2021, so keep an eye out for this fantasy adventure like no other! The Quest is yet to come! 

Check out Colleen and Drew’s other work via: 

http://colleensmi.com/

http://www.drew-massey.com/

Thank you to everyone the the Barbarian and the Troll production team including the puppeteers:

Sarah Sarang Oh

Nicolette Santino

Peggy Etra

Drew Massey

Allan Trautman

James Murray

Jeny Cassady

Can’t wait to see the show! 

Interview by Cat Rock