Entrepreneurship

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Puppets to Paycheck: Ashil Lee + Charlotte Durkee

Turning a Curious Side Hustle into a Business.

Before I learned of companies like  Puppetsburg, I didn’t think a Louis CK puppet had a place in the world. Nor did I expect to find a Frida Khalo puppet, a Drake puppet, or a hipster bear puppet. Luckily, Ashil Lee did.  During her sophomore year at NYU, the then student began crafting unique handmade puppets, and has since found a way to turn her hobby into a profitable side hustle.

frida kahlo puppet

Ashil began teaching herself puppet-making through online tutorials, creatively repurposing everyday objects (she has found that helping friends move can be a goldmine for materials). Last summer she met Sarah Todes, founder of Puppetsburg, a company that creates “hipster, tattooed puppet shows” that appeal to both babies and adults. Through Puppetsburg, Ashil has been working on commissioned puppets, creating unique pieces that appeal to hipster parents and can withstand the embrace of enthusiastic toddlers. Ashil will begin performing with Puppetsburg as well starting in mid-August.

On the design side of puppetry is Charlotte Durkee, a student at the New School majoring in Drama with a minor in Creative Technologies. She fell into the world of puppetry after a teacher saw one of her animation projects and referred her to puppet artist Tom Lee (currently developing Shank’s Mare in Japan). She began working as an intern for a workshop of Demolishing Everything with Amazing Speed at Jim Henson’s Carriage House, playing a large role in the sound design. When the show went into full production at Bard Summerscape, Charlotte was hired to continue.

 Neither Charlotte nor Ashil had prior work experience in the world of puppetry, though both agree that the best way to learn is by diving into the industry. Ashil was always interested in puppets, but didn’t initially think about it as a potential career. Through working with Puppetsburg, she has found that creative freedom is empowering, and that wandering through Michael’s to find materials and be paid is hitting an unexpected jackpot. When I asked her whether this was something she was interested in longterm, she expressed a sentiment many recent graduates can relate to:

Having just graduated, I’m testing things out that could lead to bigger [options] in the future, but making puppets is something that I am as passionate about as acting, which I went to school for.

Charlotte says the puppet renaissance occurring today is fueled by a societal interest in avatars:

Puppets are relevant and useful now because they often make it easier to talk about challenging subjects. They can serve as a filter through which to see the world.”

Both Charlotte and Ashil began to love puppets in college, when they were introduced to a playful and open community of puppeteers. And though it’s not the most conventional career path, these two women have proven that it is possible to turn a passion into a paycheck.    

james karlos

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