Glen Ellyn woman says puppetry 'magical art form'

Woman sidesteps a career in theater with a chance encounter with puppetry

  • Kat Pleviak, right, and Mary Kate Rix make up half of the Glen Ellyn-based Sea Beast Puppet Company that will be performing this month at the Glen Ellyn Public Library and the DuPage Children's Museum in Naperville.

      Kat Pleviak, right, and Mary Kate Rix make up half of the Glen Ellyn-based Sea Beast Puppet Company that will be performing this month at the Glen Ellyn Public Library and the DuPage Children's Museum in Naperville. BEV HORNE | Staff Photographer

  • "I don't want to jinx us," Kat Pleviak says, "but we never have problems with kids sitting through the shows."

      "I don't want to jinx us," Kat Pleviak says, "but we never have problems with kids sitting through the shows." STEVE LUNDY | Staff Photographer

 
 
Updated 1/4/2012 1:25 PM

Once upon a time there was a Glen Ellyn girl who dreamed of working in the theater.

There she was, happily studying away at the University of Illinois, majoring in directing and the technical aspects of her craft, when something totally unexpected happened, as it somehow always does in this kind of story.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

She was supposed to take an advanced makeup class, one focusing on prosthetics, when, lo and behold, the winds of chance whipped through the pages of her carefully planned script and the program was canceled because not enough students signed up.

So, on a whim, the girl took an independent study course on, of all things, puppetry.

"It turned out to be the most fun thing I ever did," she says.

It also turned out to change her life.

Now, it seems, happily ensconced in the world of performance and puppets, our hero is determined to live happily ever after.

Finding the magic

It's been 10 years since Kat Pleviak discovered her passion for puppets, and you can roll your eyes all you want, but she's convinced she's found her true calling.

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"I think it's the most magical art form," she says. "I define it as giving inanimate objects character through movement."

Performing with puppets, she says, "allows you to make things look however you want them to look, to tell stories from different angles. It's really challenging."

It's exciting, too, which is why after years of thought, she decided to open the Sea Beast Puppet Company.

"I got the idea in 2005 that I wanted to have my own puppet company," Pleviak says.

To prepare, she enrolled in a master's program with a puppet emphasis in the Youth Theater Department at the University of Hawaii. (Important note to college students and aspiring entrepreneurs: If you really must go somewhere to plot your future, there are worse places to do it than Hawaii.)

In June of 2009 she was back in Glen Ellyn and opened Sea Beast in the lower level of her parents' home. It's now a four-person operation that includes her brother, Tom, along with Mary Kate Rix and Joanna Iwanicka.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Tom, Mary Kate and Kat grew up together, attending first Hadley Junior High and then Glenbard West High School.

Their goal is to turn Sea Beast into a full-time gig for all of them, but, for now, everybody's also working part-time jobs to make ends meet.

From a business standpoint, they've tried to be as conservative as possible. It also doesn't hurt, Pleviak says, that her parents "have been insanely supportive."

"We've done one show at a time until we've made the money back on our first show," she says. "We've done it really smartly."

They've been performing a handful of shows a month and have a couple scheduled in the coming weeks, including one Jan. 21 at the Glen Ellyn Public Library and another Jan. 29 at the DuPage Children's Museum in Naperville.

The Glen Ellyn audience will see "Little Red Rosie & the Dragon of Dmm" (pronounced Doom). The Naperville audience will have a chance to see two performances of "How the Whale Got His Throat."

Both shows, Pleviak says, contain plenty of original songs and laughs.

"Little Red Rosie" is a loose adaptation of "Little Red Riding Hood" and "St. George and the Dragon."

"Whale" is based on a Rudyard Kipling story, and the children's museum staff asked for it because it involves numerous styles of puppetry, from hand to Czech marionette and more.

If you want to know what that all means, well, check out one of the shows.

Entertainment first

Pleviak and her merry band of puppeteers either write their own stories, things like "God Speed Moon Cat," or adapt those, like Kipling's, that are in the public domain.

They also build their own puppets and sets, write their own song lyrics and handle their own publicity. About the only time they step out of their creative circle is to hire professional musicians to help compose tunes for their shows.

"We try to do everything ourselves," Pleviak says. "Everybody does everything here."

Whenever possible, the group bases its shows on the themes of reading programs at area libraries with an eye toward encouraging kids to seek out the books and, not coincidentally, encouraging librarians to hire Sea Beast.

A full performance lasts maybe 40 minutes; a shorter one runs 20.

"I don't want to jinx us," she says, "but we never have problems with kids sitting through the shows."

After each appearance, the puppeteers step out from behind the curtain to field questions from kids and demonstrate how they did what they did.

This isn't like the magician who doesn't want anybody to know how he cut the lady in half or made that coin appear in your ear.

"We want to inspire them to do it themselves," Pleviak says. "We want them to grow from this. We want them to go away excited about puppetry and the performing arts."

Children also might learn a lesson or two, but that isn't the main goal.

"We just want them to be really entertained," Pleviak says, "without being too bound by educational restraints."

Happily ever after

Once upon a time there was a Glen Ellyn woman who decided to take a difficult and wonderful road through perilous economic times. She dreamed of spending a future surrounded by puppets, developing new characters, sharing songs and laughter, and perhaps even inspiring the imaginations of youngsters to follow in her footsteps.

A puppeteer, if you will, seeking a life without strings.

If it all sounds a wee bit like a fairy tale, well, that's how stories like this are supposed to end.

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