I first met Vanessa Whitney almost 10 years ago when we tool an improv class together. Form the moment I meant her I could tell she was incredibly talented. She’s a wickedly funny improviser, a heck of a singer, a great actress and she’s a darn fine puppeteer as well.
When I started this 52 Podcast Interviews project, she was immediately someone I knew I wanted to talk to. I’m so glad she agreed. This is a fun interview with a very creative person that I hope you’ll enjoy.
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Also, let me know if the comments below if you enjoyed this interview. I’m having a lot of fun doing this project and already have about 10 interviews done! I hope you guys are enjoying it too.
Here is another essay I wrote and recorded as part of The GrantCast. The audio is below. If you’d like to subscribe to the podcast you can do so in iTunes, or by using this feed in your favorite podcatcher. Thanks for reading.
The G.I. Joe Show
By Grant Baciocco
From a very young age I was always interested in putting on a show. I don’t know why, specifically, I got into always wanting to put on a show, but I did.
When I was a kid my family was friends with another family, the Casagrande’s, Dave, Margie and their two sons, Jeff and Joel. Jeff was a few years older than me, Joel a few years younger and we got along pretty well and probably once a month either we would go over to their house for dinner or they would come over to ours.
Now, I don’t know how this all got started, but I got it in my head that we should put on a show for our parents. Maybe I got this idea because I was always putting on shows with my stuffed animals. Shows just for me. I was an only child. I would play a record and have the stuffed animals act out the record. I was sort of puppeteering. Anyway, that’s what I convinced Jeff and Joel to do put on a show, basically lip sync, to a record for our parents.
Now, we wouldn’t just lip sync though. There had to be costumes and instruments: turned over Tupperware bowls for drums and wooden spoons for drum sticks, a Wiffle Ball Bat guitar. We would rehearse the song our songs a few times and once I had decided, because I was directing this whole thing, that we’d pretty much had it down, I would go bug my parents to let us put on the show. After several minutes of pleading they’d agreed to come out to the living room and watch politely as we put on the show.
For some reason this was not just limited to lip syncing songs. One Saturday morning, I used my portable tape recorder to record part of a Sylvester and Tweety cartoon off the television. You know, I just held the tape recorder right up in front of the T.V.. I then made Sylvester and Tweety masks out of paper and cajoled one of the neighborhood kids into wearing it and then rehearsed the show on the front steps of my house. Once we had it down, we rounded up as many people as we could in the neighborhood and we put on the show. Again, the people were very polite and they clapped for the show. Things went smoothly until the part of the performance where I hung off the railing on the side of our stairs about twelve feet up from the hard concrete driveway at our house. To me this was representing Tweety Bird hanging high in his cage. To my mother it was a recipe for disaster, a broken arm and a leg at the very least.
My Shows weren’t always about me performing either. As a kid I had a pretty impressive G.I. Joe collection. I had everything from the very first Grunt action figure, that’s the first one I ever got, up until the point they release the aircraft carrier. That was when my mother put her foot down. She didn’t want her son playing with war toys to begin with but she had let that all slide. However, there was no way I was going to be getting the aircraft carrier. Anyway, I was pretty proud of my G.I. Joe collection and I thought that, obviously, everyone else in the neighborhood would want to take a look at it too.
So one summer afternoon, I got started setting up a very elaborate display of my G.I. Joe figures. They were all in action poses and, in my mind, there were very specific storylines going on. Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow were locked in a deadly sword fight. Clutch was charging at a HISS Tank with his VAMP. Stalker was repelling down the side of a mountain, really just the windows of our front porch, to get a group of COBRA troops. Now, if you’re familiar with G.I. Joe figures, each one comes with a bio card explaining the backstory of each guy. Well, these were carefully scotch taped to the side of the house so people could reference them as they looked at my set up. It was all very elaborate. It was like a museum piece.
Now once the diarama was all set up exactly how I wanted it to be, I started making signs:
G.I. JOE SHOW
137 POPLAR AVE
These were crayon on white paper but they were very fancy. Once the sides were made I got to hanging them up on trees and lampposts around my block. Now, I wasn’t allowed to cross any streets, but I circled my entire block hanging up at least ten fifteen signs, inviting everyone in the neighborhood to the G.I. Joe Show. Then I went back to the front steps of my house and I just waited for the throng of people I knew would be arriving at any moment.
Eventually, I got bored of waiting for people to come to the G.I. Joe show and just started packing it all back up. Perhaps, I was too young to realize that a 1 P.M. show on a weekday in the middle of the week was not prime time for people to come see the G.I. Joe Show. I had tried, I was sad but no one had come to my G.I. Joe Show.
And isn’t that all we want out of life? For people to come to our G.I. Joe Show?
©2015 Grant Baciocco/Saturday Morning Media
It’s the first, strictly digital single I’ve released and I’m really proud of how it turned out. It’s called Frankie and it is the story of a sarcastic, talking cat named Frankie. It is based on a true story. And even though I say that before each time I play it live, people don’t believe me. But it’s true, it’s based on a true story.
My good friend, and fellow puppeteer, Alison Mork has a pet cat named Frankie. Yes, that’s Frankie picture as the album art for the single (photo courtesy of Alison Mork at the Frankie Archives). Alison and I talk on the phone regularly and she’ll often update me on something cute that Frankie has done since the last time we spoke.
Back in 2012, she excitedly called me and told me that Frankie had actually spoken to her. Apparently, one morning she had looked at Frankie and said, “You are just a cute little gentleman.” Frankie, meowed in return but his meow, more of a squeak actually, sounded exactly like he was saying, “I am.”
So I laughed and said, “Great, not only does he speak, he’s full of himself.”
A few days later, Alison told me that he had done it again. She had said something complimentary to Frankie, and Frankie had replied with a meow that sounded like he was saying, “I know.”
And the idea for the song was born. I wrote it rather quickly, took me just about a day, sitting at my computer figuring out the lyrics. It was the first song I’ve written on mandolin, a departure from all my other songs which were written on guitar.
I’ve super happy with how the final song turned out. Steve Goodie did an amazing job on the instrumentation on the track. It’s everything a bluegrass fan (me) could hope for. I do wish my vocals were a little better but I’m never happy with how I sound, so that’ll never happen.
Another interesting tidbit about Frankie. A lot of the time authors base characters in their books on real people. Some even write real people into their books. I’ve sort of done that with this song. Of course, Frankie is based on a real cat, but whenever I sing the song I always picture the reporter as being my good friend, author, Mur Lafferty and as far as I’m concerned, that’s who the reporter is! So Mur has a cameo in my song.
Anyway, that’s a little of the backstory on my new song Frankie. I hope you get a chance to check it out.
This week’s post is going to be geared a little more towards artists who perform live. I think though it is a good thought to keep in mind for everyone though. The thought is: Play With Your Eyes open. First, a little backstory, and this backstory is going to sound horribly pretentious and name-droppy but it’s where I got the idea from.
In 2007, through a strange series of events, I lucked into a spot opening for “Weird Al” Yankovic on his Straight Outta Lynwood tour. I found out about the gig the DAY before the gig was to happen, so I was instantly whipped up in a state of nervous energy that could have been harnessed to power the state of Rhode Island. The main thing that had me whipped up was that this would be, without a doubt, the largest crowd I would have performed in front of to date. About 5,000 people. That’s a lot.
In my flurry of getting ready to drive to Northern California, where the gig was at, I spent some time promoting the gig on social media, which back then, was MySpace. I sent out an MySpace Message blast to all my friend who lived in the radius near the gig, I even sent one to Tom. But while looking through my list of friends I came across the page for Steven Page, then lead singer of Barenaked Ladies.
I know he didn’t live anywhere in the vicinity of the show but a thought flashed in my mind. If anyone could give me a little advice about performing in front of that many people, he could, so I sent him a MySpace message. I never really expected a response back, I mean, he’s a busy rock ’n’ roll star but later that day I got a simple reply back that said, and I’m paraphrasing here:
Congratulations. Just take a deep breath before you start and play with your eyes open. Enjoy it. And say hi to Al for me.
At the time I didn’t quite get what he meant by ‘play with your eyes open’ but I thought it was incredibly cool that he wrote back.
Flash forward to the stage at the Konokti Harbor Amphitheater in Northern California. I had just finished my first song, Living @ Home, and the audience loved it. And when I say finished I mean, raced through my first song at about double the tempo I normally play it. My hands were shaking, my pulse racing and my heart felt like it was going to explode out of my chest. Then, like Obi-Wan Kenobi, Steven’s words flashed through my mind. “…Take a deep breath. Play with your eyes open. Enjoy it.”
So, I took a deep breath and it seemed as if time slowed down. I was in control. I could do this without panic. Without rushing. And most importantly, my eyes were open and I was actually aware of what was going on. I could actually ENJOY the amazing experience I was in the middle of. The rest of the set was better than the first song and ending with ‘Debbie’ brought the house down.
After all this time, I still remember Steve’s words, especially if I’m in some big, high pressure performing situation. I remember to take a deep breath and just enjoy it. I’m getting to do what I love, in front of people. It doesn’t get much better than that. This is especially true when I get to perform with The Jim Henson Company’s Puppet Up!.
In late 2013, I performed with them in Toronto and there was one moment where I had a puppet on my hand in front of a packed house of people. The scene I was in was getting big laughs and, because I was playing with my eyes open, I just got a big, uncontrollable, smile on my face. Not because I was breaking because of the scene. It was because my ‘eyes were open’ and I was instantly aware of how much fun it is to get to do that. It’s a moment I have not forgotten.
So if you are about to step on stage and perform, no matter how big the crowd, stop right before you do. Take a deep breath and when you step out there, play with your eyes open. Enjoy it. Don’t get so focused on the set, your playing, or acting or your material that you completely forget to experience the fun you’re having.
Even though is more applies to artists who perform, I think it could be applicable to other areas of artistic disciplines as well. If you are painter, right before your gallery showing opens (no matter how big or small) take a deep breath. Enjoy it. If you’re a writer and it is the night before your book goes on sale, take a deep breath. Enjoy it.
Most of us create art because we love to do so. No point in doing it if you can’t take a deep breath and play with your eyes open.
How do you deal with high pressure artistic situations? Do you have any techniques that get your through? Let me know in the comments below.