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Meet Danny Montooth of Perception Studio in Long Beach

Today we’d like to introduce you to Danny Montooth.

Danny, can you briefly walk us through your story – how you started and how you got to where you are today.
I have always wanted to be a performer, and I have always been shy as hell. This combined with my interests in puppetry, voice over, sculpture, animation, and practical effects are what I can connect most to the path I am currently on.

I grew up on unhealthy doses of Saturday morning cartoons, musicals, local theater (often with some member of the family performing), classic horror films, classic comedy solos, duos, trios, and quads, board games, Gerry Anderson puppet shows, everything Henson, fantasy books, films, and cartoons, and equal amounts of science fiction. The more escapism a project could bring me, the more I loved it. The work and love that go into crafting other worlds, their cultures, and creatures are astounding.

There was a moment were everything sort of clicked. Not in the “oh, this is exactly what I want to do with my life” sort of way, but the, “Oh. OH. These things are actually the sorts of things that people can DO” way. As a tiny kid, maybe 4 or 5, I was watching cartoons, and for a brief moment I recognized a voice from another cartoon in the one I was watching. Then my brain exploded. There were people providing performances for those characters. They weren’t just magically alive, dancing on my screen in a 2-dimensional world. Someone was drawing those pictures. Then the thought expanded. If there were people behind the cartoons that must mean there are people behind the puppet characters I grew so attached to. And someone built those. I understood none of the nuance of these things at that age, but the fact that they weren’t “real” didn’t crush me in the way that it might for some kids. It inspired the hell out of me. People made these beautiful things that will never die, that I can always go lean on if I need a smile or want to be moved. The fact that these things were built, crafted, and brought to life gave them all so much more meaning to me than if they had just happened naturally.

I had a small collection of puppets when I was a kid. My first was a tiny black bear I named Climby, an off-the rack cheap puppet, but I loved him and brought him everywhere I went. Others followed, and then I thought it was time to get serious. I was a big fan of Paul Winchell, and for my 9th birthday my folks got me a Charlie McCarthy dummy (I know, I know, that’s Edgar Bergen) and the Paul Winchell VHS “Ventriloquism for Fun and Profit.” I. Was. Terrible. I ended up mostly using that dummy to torment one of my sisters.

I tried my hand at animation in High School. For the longest time I had convinced myself that that’s what I was going to do. Though I like to draw and am decent at it, the skill it takes to fill all those frames per second and stay consistent was just too much for me. So then I was stuck. The counselors couldn’t help me because nothing in the workforce sounded interesting. And for me, if it wasn’t fun, you wouldn’t find me doing it. However, they did give me a piece of advice that stuck with me: Pick 3 things you love. Any opportunity that presents itself that brings you closer to one of those three things? Do it. And I did. And am still doing so.

Then my sister, the same one I tortured with Charlie, who was a dancer at Disneyland at the time, told me about an upcoming audition for puppeteers at Disney. So I auditioned and I hired in as a puppeteer at 17. I started in parades, moved into shows, and was puppeteering consistently in the parks for nearly 12 years. I learned from some of the greatest teachers, mentors, and peers in my time there, who are now lifelong friends. For the last 7-8 of those years, I was a Puppet Specialist, later redubbed “Show Maintenance Specialist,” probably because the former didn’t sound very professional. Puppet Specialist was a role where I would help audition, train, and coach new puppeteers and specialty performers for the company.

I was consistently surrounded by people far more talented than myself, so I could do nothing but learn and absorb. It took a couple years before I really felt creative in my job, freely expressing and acting through these dozens of characters. Of all the characters I had the pleasure of spending time with there, Bear in the Big Blue House will always hold the biggest piece of my heart. I worked on a handful of outside projects during my time there as well, a couple of my favorites being Herman and The Remember Hour. I studied animation voice over, which is another die-hard passion and dream. I also narrate audiobooks when I can!

I found a way to be an energetic, bold performer and still hide. Between puppetry, voice-over, and creature work, I’ve found the best ways to express myself and bring what I have to the table.

Then, very abruptly, my time (and that of many of my friends) at Disney came to an end. I still had my friendships with my puppeteer friends, but not the arena in which to play anymore. So I wanted us to build a new arena.

I approached my friends Art Vega and Ryan Keiser to pitch a ridiculous project. Initially, I wanted us to do a live-play of D&D, then re-enact it with puppets, sets, etc. But the time commitment and budget were a bit out there. Then plan B became to do a live-play of D&D with puppet characters as players in the game. For some insane reason, they agreed, and we all went to work.

Art and I had puppeteered together for well over a decade, and have been great friends just as long. He was a Specialist when I was first learning, and he and I, having performed alongside each other on so many things for so long, have a very natural chemistry and understanding of intent when we perform, allowing us to improvise and play with each other comfortably. Ryan has been my best friend since high school, and is a fabricator and sculptor, and the two of them took charge of the technical aspects of what would become Perception Check, our D&D livestream on Wednesday nights. (twitch.tv/perceptionstudio)

After so long in such a family-friendly environment, we wanted to blow off steam and create an arena where we could say and do what we wanted with no backlash. We used our characters, Chunk (Art) and Cucumber (me). We each built our puppets independently many years apart, but they came together for the first time for “That One Puppet Show,” an improv show on the iOWest stage put together by our friend Genevieve Flati. The characters became defined around that time, but continue to grow with each episode of our show.

Perception Check took off better than we could have ever expected. We started it just to mess around and keep our puppetry skills up. The internet, known for its trolls and monsters, were incredibly kind to our shit-talking, crass, and distracted take on D&D. People donated equipment to us to better our setup, subscribed to us so we could continue to bring them content, and, even more amazingly, WATCHED. We brought in Amber Reeder, another brilliant puppeteer and great friend, and eventually her character Willow as well. Now we’ve had a lot of our friends come and play with us, and it’s been absolutely wonderful.

After a couple months, our friends at HyperRPG (twitch.tv/perceptionstudio) invited us to bring Perception Check to their audience. So we started a new campaign (for non-D&D kids, it just means a new story) with them on Monday nights. Now we play a new RPG system every four weeks and rotate game masters.

We decided to turn our show and the attention we’re getting into a proper business: Perception Studio. We fabricate puppets, build sets, and provide our services as puppeteers and performers. We want to help people tell their stories, and we have the knowledge and passion to do so.

Overall, has it been relatively smooth? If not, what were some of the struggles along the way?
The beautiful and enjoyable art of puppetry is not without its drawbacks. The rate at which my friends and I were performing our shows (5-6 shows a day, 3-5 days a week for over 10 years) combined with the physical requirements of the venue and some of the more monstrous designs for some of the puppets, led more than a handful of us to injury. I got a stress fracture on my L5, other friends threw out their shoulders and backs, and some are still in pain long after the show has closed.

There is also the age-old struggle that any artist in any medium has to wrestle with: Trying to impress upon potential clients that it is in fact work, that it takes years of training, honing, and practice to make it look effortless, and that YES, they will need to pay for that work as you would pay any other professional. And that’s just performance. People assume building a quality puppet should cost less than a night out to dinner.

People also don’t realize that good puppetry is also acting. It takes the same skill, the same instincts, and the same training to make a scene work with a puppet that it does with a human being, but the tools with which you must convey those emotions and relationships are much more limited and much less expressive than the human body so you must be painstakingly specific and clean in your choices.

Alright – so let’s talk business. Tell us about Perception Studio – what should we know?
Our company has a handful of facets. What is mostly seen is what we stream on Twitch. We stream D&D, puppet builds, video games, and tabletop games. Once every other month (soon to be once a month) we rent out space and do a full-day stream and have board game or RPG creators on the show to share their game with us and hopefully get more eyes on what they’re working on.

What isn’t often seen is the design process for puppets for our clients, along with the final stages of the builds. Props are the same way. We do try to share what we can on-stream for people who may be interested in how to do what we’re doing, but sometimes the job is private and we respect the clients’ wishes. Some characters we design 2d, simple pencil & paper, some include 3d modeling and printing or molding and casting for different elements of the build.

I’m proud that we’re all doing what we love and that we’re able to do it together. Each of us were individually doing commissions for various people, then at one point we all worked on something together (puppet characters for a production of the Little Mermaid) and from design to build we got it done so smoothly and easily that it was as if we had always been building together. So we just decided that we stick together from then on. Some jobs are more specifically suited for one of us at a time, but we all provide feedback and help with each other so we wind up with the best possible end result.

Any shoutouts? Who else deserves credit in this story – who has played a meaningful role?
SO MANY PEOPLE.

For Me: The entire Montooth family, for embracing and encouraging my oddball interests and introducing me to the arts, primarily by being great examples within them. My girlfriend Val for supporting me in every oddball adventure I go chase down. Greg Ballora and Thommy Fountain, puppet masters, for really whipping me into shape when I was first learning to puppeteer. Greg for his honest corrections and witicism-filled feedback, and Thommy for finding emotion in moments I would have otherwise overlooked. Art for continuing to teach me how to puppeteer every damn day by example, and for making me laugh. Ryan for sticking by me all this time, even though he knows me. Richard Horvitz, my VO teacher, for quelling a vast chunk of my insecurities as a performer and for bringing the absolute best out of me every time I step up to the mic. Genevieve Flati for literally yelling at me in my face any time I am not pushing myself to be better. Kym Canon and Jason Bischoff for being sounding boards, massively supportive people, and professional inspirations. My Playhouse Family and my Jedi Family (subsets of the larger Disney Family), without whom I would not be who I am today. My Calico family for making me get in front of people and perform as just me, no puppets, no booth, and giving me a master class in improvisation every day. I can assure you I am forgetting about 1,000 people. I’d be nowhere without the people in my life.

For Perception Studio: Art and Ryan, for diving into this pool of ridiculous with me. Art for keeping me in the “let’s just do it” mindset, and Ryan for being a construction machine and a very patient DM, especially considering the constant loving abuse we hurl at him. Amber, for joining in whole-heartedly and sharing her talents. Kenny for running our sound every Wednesday and every stream day.

Zac Eubank, Lucas Eubank, Matt Acevedo, and Naeem Stewart for taking a chance on bringing our bonkers idea to their own audience at HyperRPG, embracing us, and making us feel so welcome. Our viewership, our beloved Checkers (and Thumpers, for you Hyper kids), for spending their evenings watching us and being a wonderful community where we feel valued and we hope you do, too.

Thanks to Musical Theatre Orange County for being our first client as our trio. A huge shout-out to Paul Prado of LARP: A Love Story, for being our first *official* credit for Perception Studio as builders and puppeteers.

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