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Sesquipedalia: Tough to Pronounce, A Blast to Watch

By Lindsey DeRoche; For the Clock
On May 14, 2017

Burrett and Rhu McBee (Puppets LtoR: Red Nose, Chicken, Henry, Dr. New Day)

Sesquipedalia is a mouthful, but it holds special meaning as the name for the professional puppet company of Burrett and Rhu McBee. The husband and wife duo share a passion for creativity and showmanship that is encapsulated with homemade puppets.

Their puppetry has even been written about in The New York Times.

In Latin, “sesqui” is “one and a half,” and “ped” means “foot.” So, for the McBees, their name means “the world of foot and a half foot-tall creatures or things.”

They recognize that their name is tough to pronounce and often have a puppet, who is MCing, explain the name to the audience.

Both of the McBees have always loved creativity and performance. “I had always done puppets as a kid, and I would bore my family with shows,” Burrett said. As a child, he would make his own puppets out of paper mache and steiff.

However, he also had a simultaneous fear of puppets. “A certain amount of fear is a part of the challenge of the conflict of the story,” Burrett said. “It has to be there, but you don’t want to terrify them [the child audience].”

Today, Burrett McBee is an adjunct English professor at PSU, as well as a master puppeteer. He gained his undergraduate degree in English, and his master’s in theater.

Rhu, who makes all of the couple’s puppets herself, met Burrett while in a college class entitled Toys and Puppets at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan. She had recently aided in putting on a puppet show for a local parent night, and Rhu’s friend had dubbed her a “frustrated puppeteer.”

At the time, she was planning on a similar realm for her career -- children’s book illustrator. She would later attain a degree in theater design.    

 “When we met up with each other, my theater interest and Rhu’s creativity with puppets came together,” Burrett said. The couple put on their first puppet show together in 1974.

At first, they were shocked at how physically taxing putting on a show was. “It’s strenuous,” Rhu said.

Quickly, the McBees realized that they were making more money than they had anticipated by putting on puppet shows at libraries. “It was definitely a pretty lucrative side business,” Rhu said.

One staple of a Sesquipedalia show is that even the puppeteers do not know exactly what a show will hold. “What we don’t generally tell people is that we never did dress rehearsals. People would be paying to watch us do a dress rehearsal,” Rhu said. “Occasionally, it led to excruciatingly funny situations.”

The duo puts together a scenario, but never go over it line for line. “A lot of it is the audience’s response,” Burrett said. If a puppet does not procure a positive reaction or falls flat, they switch it out for another, more enticing character.

The McBees find it therapeutic to be both husband and wife, as well as partners in puppeteering. “Backstage, we’d often work out issues that most couples don’t have an outlet for,” Rhu said.

The couple also care about keeping the adults in the audience entertained, because they are the ones who drive the youthful audiences to the shows. “If the adults are bored to tears, you lose your audience,” Rhu said.

Sometimes, certain themes might go over the heads of children in the audience, but draw out laughs from their parents via innuendo. However, kids in the audience are, obviously, still vital to how a show goes.

“Kids are absolutely the most demanding audience you could hope for,” Rhu said. “Kids aren’t going to sit there and wait for you; you’re going to have a riot on your hands.” The McBees said that split-second timing is paramount.

Today, the couple has performed in 15 states and have about 40 puppets. They recently added shadow puppets to certain acts that have the right lighting for the occasion.

They have worked for both the New Hampshire and Connecticut library systems. The duo always does a shout-out to the library, as well as for reading books at their shows.

Often, they have been forced to create new scenarios and ideas because the same library will ask them to do another show months later. “Our shows are based on folktales and fairy tales, and then some are things that we designed ourselves, wrote ourselves,” Rhu said.

There is always a moral to the stories that the McBees perform, and the performances are highly participation-based.

 In addition, there is a great deal of psychology to the puppetry. Often, the couple works to split a personality between two characters, thus making one a foil for the other.

“The more contrast you have with personalities, and also with physical characteristics, the more interesting everything is in theater,” Rhu said.

Even the McBees themselves have grown to favor certain puppets. For instance, Henry (a walrus) is one of their most beloved puppets. Favorites are possible “because there are characters that you sort of find yourself gravitating to, both you as a puppeteer, and the audience,” Burrett said.

The McBees want to highlight the power of puppetry and fun that can also help make money on the side, especially for college students. “The cool thing that we didn’t anticipate was this becoming a major focus of our lives, and a major source of income,” Rhu said.

If Sesquipedalia is ever performing at a local library, there is sure to be hilarity, crowd participation, spontaneous performers and, of course, many puppets.

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