October 23, 2021

Puppet magic

Freeville woman loves to tell stories

Photos by Katie Keyser/contributing photographer

Aunt Irene and Mr. Blue, part of the Lilypad Puppet Theater Company, directed by Lily Gershon. Music is directed by Matt Ocone.

Lily Gershon started making puppets as gifts for her friends. And then when they’d visit — she couldn’t help herself — she’d don a puppet and start doing puppet shows for them.

When she was laid off from a company that did energy efficiency audits, her life took a turn.

“People said, ‘You have all these puppets. Do shows.’”

“My partner encouraged me,” she said of Matt Ocone, a professional musician and music teacher. “I started making puppets and performing. Matt would do all the music.”

The couple had so much fun.

It became the basis for Lilypad Puppet Theater, a local non-profit devoted to the puppet arts.

Gershon is the director of the group, creating and managing shows, building puppets, creating stories and hiring others to help.

Ocone and Isaac Sharp, another classical guitarist and Bill Hurley, a violinist, provide live music.

Gershon has been doing puppetry for five years and started the nonprofit officially a year ago.

“Before Lily and I were puppeteers, we had a music group: Lily and Matt,” said Ocone. “Lily sang songs from the 1920s, lots of international songs. When we started doing puppet shows, we worked the repertoire into puppetry.”

“It was a jazz duo,” said Gershon. “I wanted to learn a song in every language. That was fun to do. When you are at the Farmers Market and you hear someone walk by, speaking in Spanish, you start playing Spanish music.”

“We put that into our first puppet show,” Ocone said. “Lily speaks Russian. Often in schools there are children from Russia. You play that music.”

It would make the children feel special, Ocone said.

Gershon knows songs in Russian, French, Spanish, German, Portuguese and Swahili.

Originally from Kiev, Ukraine, Gershon moved to Brooklyn, and grew up in New Jersey. Ocone, too, grew up in New Jersey. They have traveled “all over.”

Lily Gershon, of Freeville, next to her sloth puppet, used in parades.

Gershon has been in Central New York for 11 years. Today she and Ocone live in a home in Freeville they built from the ground up and share with Gershon’s sister and her young family.

They have a large green house, gardens and fruit trees. They just built a large building that will be their puppet workshop, where they store people-size puppets they use in parades.

They don’t know how many puppets they have.

“It would be a large number,” Ocone said.

“We have many boxes of puppets,” Gershon said. “It’s a rabbit hole you can go down.”

She gets an idea for a puppet and makes it. Then makes another for another idea. And people give them puppets.

“You start to get treasures,” Gershon said.

“We got involved with Magic Garden Puppets.”

The couple learned marionette puppetry from the local company that had shows in the 1890 House museum in Cortland and at the YWCA of Cortland.

After key organizers died, Gershon and Ocone took over managing it.

“We inherited all the marionettes from their show,” said Ocone — at least 60. Edith McCrea is the managing artistic director of the company.

Howard Lindh, director of the newly formed Center Players Puppetry Workshop at the Center for the Arts of Homer, is not familiar with Lilypad Puppet Theater or Gershon.

“I’m looking forward to the performance of the “Frog Prince” on Aug. 17 at the Center for the Arts,” he said. “Puppetry is a diverse and inclusive form of performance … This performance involves the Magic Garden Puppets, a troupe that the late Kundry and Lyn Willwerth founded in the 1980s, so these puppets have a long established local reputation,” Lindh said.

Lindh said he’s pleased sponsors are bringing Lilypad and the Magic Garden Puppets to the center.

“Our puppetry workshop is doing very well. Our last production, “Hey Diddle, Diddle!” was very well received and we are planning more performances in the coming year. We will announce our first fall meeting later in August,” Lindh said.

Gershon said people wanting to learn marionettes are welcome to test the waters with them. And she wants to get involved with Lindh’s company at some point.

After Lilypad shows, the audience gets a look backstage and can participate in a hands-on workshop to make a puppet to take home, said Gershon.

Puppetry incorporates all of the arts: acting, singing, story telling, creating.

“Puppetry is any object you can give life to,” Gershon said. “It can be so simple as taking silverware from the kitchen (and making that a puppet) to creating a marionette that takes a lot of detail. That’s what’s really fun about it.”

Ocone finds it a wonderful diversion from classical music, where repetitious practice is needed for hours and hours and years and years.

Gershon created Aunt Irene’s Variety Show, a parody of a late night TV show like Conan O’Brien.

“There’s a host of different bits … but all done with puppets. Kind of like in the Muppet Show.”

There’s Aunt Irene, her helper, Wanda the Wizard, a villainous witch who tries to get herself noticed and a celebrity giraffe who thinks very highly of himself, but has lost his voice.

She also has a puppet show for adults only. It’s not risqué, but it just wouldn’t appeal to children.

Gershon said a puppet show needs a good story to be successful.

“Lily is an amazing storyteller,” said Mickie Quinn, host to Trampoline, Ithaca’s monthly competitive storytelling event that started in 2012 at Lot 10. Gershon has been a regular for years and introduced Quinn to it when she moved back to Ithaca five year ago.

This past spring, Trampoline hosted a “We Are The Champions” event, where past winners competed against one another in storytelling. Gershon was crowned champion of champions, said Quinn.

“I am a big fan of Lily Silly Puppets and the variety of productions Lily has produced,” said Quinn. “Her characters charm and captivate.”

She loves Gershon’s stories. “She has led an interesting life and brings the unique perspective of moving to the U.S. from Russia as a child,” Quinn said.

“Stories present the opportunity for us to connect as human beings and recognize our commonalities … and to open up our imaginations to other worlds — real or otherwise,” said Quinn.

“There’s so much you can do with it,” Gershon said of puppetry. “It’s diverse and powerful. It would be cool to get more people into it.”