Brett Hansen, Founder and Principal Puppeteer at Larrikin Puppets tells us how they perform colorful and exciting puppet shows, songs, and stories on stage and screen.
Tell us about you, your career, and how you founded Larrikin Puppets.
Brett Hansen: I started playing with puppets at the age of 3. I loved watching The Muppets, Sesame Street, and everything else Jim Henson did. I used to watch behind-the-scenes documentaries of Henson and his team, and I always wanted to do that in that puppetry style.
Growing up, I used to perform puppet shows around the house for my family and sometimes performed at the school library at lunchtime.
I was always good at drawing cartoons and playing the piano. I studied animation, film, and TV as a young adult, and I played the keyboard in several bands. I could never find full-time work as a cartoonist or an animator. Newspapers, advertising agencies, and animation studios felt that my drawings were too crude.
None of my bands were ever picked up by a record label, despite large crowds of fans who loved our music showing up to the shows! Music industry bigwigs didn’t believe any of the music I helped write was ‘mainstream’ or ‘commercial’ enough.
I spent most of my adult life working in unfulfilling jobs for minimum wage. I was a janitor, a supermarket worker, and a call center operator. I was never very good at any of the jobs, despite trying my very best to please my managers. I am differently brained, and I am 100% creative: an artist and a dreamer.
In my early 30s, I scored a role in Brisbane’s first production of “Avenue Q, ” a popular Broadway musical featuring puppets. It is an adult parody of Sesame Street in which the puppet characters and human characters encounter very real problems like racism, homophobia, addiction, unemployment, and homelessness. I was a puppeteer in the show, and I was also asked to train the other actors who hadn’t worked with puppets before. I had puppetry skills due to my lifetime of teaching myself and practicing the art form.
Working on Avenue Q took around six months, from auditions to the final performance. It was voluntary work that took place on weekends and at night. During the day, I was working a paid job making phone calls and loading food ingredients into trucks to be delivered to restaurants and cafeterias.
At the end of that six months, Avenue Q ended. And then my full-time day job ended. And then my first marriage ended. It was a very difficult time, and I suffered a lot of depression and hopelessness, and I struggled to pay my rent and bills.
I had wanted to start my own business as a professional puppeteer for some time, but I didn’t know how to get started, find the time around my work commitments, or the money. Suddenly I’d lost everything. I had nothing else left to lose. So I started building my shattered life back up from the ashes.
I learned about an unemployment program here in Australia called NEIS – New Enterprise Incentive Scheme. It was a course in small business management for unemployed people wanting to start their own business. I applied and passionately convinced them of my plan to perform live puppet shows at birthday parties, childcare centers, schools, libraries, festivals, theatres, and for film and TV. I was accepted into the course, followed by the business mentorship program. I received a small fortnightly unemployment payment as part of NEIS. This enabled me to work full time on setting up my business properly – with all the right licenses and insurances, my website and social media marketing in place, as well as getting all of my staging, audio, puppets, and props ready to start taking bookings. I was able to keep any money I made from the business in addition to the unemployment payment for the 12-month duration of the program.
The business was slow to begin with, but it mostly consisted of backyard birthday parties. Eventually, I started being booked by childcare centers and schools. At the end of the NEIS mentorship program, the unemployment payments stopped coming in, and it was expected that I was in a sustainable financial position. But I wasn’t. So I had to take another full-time Monday to Friday job in a call center and only perform puppet shows on the weekends.
Eventually, I met Elissa, my current wife. She believed in me and loved what I was doing. We fell in love. She saw how much I struggled in my call center job and how much workplace bullying I received there. She invited me to move in with her and trusted me to continue working full time on my business from home. Such trust and belief and support and love! Being able to work on my business full time meant that more weekday shows like childcare centers and schools started booking me.
A few years later, Elissa and I went to the USA – basing ourselves in New York City for three months and taking on lots of professional development, including some proper puppetry training by Jim Henson puppeteers from The Muppets and Sesame Street. I got to meet a few of the heroes I grew up watching on TV. I was able to get some of my existing skills validated while also learning brand new skills and becoming a much better puppeteer. I even brought my whole puppet theatre and characters over there and performed my show at The Puppetry Arts Festival of Brooklyn.
While overseas, Elissa joined me for some of the training, as my passion for puppetry was contagious. Upon returning to Australia, Elissa began assisting me with the puppet shows and eventually created some of her own female characters that she started performing in the show with me!
The show got bigger and better, and the business grew bigger and better. I was now a full-time puppeteer, making more money doing what I love than I had ever made working in all of those other jobs. We started getting invited to perform puppetry in short films, TV shows, and music videos – including ones for famous musicians and bands. We started getting bookings for distant regional tours and even gigs that required plane travel! We wrote and professionally recorded several original songs sung by our puppet characters too.
Larrikin Puppets celebrates 10 years in business this year (2022).
Do you have small habits that made a meaningful impact on your life and business?
Brett Hansen: Never giving up is a small habit I kept. Bouncing back whenever I was rejected or when something didn’t work out. I’ve experienced a lifetime of rejection and knockbacks, so I’ve had lots of practice. Larrikin Puppets still gets rejected for things like arts grant funding, competitions, and radio airplay. But we keep going because the audiences love the puppet shows we perform and the songs we sing. The clients keep booking us, and we’re able to do this full time – despite any rejections and roadblocks based on the idea some people have that puppet aren’t to be taken seriously or aren’t a “proper” form of entertainment. Being rejected or ignored doesn’t get easier mentally, but it gets easier when the bigger picture is that this is a full-time business performing puppetry. That’s huge! That’s successful! It’s the most success I’ve ever experienced, and I’m very grateful for all of it.
How does Larrikin Puppets market its product/services online?
Brett Hansen: The Larrikin Puppets website was first made ten years ago, and most of our bookings come through to us via this website. But for brand awareness, we also market ourselves on Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, Twitter, Pinterest, YouTube, and TikTok.
What specific tools, software, and management skills are you using to manage your online marketing?
Brett Hansen: Apart from just sharing photos and videos we make ourselves, we also use Canva to create graphics, ads, and memes, and we use Social Pilot to share these on social media. We also have a mailing list that was set up using Mailchimp.
What is your hiring policy/process, and how do you retain your employees?
Brett Hansen: Larrikin Puppets is a micro-business consisting of myself (Brett Hansen) and my wife (Elissa Jenkins). We are the only two people who work in the business. We generally don’t hire other staff, though we have considered the idea of hiring a roadie to help us with load-in, set up, pack down and load out at particularly busy weeks of shows in multiple venues. We also sometimes hire sound and lighting technicians and puppet builders on a project-by-project basis. This is not full-time employment by any stretch, though. We use their services and pay them for the short-term work they do for us. We do not have an admin team or a large team of puppeteers for our performances. We are very grassroots and do pretty much everything ourselves.
How are you funding your growth?
Brett Hansen: Our clients (schools, childcare centers, festivals, libraries, etc.) book us to perform our puppet shows or run puppetry workshops. Our payment goes towards our food and living expenses, but we also put some money aside to fund new puppet characters to be built or sets, props, lights, and sometimes social media advertising. If it’s a specific project we really need many people to know about – such as our original songs on Spotify or a big in-theatre production we’re trying to sell tickets for.
Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?
Brett Hansen: Our competitors are not people we feel threatened by. Many of them are our friends. Other children’s entertainers include magicians, bands, singers, circus performers, storytellers, sport/fitness activity providers, and science shows. There are other puppet acts, too, but every puppet act is different and has its own unique place in the world of children’s entertainment. We love to support other puppeteers and children’s entertainers. When we’re not performing shows ourselves, we enjoy attending other people’s shows and meeting them. We plan to stay in the game by continuing to bring clients the most fun, exciting, interactive, and colorful puppet shows, workshops, and every other kind of puppet gig we can possibly deliver. We are prompt and professional, and we take the job seriously – as fun and joyful as it all is too.
Tell us a customer success story of yours.
Brett Hansen: This testimonial from a school teacher describes the Larrikin Puppets client experience very well:
“I just wanted to take the time to thank you for the amazing session we had here with you at Charlotte Mason College. Our students are still talking about it, and you have inspired many of them to look into voice acting or puppetry themselves.
I was amazed at the engagement of all of our students, especially those with additional needs which can often struggle with crowds and loud noises.
Thank you for your generosity and engagement with our students.” Stephanie – Charlotte Mason College.
Your final thoughts.
Brett Hansen: Larrikin Puppets has had a lot of ups and downs, but it really has been a success story as well. Celebrating 10 years in 2022, it’s amazing to think how fast time seems to have gone by. With flights to Hamilton Island, Sydney, Melbourne, and Perth, training and performances in the USA, and the full-time work each week bringing puppet fun and joy to audiences all over Queensland has all been very rewarding. We even won a national award for ‘Best Kids Live Show’ at 2021 What’s On 4 Kids Awards which was wonderful.