Back in 2000, Erik and Robin Torbeck went to visit their brother Brian while he was stationed in the Dominican Republic through the Peace Corps. They brought with them a few of their close friends — the ones with fuzzy heads, flapping mouths and arms attached to poles. At that time, the Torbeck siblings had just started making and manipulating puppets. They are now based on Mount Desert Island and are known as the Frogtown Mountain Puppeteers, performing hundreds of shows each year at schools, libraries and churches throughout Maine and all over the country.
“None of the kids had ever seen a puppet show,” said Brian of that show in the Dominican Republic. “The kids were terrified. They were screaming. It was total chaos. Eventually, though, they calmed down, and then they were absolutely fascinated.”
The reaction children have to puppets ranges from fear and anxiety to total delight. Sans puppeteer, Kermit the Frog is just a floppy felt toy. When someone begins to manipulate him, he’s suddenly a living, breathing, highly engaging amphibian. Go to Frogtown’s performance of “The Grinch,” a loose adaptation of the Dr. Seuss holiday classic, set for 4 p.m. Saturday at The Criterion Theatre in Bar Harbor, and you’ll see just how funny, charming and loveable their puppets can be.
“It’s a cross between a cartoon and real life,” said Erik. “It doesn’t matter that our mouths are moving. When you put your hand into the puppet, it’s alive. We will show them how we work the various puppets, but kids still believe that they are alive.”
The Torbeck siblings are originally from Cumberland, Penn. After Erik graduated from College of the Atlantic, Robin finished up at Colby College, and Brian was done with the Peace Corps, the trio settled down in Bar Harbor in 2000. Frogtown Mountain Puppeteers has its roots in a school project that Erik had.
“I had taken a class in puppetry at COA, and I really enjoyed it,” said Erik. “One year, Brian and I tried to make puppets to sell. We made a whole bunch of sheep puppets. We had a big plan to make a million dollars by Christmas. We definitely fell short of that goal. We went around to craft fairs and hung out with little old ladies.”
Selling puppets did not prove fruitful — but the Torbecks are an entertaining brood, and they decided that instead of trying to pawn off their little furry friends to customers, they would take the show on the road. One of their first gigs? A monthlong Renaissance fair in their home state of Pennsylvania.
“We did four shows a day for a month,” said Erik. “It was a tough crowd. The kids threw rocks at us. Well, they were pebbles. But it was still rocks! We were in the petting zoo area of the fair. We were wearing tights and these old English style costumes. It definitely prepared us.”
While the siblings were building their fan base and making puppets, the three worked odd jobs around the island to make ends meet. Puppetry isn’t easy.
“It took us about four years to really get it off the ground, and be able to do it full time,” said Robin. “We had odd jobs to supplement our income. We cleaned the public bathrooms in Bar Harbor. We worked at the MDI YMCA. We road the lobster bikes around town and gave people rides. Anything that was flexible, so we could still do shows.”
The family that plays together stays together, though. While there are occasional bouts of intersibling arguments, by and large, the Torbecks are bound by blood and a shared love of creating and entertaining.
“People can’t believe that we’re a family,” said Robin. “No one can annoy you like your siblings, but by the same token, we have the same background, so we share a very similar vision for how things should go.”
Frogtown Mountain has five shows. “Everybody Loves Pirates” is the story of a young girl named Lucy and her goofy friend, Little Chucky, who find a treasure map — and then find a band of bumbling pirates. “The Legend of the Banana Kid” takes Little Chucky into the Wild West, on the back of his trusty steed Goatie. The Halloween show “The Headless Horseman” is an adaptation of Washington Irving’s story, just as the Christmas show “The Grinch” adapts Dr. Seuss. And then there’s “Tales From the Nest,” which is three fractured fairy tales narrated by a family of neurotic birds.
When asked which characters are their favorites, the siblings have a hard time picking just one.
“I like working Goatie from the cowboy show,” said Brian. “Whenever we do that show, the kids all want to see Goatie afterwards. He’s very funny.”
“I like Chucky, of course,” said Erik, who has expanded into acting and standup comedy in recent years. “I actually do an adult show with Chucky, where he’s got a beer can in his hand, and tells jokes.”
Despite the fact that the siblings are hidden behind a black screen during their performances, puppetry is a very interactive performance style. All three will regularly go out into audiences after shows, to let kids and families meet the puppets.
“A kid that’s really withdrawn will just open up to a puppet,” said Erik. “Watching a kid with autism interact with one of the puppets is really amazing. It’s not as intimidating as a person. They can bond with a puppet.”
It’s the multidisciplinary elements to puppetry that make it so rewarding for the Torbecks, who are currently working on their first new Frogtown show in four years — an as-yet unnamed musical about dinosaurs. They are also hoping to collaborate with some Maine environmental organizations on a series of videos, featuring the puppets, which educate about the environment and conservation.
“You can do so much with puppets and there are so many aspects to it,” said Brian. “There’s the design aspect. We make all these puppets by hand. And there’s the theatrical aspect. You write scripts for all the shows. There’s a lot of different elements.”
The only drawback? All that time spent manipulating puppets can take a toll on the arm muscles. But the Torbecks seem to dodge that bullet.
“We worry about carpal tunnel syndrome sometimes,” said Robin. “But so far, so good.”
For information on Frogtown Mountain Puppeteers, as well as a full schedule of performances, visit www.frogtownpuppets.com.