Waterford’s Weston Chandler Long brings his puppetry and acting talent to ‘Little Shop’ off-Broadway
Weston Chandler Long had arguably the best mentor a kid dreaming of becoming a puppeteer could have: Caroll Spinney, the genius who played Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch on “Sesame Street.”
Long, who grew up in Waterford, was 5 years old when he wrote a letter to Spinney, who had a home in the northeast corner of the state in Woodstock.
Spinney responded, and it turned into a years-long mentorship.
“He told me years later he made sure to write back to me because I was so young and I was writing to him about puppetry. I wasn’t writing to Big Bird, I wanted to know about him,” Long says.
Long says the three most influential people in his life have been his parents, Jesse and Jill Long, and Spinney, who died in 2019.
Of course, having Spinney as a role model didn’t guarantee Long would become a working puppeteer as an adult. But Long is, in fact, still pursuing a life in the arts.
Long, who lives in New York City, is currently part of the off-Broadway production of “Little Shop of Horrors” as what is called a “vacation cover.” He understudies two puppeteers in the show and steps in when either is out for an extended period. When he spoke with The Day on Nov. 11, he had done three performances so far, with one set for that night and four over the course of that weekend. (Not wanting to lead anyone astray, he is sure to say: “I can’t stress how little I’ve done it so far.” But he was happily looking forward to more opportunities.)
Getting a chance to do live performances has been especially rewarding after theaters were shut down for so long because of the pandemic.
“Being part of ‘Little Shop’ has reminded me how much I love doing this and how much I love going to a theater every day and meeting new people and collaborating with new people …. It’s been such a fun time so far,” Long says.
Long’s first “Little Shop” rehearsal was on his 26th birthday. “I couldn’t have asked for a better present,” he says.
Long is an actor as well as a puppeteer and says puppetry has often been his foot in the door for his career. What’s great about “Little Shop of Horrors,” he says, is that one of the puppeteer parts he understudies also includes the chance to act in the show’s ensemble as the Derelict in the opening number “Skid Row.”
“When I play that role, I have to lay onstage under a pile of garbage while everyone is being seated in the audience — I’m up there alone and still for about 30 minutes before the show starts, and then I get to pop up and sing and have fun little moments onstage with the other cast members during the number. I performed that role for the first time last week and it was a blast,” he says.
Long’s credits before “Little Shop” include being in the original off-Broadway cast of “The Very Hungry Caterpillar Show” and in the New York premiere of the musical “All Hallow’s Eve,” which was created by renowned “Sesame Street” and “Little Shop” puppeteer Martin P. Robinson. Long has also acted in productions of “The Laramie Project” and was on the national tour of the musical adaptation of “Mr. Popper’s Penguins.”
A childhood passion
Long began doing community theater when he was 5, acting in productions for Waterford Week in the early aughts and then expanded to other groups. He played Little Jake in “Annie Get Your Gun” and Artful Dodger in “Oliver,” among other roles.
His acting started after his parents signed him up for soccer, and he hated it.
“The only goal I ever scored was for the other team, and the rest of the time I was asking my parents on the sidelines when it was time to go home,” he says.
Long says his parents were both athletes, as are his siblings.
“I was the only one who was not. I turned to (my parents) at 5 years old after learning about Caroll, and I said, ‘I’m going to be a puppeteer when I grow up.’ To their infinite credit, they were like, ‘OK, what can we do?’ This was something that was so out of their depth. They had no idea what a career in the performing arts looked like, what a career as a puppeteer looked like, what a career as an actor looked like,” he says.
Long realizes his parents might have thought it was a phase, but he was appreciative that they helped in any way they could. His mother would find articles about puppetry for Weston to read. His parents would buy him puppets as Christmas gifts so he could learn how to work them.
“I give them all of the credit in the world for just taking that and rolling with it,” he says.
And, of course, having Spinney as a mentor was a huge help. Long first visited the set of “Sesame Street” with Spinney when he was 7 and says that Spinney showed him what a career in puppetry is, how it works, and what a day on set looks like.
“I’m so incredibly lucky that I got to know him. I still don’t quite understand how it happened, but I’m so grateful that he decided to mentor me for so long,” he says.
Asked if he would have followed through on a career in puppetry if it hadn’t been for Spinney, Long says he doesn’t know.
“All I know is I learned so much about being a puppeteer but also what it means to be just a decent human being from him, just from watching him,” he says.
Life in ‘Little Shop’
As for “Little Shop,” the puppet in the show is the human-blood-devouring plant Audrey II. There are four different puppets that rotate in as the ever-growing creature. While actor Aaron Arnell Harrington voices Audrey II, two puppeteers bring the plant to life and alternate what they each do nightly. (Only the biggest puppet, which is onstage for the entire second act, needs both puppeteers to manipulate it.)
“It’s so much fun to get to play off of what Aaron gives us because it’s so interesting and it’s so dynamic and he gives so much in that performance. We wear a little earpiece so that we can pick up everything that’s fed to his microphone so we can also hear his breath and his inflection very closely because we have to do our best to match and support everything that he’s giving us,” he says.
During the months when theaters were shuttered due to COVID, Long continued teaching puppetry to middle school students at the Professional Performing Arts School, but shifting to online meant new challenges: he had to design puppets the students could make on their own using household objects.
He also did a recurring Zoom concert and was in a Zoom play at one point.
“Something that I learned over the course of pandemic is that, even when everything was taken away — and at that point, there was no future for performing — I never once questioned my place in it or what I wanted. … At least I can hold onto that, at least I know I’m doing what I really want to be doing. There was no question about it,” he says.
Most actors have regular day jobs, and Long’s is as a manager at a gym in New York City. He says a lot of other people who work there are performers, too. One of the advantages is the job is flexible. Long can, for instance, take a week off to perform in a show in Philadelphia or do a day of work on “Sesame Street.”
He has, in fact, done two days on “Sesame Street,” assisting main puppeteers or doing background puppetry — working on a puppet to fill out a scene or, say, to be behind the counter of Hooper’s Store.
Worth the struggle
As it does for most performers, Long’s work “ebbs and flows, it comes and goes, it’s not consistent whatsoever. So as incredibly happy and grateful and excited as I am right now that I get to do it even though I’m not even at the theater full-time, there’s also a lot of time where there’s no work to be found,” he says.
The times of collaboration and fulfillment, like he’s having now with “Little Shop,” are what keeps Long going.
“It’s totally worth the struggling, it’s totally worth the frustration and the tears and everything that come with this career, having moments where it works,” he says. “There’s nothing else like it.”