Astoria Characters: The Puppet Masters

There’s a lot going on.

The pet rats, Softee and Gray Spot Star Sword, are climbing their cage.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Z and her husband, Chad, are the founders of WonderSpark Puppets.

The children, 5-year-old Leif and 3-year-old Finn, are tucked into a corner hovering over a smartphone.

The adults, Chad Williams and Lindsey “Z” Briggs, are playing with puppets.

Z literally has her hands full with Grandma Ellie and Grandma Nancy, while Chad is armed with Mystery Max and Finn the Fox.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Chad is a country boy at heart.

The husband-and-wife duo make funny faces and say silly stuff.

They’ve had a lot of practice: The founders of WonderSpark Puppets, they have been entertaining audiences in the metro area for the last decade.

Although Chad and Z grew up in Western New York, they didn’t meet until they were in college.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Finn the Fox.

Chad, who lived in a house in the woods in what he describes as the middle of nowhere, developed a deep appreciation for nature.

“I’ve always had a huge affinity for the outdoors,” he says, adding that to country boys like him, New York City seemed frightening.

Z, on the other hand, couldn’t wait to leave Le Roy, the tiny village between Rochester and Buffalo whose main claim to fame is that it’s the birthplace of Jell-O.

“It wasn’t good for me,” she says. “I wanted more.”

She’s always loved puppets and after doing research, audaciously informed her parents that she was going to the University of Connecticut, which offers a degree in the subject.

“They said ‘absolutely not’ and told me I needed something to fall back on like biology or teaching,” she says. “They told me I had to go to a state school that was within 100 miles of home. I got out a map and drew a circle.”

SUNY Fredonia was the farthest Z could get without breaking those boundaries. She enrolled in its media-arts program.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
It’s all in the hands.

Chad, who is two years younger than Z, also was trying to figure out his future.

In high school, he was looking for an easy class and ended up taking one in art.

“I liked it and excelled,” he says.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Mystery Max.

SUNY Fredonia’s media-arts program sounded like a perfect fit.

When Z needed technical help with a project, she was connected with Chad. They each remember the details differently, but the important thing is that fate threw them together for better or worse.

They dated briefly, but nothing happened.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
One of Z’s puppets in progress.

“I had feelings for Z, but I don’t think she did for me,” Chad says. “Her lifetime dream was to go to U Conn for a degree in puppetry, so she did.”

While Z worked on her master’s degree, Chad graduated from SUNY.

He got a job in an ice cream factory in Fredonia and started making films.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Z in her design ‘studio.’

He had no contact with Z – and no hope of ever seeing her again – when, out of the blue, she called him.

Her thesis documentary film was due the next day, and she needed someone to burn a DVD of it so it could be screened.

“He was the only one in my phone who knew anything about technology,” she says. “I didn’t even know whether he had the same number.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Z and an old friend.

Chad adds: “I had to break it to her that it wasn’t going to happen because there wasn’t enough time. She cried and slammed the phone down.”

When Z came to her senses – her words, not his – she called Chad to apologize, and they began chatting.

She suggested he come for a visit; that weekend, he drove eight hours to see her.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
The puppet is based on Z’s grandmother.

When he got out of the car, she thought, “I love you, let’s get married.”

When he got out of the car, he thought, “I love you, let’s get married.”

It took them a while longer to say those words out loud.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Mutual admiration.

Chad’s courtship commuting continued when he got a job in Albany making films for the state’s Department of Correctional Services.

A year and a half later, Z got a job in New York City as a puppeteer in a TV show. She told Chad while they were on a date.

She made it clear she was going with or without him.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Z clowning around.

“I had to light a fire under his butt,” she says.

“I cried in the restaurant,” Chad says, “because I thought New York City was a scary place, but by the end of dinner, I said I would come with her.”

In 2006, he did just that.

While Z played puppeteer, Chad worked on films.

By 2009, though, Chad was burned out.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
WonderSpark Puppets puts on more than 300 shows a year.

“I was working 15-hour days,” he says. “My hours were different from Z’s, and we sometimes didn’t see each other for six months.”

Luckily, Z needed his help again. This time, it was for a puppet show.

Chad had so much fun that they decided to become perpetual puppeteering partners.

WonderSpark Puppets, which they founded in 2009, puts on more than 300 shows a year with the help of two other human performers.

In addition to entertaining, Chad handles business matters.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
They want to make you happy.

When Z’s hands are not on stage, she’s working part time for the Jim Henson Foundation and making puppets in a small space next to the dining table in their two-bedroom apartment.

Chad’s office is in a corner of their bedroom, which also serves as a props storage space.

Yes, things are cramped, but Chad and Z are performing a labor of love.

“We are spreading the gospel of good puppeteering,” Chad says.

Z puts a puppet head on her desk; if she works on it diligently every night, she will finish it in two to three weeks.

Astoria Characters Day: The 10th Anniversary is Sept. 15, 2019. Sponsored by Bareburger, it’s a free, public event.

Nancy A. Ruhling may be reached at,  @nancyruhling, nruhling,,

Copyright 2019 by Nancy A. Ruhling