With foam and felt, a local puppeteer tries to make a mainstream career and a case for cannabis | Arts Feature | Indy Week
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With foam and felt, a local puppeteer tries to make a mainstream career and a case for cannabis 

Spring Hope, North Carolina's Chris Chappell creates his own puppets for commercial entertainment as well as to promote his political views.

Photo by Jeremy M. Lange

Spring Hope, North Carolina's Chris Chappell creates his own puppets for commercial entertainment as well as to promote his political views.

The puppeteer enters the TV studio carrying two bulging trash bags and murmuring hellos. He steps onto a slightly elevated set and upends the bags, spilling four unabashedly Jim Henson-inspired puppets on a table in front of a wall of green screen. One shares his appearance—his plaid shirt, stripe of beard and mild eyes—and his name, Chris Chappell.

Chappell is shooting an episode of Kidz Newz, where puppet anchors and reporters banter about local family activities, for East Wake Television, a town-funded community access station serving Knightdale, Zebulon and several more Raleigh suburbs. Every two weeks, he drives 25 miles from Spring Hope to the studio tucked behind Knightdale Town Hall. First, he did it for free; then, for gas money, and now, for a small fee.

Fairly new to puppetry, Chappell is trying to make a mainstream livelihood of it, even as he uses it, in his personal life, to promote alternative political views. He recently used his puppets to enter a Raleigh-area car-commercial contest. He won $5,000; the John Hiester Chevrolet spot is airing on FOX 50. And he sells custom puppets through his website, Chappell Puppet Productions. He makes them out of foam and felt, using dollar-store toilet plungers for stands.

The camera rolls. Chappell sits on the floor behind the table and thrusts up his arm through the anchor, Steve. He works his way through the script, switching puppets and voices, chuckling sheepishly when he flubs lines. He uses one hand to work the sock-puppet mouths, the other to operate an arm or hand.

Steve has an oblong face, like Bert, and a Kermit-like simper. Tex is blue, with a mop of yolk-yellow hair and a falsetto voice. Calvin is tawny and fuzzy, with a melon-shaped head, and sounds like a cross between Elmo and Chewbacca. All of Chappell's puppets revolve through the Kidz Newz cast—except for two, Bud and Nugget, the stars of his own show on YouTube.

Behind the camera is Studio Director Gary McConkey, a retired Knightdale town manager. He helped build the studio, where he shoots, edits and broadcasts the programming with a small staff. His wife, Becky, writes scripts. Sporting the station logo on his breast, he seems like a retiree immersed in a fun, wholesome pastime after a life in municipal work.

The camera monitor shows only the puppets. It doesn't capture the 33-year-old Libertarian kneeling under the table, wearing a wristband emblazoned with pot leaf emblems and the words MAKE IT LEGAL, the message hidden in the puppet's throat.

"When you hired Chris, you knew about The Green Report, right?" I ask McConkey. "Yeah," he replies, sounding a little defiant. I raise my eyebrows. He shrugs.

Nugget stars in The Green Report. - PHOTO BY JEREMY M. LANGE
  • Photo by Jeremy M. Lange
  • Nugget stars in The Green Report.

Two weeks later, Chappell is shooting a new episode of The Green Report, his pro-cannabis and pro-hemp puppet show, at home. He and his wife live out among the red fields, green pastures, brown tumbledown barns and white prefab houses on the fringe of Franklin County. In the driveway, his blue Nissan hatchback displays one bumper sticker for Ron Paul and another from Infowars, the website of conspiracy-theorist radio host Alex Jones. Chappell answers the door wearing a John Lennon "Working Class Hero" T-shirt and suspiciously eyes a nondescript white truck idling on his remote rural street before taking me inside.

The Green Report's set resembles the one for Kidz Newz, but in a spare bedroom decorated with Star Wars bobbleheads rather than a pro studio. Chappell shoots the three-minute segments by himself, using a professional Canon camera and a pair of umbrella reflectors he paid for by selling puppets. In front of a tacked-up blue sheet that serves as a green screen, a particleboard desk holds an old-fashioned announcer's microphone and two green puppets, Bud and Nugget, each of which can be operated with a single hand.

Bud's full name is Bud Greenfield. Like Chappell, he has a chin-strap beard, but it goes all the way around his head, making him look like Kermit the Frog as a monkish college hippie. He wears a pot leaf on his T-shirt and a Rasta necklace. His MAKE IT LEGAL wristband is just like the one Chappell wears.

Bud's voice is similar to Chappell's, though it's actually the more ordinary of the two. Chappell already talks like a puppet, sweet and childlike, and needs only faint modulations to create his characters. He has a quiet, shy way of speaking. His accent is a topsy-turvy cartoon dialect of Southern I've never heard, like a South Park character, with short vowels turning long: "knock" coming out as "noke," "get" becoming "geet."

Nugget—just Nugget, like Madonna or Cher—has a gruff, chortling voice. Unlike Chappell's half-body puppets, he's simply a hairy green head, with random brown tufts and small, stony eyes set close together. He clearly resembles his namesake.

For a show tapped into the strident online world of alternative media, The Green Report has a laidback, comical feel. Bud and Nugget trade stoner jokes on a background of pot-leaf patterns. There's reggae bumper music. At the start of this episode, Nugget coughs under the desk before ascending to join Bud; in the finished video, the gag will be garnished with a plume of digital smoke.

One of the stories is about KFC getting a business license to sell weed in Colorado, though this is an Internet hoax. Another is about an April 24 event at the Maywood in Raleigh: 420 Fest, hosted by NC NORML, which Chappell plans to attend to promote his business and his show. And one is an update on the legal plight of Todd Stimson, whom Chappell interviewed in Raleigh as Stimson walked across the state to demonstrate for medical marijuana rights.

Chappell protests that Stimson acted in good faith, buying tax stamps for his med-weed dispensary in Henderson County, and that the evidence disappeared before trial. Mainstream reports corroborate this. Still, Stimson openly broke the law, and is now imprisoned for marijuana trafficking.

"The drug war is a huge waste of money," Chappell says. "They have to keep the prisons full, and if they quit arresting people for drugs, it's going to screw their system up. You've got families moving to Colorado because their kids have seizures and nobody here will help them get the natural medicine they need. People like Todd shouldn't be in prison for trying to help people fight cancer. It's disgusting to me."

Chappell is well informed about marijuana and hemp laws around the country, and can offer detailed economic, environmental and human-rights arguments for legalization. As the INDY recently reported, 69 percent of North Carolinians agree with him, even as bill after bill to legalize medical pot dies in the House, the latest less than a month ago.

"I feel cannabis has the ability to bring us together," he says. "You see all kinds of people pushing for legalization and working together. Libertarians, people on the left and right."

Despite the stoner affectations of The Green Report, Chappell is not a partier or a burnout—at least not from pot. He doesn't smoke cigarettes or care much for alcohol. He doesn't habitually use profanity. He identifies as a Christian (though not a churchgoer, being wary of organizations) as well as a Libertarian. He does, as you might have guessed, use marijuana.

"I tried it in high school and didn't like it," he says. "I didn't touch it again until I was maybe 31, when I watched [The Union, a documentary] by the same people who did The Culture High. It sort of flipped a switch. The federal government says it doesn't have any medicinal value but they hold a patent on the medical properties of cannabis."

Chappell uses it to relieve his esophagitis, a condition that makes it hard for him to swallow. He also uses it for pain management: When he was 18, he injured his back working at a grocery store, trying to pull a row of frozen carts on a winter day. He's had problems with it ever since, though he no longer takes medication he regards as dangerous. "I'd rather vaporize a bit of plant than take Advil," he says.

His med-weed advocacy has, at times, conflicted with his business interests. He unsuccessfully pitched a couple of local TV stations before McConkey said he didn't care about Chappell's personal views, as long as he kept them separate, which he does. A company in Raleigh that he declines to name wanted to hire him to build puppets for kids, but didn't want to credit Chappell Puppet Productions, to avoid association with "the marijuana stuff"—even though, Chappell says, the client was a user and legalization-supporter.

Though it was exactly the kind of work he was looking for, Chappell said no. "I just thought it was kind of stupid, for me to hide who I am to work with him," he says. "I didn't feel right about it. I keep them separated, but I don't see why people should be demonized for their views. It falls under the First Amendment."

Chris Chappell and his puppet, Calvin. - PHOTO BY JEREMY M. LANGE
  • Photo by Jeremy M. Lange
  • Chris Chappell and his puppet, Calvin.

Chappell grew up near Rocky Mount, and moved to Spring Hope for his wife's job in Wake Forest and to play music in the Triangle. He used to be a singer/songwriter on the coffeehouse circuit, and received a grant from the United Arts Council of Raleigh & Wake County to record his 2011 EP, Beautiful Day, which is available on Bandcamp. The music is country-pop and alt-rock, sung in a surprisingly smooth and soulful voice. But by the end of 2012, he had given up music for puppetry.

"I just got discouraged playing restaurants and bars and stuff, playing covers," he says. "I sold my musical equipment, and that's when I started looking for other stuff to do. Something that was a mix of performing and not performing, you know what I mean?"

Chappell never had much interest in puppetry beyond watching Sesame Street as a kid. "I wanted to do a YouTube channel that's just me talking to the camera, but I always had trouble finding my words, and I thought I could do it as a puppet show," he says. "At the time, I didn't have much money, and when I started looking around at what puppets cost, I decided to try to build them." He learned how from people and videos on the Internet, and built his first puppets for CAN Newsroom, his prior YouTube show.

CAN stands for Chappell Alternative News; he laughs at the redundancy. Bud Greenfield got his start there, as did the Chris puppet currently seen on Kidz Newz. They reported from behind a desk, in Chappell's affable voices, on media cover-ups, political plots and secret power structures gathered from the deepest niches of the Internet.

Like many Americans, Chappell got his first taste of "conspiracy theories" (air quotes his) after 9/11, which produced them on an operatic scale. He was especially shaken by the documentary series Loose Change, which argued that the attacks were orchestrated by the U.S. government. "Originally, I kind of fell for the official story," he says. But he didn't fully wake up from his conditioning, to use his phrasing, until around 2011.

Flipping channels one day, he wound up binge-watching Conspiracy Theory with Jesse Ventura on TruTV, which led him to look up Alex Jones on the Internet. ("I don't believe 100 percent of what he says," Chappell cautions. "Some of it leaves me wondering who he works for sometimes.") That sent him tumbling down the rabbit hole of online counter-narratives, digesting massive quantities of them for CAN Newsroom content. This overload, more than cover-band fatigue, was the real reason he quit music.

"I just got so involved in this stuff, following all the information," he says. "In The Matrix, when they wake Neo up and he can't handle it and throws up and passes out—it's kind of that thing." He laughs. "I'm playing music for all these people having a good time that don't know what the heck's going on in the world. It was a weird feeling."

He couldn't perform pop music in good faith while sinister global powers steadily advanced their vast and intricate agendas. Hopeful, romantic sentiments had no place in the strange new world he had fallen into. He could no longer claim it was a beautiful day.

Growing up, do you remember a lot of streaks in the sky?" Chappell asks me.

Sitting on the bed in the makeshift studio, we spend some time talking about his worldview. He tells me about "chemtrails"—evidence of government weather control. The plot branches out through the CIA, the military and business interests. He tells me about Agenda 21, a government plan to consolidate the rural population in cities. "That's out in the open, I think Glenn Beck wrote about it," he says. He mentions things I should Google, documentaries I should watch.

He sees many inconsistencies in the official 9/11 report. His Infowars bumper sticker proclaims it to be an inside job. Though he does not have his own unified theory, there are many he finds at least partially plausible. He thinks that Saudi Arabia and "parts of Israel" had something to do with it; that it was an excuse to "take us into more war." There were explosive charges hidden in one building. A BBC reporter read a script about it falling before it fell. He doesn't know exactly what happened. All he's sure of is what didn't.

But he takes on neither the deranged intensity nor the manic torpor that can go with such screeds. He's too mellow and easygoing for the frothing hard sell. He bears no outrage—at least, none that is expressible. Rather, when he talks about his views, he is slightly pained, almost apologetic, as if restraining himself out of politeness, or just resigned. More than possessed, he seems a little sad and alone in his vision—the seer of truths of paramount importance in a world unable or unwilling to accept them. I ask if he ever feels isolated.

"I've had that experience a lot on Facebook," he says. "A small group of people I know in North Carolina believe the same stuff I do, as far as the government and different 'conspiracies' and vaccines. You get to posting stuff on Facebook and you see people blocking you." He was posting at a frantic pace right after he woke up to conspiracies, and lost some casual friends. Puppetry, finally, was a way to do something, instead of just martyring himself to secret knowledge. At first, it fuelled his alt-media overdose, but it has become a means of recovery.

Chappell put aside CAN Newsroom to focus more narrowly on marijuana law reform in The Green Report in order to preserve his mental well-being and to express his views in a way that is broadly relatable, easy to agree with. "It was so depressing, looking at all these articles for CAN," he says. "Green Report, I found to be a little more light-hearted. I think people can see government corruption in something as simple as a plant that's being controlled. That's the gist of it—getting into alternative news and kind of losing it for awhile, but getting back on track."

Puppetry is leading him, tentatively, back into the mainstream world. In addition to his increasingly viable commercial work, he's starting to play music again, and wants to integrate it with his puppetry. He's working on a theme song for Kidz Newz. His beliefs have not relaxed, but their former stranglehold on him has.

"There's not much you can do about it unless a whole lot of people wake up, and that's where we're at as a country," he says. "It's not worth worrying about until people realize the same things and snap out of it. What can we do about it? is the question we're always asking in Facebook groups. Politics are so freaking corrupted, people are so bought off ..." He trails off, sighing. "It's so hard to talk about this without sounding crazy."

Correction: Gary McConkey was town manager of Knightdale, not Wake Forest.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Code green."

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