February 09, 2014

Speaker Announcement: Michael Curry — A Life of Grand Design
Category: 2014 Event, Speaker Announcements

Michael Curry

Early in life, Michael Curry decided that he would make a living by making art. But at the start of his career as an artist he had no idea that he would invent his own style of live-performance art that would be seen by millions of people worldwide. If you watched the opening ceremonies for the Olympic Games, you’ve already seen his work.

Michael, who was once described as a “sublime mix of da Vinci and Geppeto,” creates puppets, but not the type of puppets that first come to mind when you hear that word. Instead of small, hand-powered figurines that can dance when their strings are pulled, Michael designs and builds larger-than-life, human-powered puppets that performers wear.

Michael is perhaps best known for his work with the Broadway production of The Lion King, but nearly all of the biggest stages in the world have sought his work: The Olympic Games Opening Ceremony, The Superbowl Halftime Show, The Millennial Celebration in Times Square, and Cirque du Soleil, just to name a few.

In an age when so much of the entertainment we take in comes from screens, Michael is helping to keep alive the tradition of live performance. He is also revolutionizing what those performances can look like. In contrast to full costumes that hide the performer and animatronics that remove them completely, Michael’s creations give equal weight to the puppet and the performer, most notably by keeping the face of the performer revealed. The combination of larger-than-life puppet and human-powered emotion creates a dynamic that audiences adore and that producers are willing to wait three years (the average time from concept to production) to bring to life.

Michael’s life began in Grants Pass, Oregon. After recognizing an inherent drive to create art, Michael attended the Pacific Northwest College of Art in Portland. His interest in the overlapping space where art meets physics is what led him to start playing around with the kinematic theatrical designs that he is now known for. The applications of his art took him to New York City, which was a great place to develop his craft and make connections in the industry. But it didn’t take long for him to return to his home state, find a plot of land within 30 miles of the Portland Airport (for ease of shipping), and build an expansive warehouse shop where collaborative creations have the space to go from concept to production. That location is Scappoose, which has been the home of Michael Curry Design for the past two decades.

Michael appreciates the pioneer spirit and the craftsmanship of the west—that’s one of the reasons he returned here from New York. He knew that here he would be able to find the right kind of folks he was interested in working with. He collaborates daily with a core group of 50 artists and engineers that make up his design company.

The best advice that Michael never got? “Trust your instincts and fight for them, because above all things, these are the most unique gifts you have to offer.” By following his own instincts Michael worked his way from a small hometown onto the biggest stages the world has to offer.

When asked what he would do if he could harness the pulse of the 700 attendees in the room on event day, he said this: “I would have them go out and practice what they’re hearing. All of them in their own individual ways, but with a combined, collective energy.” Michael has found a way to make art in his own way, and to actively collaborate with others to produce some of the most stunning live performances that the world has ever seen.

To hear Michael’s idea worth spreading in person on May 3rd, grab yourself a ticket before they run out. Otherwise, you’ll have to watch his talk from your computer screen. And we know that won’t be nearly as much fun as seeing him in person.

Doug Neill

Doug Neill is an illustrator, writer, and teacher who became involved with TEDxConcordiaUPortland because of a tweet. After a last-minute contribution to the 2013 event, he decided to join the planning team for 2014. He draws things, writes stories, and helps prep speakers to give a memorable performance on event day