By Noah Johnson
Michael Cotter, a 69-year-old father of three, is the co-founder of Blue Sky Puppet Theatre, a company in University Park that specializes in educational children’s shows that promote “excellence in theatre, art, education and fun,” according to the company’s website. On May 24, Blue Sky will celebrate its 43-year anniversary, Cotter said.
Much of Cotter’s life is directly linked to Blue Sky. Early experiences not only helped him grow as an individual, but also helped shape and improve his career, he said, which is still going strong after thousands of performances over more than four decades.
“Blue Sky is a good time for parents and children to be together,” said Melissa Sikes, the executive director of the College Park Arts Exchange.
Cotter said he spent much of his childhood in Washington, D.C., then went to school at the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania.
He also went through the Peace Corps’ training corps and worked as a teacher, he said, noting that he enjoyed the creative aspects of teaching and loved integrating education into the arts.
At one point, Cotter sat down and watched a video of himself teaching in front of a classroom filled with students. He said doing so made him realize he did not mind holding that kind of presence.
“I have no reason to be embarrassed to stand up in front of people,” Cotter said.
At age 26, Cotter was working as a carpenter, but quickly realized that his future laid elsewhere.
“This was the early 70’s, and if you weren’t doing something weird, there was something wrong with you,” Cotter said.
Blue Sky made its debut in 1974. According to Cotter, the company would later perform alongside the National Symphony at the Kennedy Center.
Jeremy Young, a former Blue Sky performer who still collaborates with Cotter on shows, still remembers what caused Cotter to pursue puppeteering.
“Michael’s combination of interests [are] music, storytelling and carpentry,” Young said. “He tells this story of sitting on a beach, and having a feather drop out of the sky, as the sign he was looking for to make his next move in life.”
Cotter was the mastermind behind Blue Sky’s first production, “The Blue Suede Zoo,” which utilized five puppeteers and an eight-piece jazz band led by Young, according to the company’s website.
The show revolved around “outer space communication to Earth with jazz,” Cotter said.
In its infancy, Blue Sky fluctuated between experimental adult performances and children’s shows. The company’s adult-focused, political satire phase began at a dive bar before being booked at theaters, comedy clubs and universities, according to Cotter, who claimed the performance could have been taken to The Tonight Show.
“No one was doing what we were doing,” he said.
When Cotter married his wife in 1980, the format of the productions changed a bit. Half the shows were aimed at adults, while half of them were aimed at children, Cotter said.
Despite the success of the company’s more mature content, Blue Sky decided to exclusively cater to family audiences, according to the company’s website, a choice that has left Cotter with no regrets.
“I’d do it again in the heartbeat,” Cotter said.
The 23-year-old production, “Building Bridges,” has become the Blue Sky’s flagship show, according to Cotter, who says 1.8 million children have seen the performance. However, it is only one of 17 “tried and true” shows offered by the company, Cotter said.
“Every one of them has been honed over the years,” Cotter said. “Literally hundreds and hundreds of shows.”
Alongside the company’s 1,300 annual showings, Cotter is also an independent visual artist, according to Blue Sky’s website.
“Over the years, the lines and colors have gotten in line, and the paintings have gotten more and more subtle and effective,” Young said. “Michael has become the artist that he has always insisted he never was.”
Cotter is currently accompanied by four other employees at Blue Sky, he said.
Nearly 43 years into the business, Cotter still tends to perform around five days a week.
“I really look at this as a calling,” he said.