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The puppeteer who loves food stamps

Once an actor, Mike Oleon got sick of competing for parts against so-called beautiful people — who he feels don’t reflect reality — and ended up with puppets.

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Mike Oleon in his Logan Square apartment. (WBEZ/Kate Dries)

Mike Oleon, a quirky guy who knows what he does can be considered weird, is focused. The puppeteer, 26 when we met, doesn’t see much reason to stray from what he’s doing, even though what he’s doing is far from a quote-unquote “regular” career. (As his website says, “web. graphics. puppets?!) Oleon knows what he likes and he’s comfortable with it and it doesn’t much matter that things can be hard. Originally an actor, Oleon got sick of competing for parts against so-called beautiful people, who he feels don’t reflect reality, and ended up with puppets. Yet because he’s so confident in his decision, Oleon is incredibly calm about existing at a basic level of survival (at least for now) because he gets to do this art. Oh, and if you’re listening to the audio and wondering what this amazing performance you’re hearing is and what it looks like, it’s this.

Being a weird kid

People still show me the scars (from when I bit them). They’re like, ‘Hey Mike, how’s it going, remember that time when you were 8 and you bit me? So I was kind of a strange and rambunctious, spastic child. I don’t know if I was artistic; I was pretty weird.

My mom … was always nuturing of the weird and creative side of things. She didn’t necessarily see my strange behavior as a bad thing. She kind of just wanted to foster it into something that was productive. So that turned into theater. And I found out that I enjoyed being on stage far more than doing more normal things. Not that stage is such a strange thing to be doing in high school, but my dad really wanted me to do sports, like baseball and cross-country, but the structure of them wasn’t quite working for me. But playing pretend on stage for an hour and a half, two hours at a time, that seemed really appealing.


I went to school in Los Angeles, and I went to UCLA and I studied musical theater there. … And I had a couple of friends who, they moved out here a year before I did, which was really helpful because they paved the way for a lot of things, for my coming here. But I knew I wanted to live in a city that had more theater. A lot more theater.

We all came out, and we started a theater company together. We actually moved into a storefront space, we called it the Roughhouse., and it’s still the name of our theater company, Roughhouse … which was great, because we had this big open space where we could throw parties, theater-oriented parties where we’d have live performances and we’d have music and we’d have lots of cheap beer, and it was just a really ideal way to just, I guess sort of experiment and play around with stuff.

They did all of the scoping for the space. They found it on Craigslist. Which was really convenient, because they called me up and they were like ‘Hey Mike, want to move into a theater?!’ Which is really hard to say no to.

So we lived in the space, a little freaked out about how illegal it was, because we’d heard about so many places getting shutdown over time. But eventually we didn’t even have to worry about that because we got flooded out before we had to worry about the law or us getting too big. It was like a year and a half ago. … Our rooms were in the basement, which were already starting to wear on us because there’s no sunlight in the basement. Which you think you can do fine without, but after two years of it, you start to go a little bit crazy.

We’ve all sort of resigned ourselves to living pretty meager, unwealthy existences at this point.

What’s the point of a puppet

Actors talk about this all the time, but you go into, you’re auditioning for a role and you walk into a room that has five other people who look exactly like you. And I had experienced that in L.A. and I was starting to experience that here and after awhile … that continued process, it just became less and less appealing.

Beautiful people are always getting cast in things, and it doesn’t make any sense to me because you have plays and you have movies and you have things that are full of people that don’t look like the folks that this story would be happening to. And yet you need to have those beautiful people to sell tickets. But with puppets, you don’t have to.

Oleon's variety of puppets. (WBEZ/Kate Dries)

When you have a puppet on stage (assuming that it’s a well-made puppet) you look at it and you know exactly what it’s about. And it matters very little who is operating it behind. Gender doesn’t matter, color doesn’t matter, because whoever is doing it, they get to be the puppet. And what’s cool about the puppet is that that puppet can be anything.

So … I took a couple of jobs that paid virtually nothing, but it was enough to cover my rent. As long as you have rent and food – and food stamps is an amazing thing, and I highly recommend it to anybody who has any stigma against it, and is not eating as well as they would like.

Survival, bare bones survival is [a] pretty easy thing to do. … I live in a place where heat is covered, and that’s sort of enough.

So from taking very small odd jobs, or low-paying odd jobs and food stamps, I was able to make it through one winter and pretty much teach myself web design. And from that, just started building a portfolio. … So now I’m able to get web gigs and whenever puppet stuff is busy enough, I can say no to the web gigs or I can stop seeking them out and spend all my time doing what I actually want to be doing.

Working it out

I still think that I’m in the pretty introductory stages of it working out. I have no idea how long I can keep on doing this for? But … hopefully things would steady out more than they are. …

I very much want this to be my life. The two options are, me being able to sustain myself and maybe a family one day off of doing this, or I’ll completely run myself into the ground and go bats**t crazy.

I feel like if I give myself any other options, then that’s the moment that you start to see people leaving theater. They find something else that they enjoy that’s comfortable, it’s easier and it provides them the things that they want, but then they start easing their way out of what their true passions are. … I’ve talked to too many people in their 40s and 50s who say, ‘I wish I had stuck with it a little longer’… I’ve heard a lot of people tell me that it’s kind of a longevity game … I’ve talked to so many performers who are like ‘My career didn’t start taking off until I was in my 30s.’ It’s like, okay, so I guess I have to wait until I’m in my 30s, that’s fine. In the meantime, I’m going to get as good as I possibly can at it and keep on playing with the kind of things and with the people I like to play with.

The transcript above features an extended version of the interview. Explore more stories from Chicago’s Hungry Artists.

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