Meet Our Neighbors: Stephanie D’Abruzzo

Donkey Hodie puppeteer, writer, and Pittsburgher!

Tell us about yourself and how your career led you to work in children’s television. 

I have always loved performing. When I was young, I’d read books out loud to myself in my bedroom, giving different voices to all of the characters as if it was a one-woman show. I’d sing on my backyard swing set. I did a lot of theatre in high school, but the idea of making a living as a performer was not seen as realistic by the people in my life at the time. I became a radio/TV/film major in college, but I also performed in student films, was in an improv troupe, sang in various groups, wrote comic essays, and also took courses in storytelling, creative drama, and children’s theatre. 

I’d always been a fan of “Sesame Street” when I was little but it wasn’t until I watched it between classes in college that I saw the Muppet style of TV puppetry as a way to combine all the things I loved (character acting, singing, improv, writing, storytelling, TV production), and a medium in which I could play many, many different characters of any type without it mattering what I looked like. Once I had this epiphany, I spent most of my time building odd-looking puppets and teaching myself TV puppetry… and took to it immediately. It’s a complicated but incredibly freeing way to perform. 

The thing about TV puppetry of this kind is that most of the programs that use it are in children’s television, but all those children’s theatre, creative drama, and storytelling courses gave me an incredible knowledge base in that area, and they still inform the work I do, even as children’s television continues to evolve. 

Describe your role(s) on Donkey Hodie. 

I have many roles on Donkey Hodie: I play Duck Duck, Harriett Elizabeth Cow, Mama Panda, Doc Skunk, and a few other surprise characters coming up in Season 2… and when I’m on set and my characters aren’t in the scene, I sometimes assist the other puppeteers by manipulating their character’s arms or feet or helping them handle certain props. 

I’ve also written a handful of episodes, including “Growing the Ungrowdenia,” “Panda Hodie,” “Good Dog School,” and “Being Bob Dog.” 

It’s fun to get to do so many different things on the show on any given day. And I really love it when two of my characters are in a scene together. I’ll perform one character the way I usually do—by doing the voice and physical manipulation simultaneously, and then I’ll also perform the voice of the other character while someone else (usually Mel Campbell) puppeteers it, matching the lip-sync to my vocals. It’s a tricky challenge but I always enjoy it. 

I love playing all of these characters, even though each puppet has its own unique challenges in terms of manipulation, but Duck Duck is officially my favorite puppet character that I have ever played in my 30-year career. 

Did you watch Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood growing up? If so, how does it feel to work on Donkey Hodie now? 

I definitely watched Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, and not just because I grew up in Pittsburgh, PA, where Fred Rogers is our hometown hero. That show was very important to me growing up, and according to my family, I had a crush on Mister Rogers as a toddler. Apparently I would hold my baby bottle up to the TV and “feed” him. Even at an early age, I knew that food is how Italians show love. 

Working on Donkey Hodie is extra special for me because we shoot it in Chicago, which is where my alma mater, Northwestern University, is. It was at Northwestern that I realized I wanted to pursue puppetry as a career, and it was a puppet project I produced with my dorm-mate friends that led me to meeting David Rudman, who recommended me to audition for The Jim Henson Company. 

After years of working on Sesame Street with David and Adam Rudman, I was so lucky to be invited into the Spiffy Pictures universe and get to work on projects like Jack’s Big Music Show and Nature Cat. Spiffy was the first company to let me write for them, and it was my first Donkey Hodie script that got me my Writers Guild card. 

At first I was a little unnerved by the idea of playing a legacy character like Harriett Elizabeth Cow, but when I saw how she was being redesigned with that fabulous hot pink hair, and reimagined as a boldly confident artist and inventor, rather than the prim schoolmarm I grew up watching, I was inspired to honor her past — as well as my Pittsburgh roots — by giving her a Pittsburgh dialect. This was also inspired by rewatching Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood as an adult and being struck by how thick Chef Brockett’s “Yinzer” dialect really was. I have a KDKA “Pittsburgh: Someplace Special” T-shirt from 3 Rivers Retro that I like to wear on days when I perform Harriett. (I recently got another “Pittsburgh: Someplace Special” Bicentennial shirt from Yinzylvania that I’ve worn on set as well.) 

I also show my Northwestern purple pride on set every day. My microphone is mounted on a modified Northwestern ball cap. I happen to stay near the Northwestern campus when we’re in production, and I love taking walks on my old stomping grounds when I can. And even though I honestly didn’t think about Northwestern purple when I first played her, it just felt right to give Mama Panda a big Midwest heart. 

Donkey Hodie is already an incredibly wonderful show to work on because of all the fun we have bringing these characters to life, and especially because of our glorious cast and crew, but having these personal connections to the show makes it truly special. 

Do you have a favorite episode of Donkey Hodie? 

If there’s one thing you need to know about me, it’s that I don’t have one favorite of anything… I tend to have multiple favorites of things, and in terms of Donkey Hodie episodes, I really love “Art Show Today,” “Lavender Lights,” “Swoop-a-rino,” and “Bye Bye, Book.” But there are so many great episodes coming up in Season 2 that are in the running to become my new favorites! 

What do you like to do when you’re not working? 

Most of the things I like to do are directly related to my career in some way, so sometimes it’s hard to tell when I’m not working! But I do enjoy playing the New York Times word games on my phone, relaxing at home in New York City with my husband, Craig Shemin, while we watch mostly classic TV and movies, and taking long walks that usually culminate in some sort of delicious meal or treat (preferably ice cream)!