‘Donkey Hodie’ EP and Supervising Producer discuss Season 2

Donkey Hodie. Photo Credit: Fred Rogers Productions
Donkey Hodie. Photo Credit: Fred Rogers Productions /

Executive Producer Adam Rudman and Supervising Producer Kristin DiQuollo both help bring the world found in PBS’ Donkey Hodie to life on the small screen! The puppet-led series is co-produced by Fred Rogers Productions and Spiffy Pictures and entered into its second season on Aug 14. We sat down with Rudman and DiQuollo to talk about their work backgrounds and what new and exciting changes are being made for season 2 of the series while giving incredible insight into the sometimes-challenging but always fun production process of Donkey Hodie. 

Culturess: Introduce yourselves! [What is] your role in Donkey Hodie, and any projects that you’ve worked on previously? 

Kristin DiQuollo: My name is Kristin DiQuollo. I’m the supervising producer on Donkey Hodie for Fred Rogers Productions. I’m based in Pittsburgh. My role as supervising producer on Donkey Hodie is basically for Fred Rogers Productions, overseeing everything from start to finish and working very closely with Adam and everybody at Spiffy [Pictures] to make our world come to life on screen. So that’s from the early stages with our child development advisors to the final stages of getting everything over to PBS. Before this, I was executive producer of an animated series called Cyberchase, also on PBS Kids, produced by WNET in New York. Before my time in children’s television, I had other roles in educational media, working for the IMAX Corporation for a while. Before that, a classroom magazine and website that published writing by teenagers. So that’s my backstory in a nutshell. Over to Adam.

Adam Rudman: I am Adam Rudman. I am executive producer and also head writer on Donkey Hodie, co-creator of the show, as well, with my brother David and Fred Rogers Productions and Ellen Doherty. In the past, we have other shows that we’ve created that have been on Nickelodeon and Disney [such as] Bunnytown [and] Jack’s Big Music Show. We have a show on PBS also, called Nature Cat, which we created and is on currently. Before all [of] that, I’ve written for so many children’s shows from Sesame Street to Scooby Doo and Cyberchase with Kristin. I worked with Kristin for a long time on Cyberchase as a writer and also with Ellen Doherty who’s also at Fred Rogers and even farther back on Cyberchase as well.

Culturess: It’s so cool to hear both of you backgrounds specifically for Adam. Since you are the executive producer of the show, what made you want to create Donkey Hodie?

AR: Fred Rogers Productions came to us. Ellen [Doherty] called and said, “We have this character that Fred Rogers created called Donkey Hodie that we really think we can make a great show out of it. Would you be interested in working with us to help create this show?” I had never heard of Donkey Hodie before and David Rudman, my brother and I, we looked at the character and we were like “Oh, God, this is such great opportunity to work know, when she got there and, you know, company was just amazing to be able know look at all of Fred Rogers Productions, all the stuff he created and go through it and pick out the quirky stuff that people really didn’t know about that he did, and then create the show from there. So it was just an honor to be able to even be considered and to do it.

Culturess: Kristin, so you’re the supervising producer, so you have a hand in almost every aspect of the show. What has been some of the challenges of producing this series?

KQ: Well, to use a Donkey Hodie core message, we see every challenge is a fun game. Donkey says, “I can turn this challenge into a fun game”. Before working on Donkey Hodie, I was in animation. So producing live-action has been a whole new adventure for me. I think one of the amazing opportunities and one of the coolest things about it is that when we’re on set in Chicago, we shoot at WTTW, which is the Chicago PBS station and where Spiffy is based. Everybody is working together in a single moment to make something happen. You have a script in front of you, you have puppeteers on camera, you have everybody behind the camera. You have David, who’s directing, our other directors, and you’re getting what is on screen in that one moment, and it’s very coo,  but that is also a challenge. You have that moment to get it right, and we do it a few times, and usually it turns out pretty great. Much different than animation, where the process is drawn out over the course of months and months and months, and you have a lot of time to fine tune every detail. It’s also what makes it really exciting. I think the energy and the magic of what can happen in a creative moment really comes through on screen in our show. So it is a challenge, but it’s also one of the greatest joys and opportunities  too.

AR: Like Kristin was saying, underneath it, when you pull back or you see underneath, there’s like ten puppeteers. There’s puppet wranglers, there’s the set, there’s the lighting guys. It’s just mayhem and stuff going on but on the monitor, everything looks great. Everyone is working together to make this amazing show.

KQ: It’s a lot of creative improvisation, not just on the part of the performers, but on everybody around, to tweak and make things happen. Our art department is sometimes just like swapping out a prop at the last minute to make something work better. So it’s about being really fast on your feet and solving problems on the go. Again, which is a lot of what our show is about, too. I think we can use Donkey Hodie as a model for all of our work behind the scenes, whether we’re writing scripts or on set.

Culturess: It leads into my next question, because obviously, this show is utilizing puppeteers, and I feel like, personally, I’ve watched so many shows when I was younger that featured puppeteers. I always wanted to know how it is working with the crew and the puppeteers; What is that relationship? Can you give me some insight into that?

AR: Well, technically, the puppeteers are below frame and they have monitors so they could see what the camera see, so they know where they are in relation to the world. I’m not going to demonstrate because I’m a terrible puppeteer and I’m a behind-the-scenes person, but it’s really working with the director, David [Rudman]. Everything is storyboarded, so they know what we want to get in each shot. Everyone knows what they need to do for every particular shot. So what goes into it, where the lights are going to be and where the camera moves and where the camera stops and where the puppeteers are choreographing their whole movement and they’re dancing across the screen. They have to stop right here at this moment with the lights great. And where the camera stops and pick up this prop that has already been ready to go. But it’s below frame, so when you pick it up, it’s there. It’s a lot of stuff going on to get those shots right.

KQ: Puppets, by the way, have no ability to perform for themselves. This is where things and really the intricacies of the craft and the art form come into play. [The character of] Panda picking up a ball might look effortless on screen, but there’s actually another puppeteer who’s probably off, as Adam said, either under frame or to the side, waiting with that ball on a rod to be able to put it in Panda’s hand the moment that Panda needs it. Every prop and everything that the art department builds, they have to answer questions like, “What does this need to do?” “Who needs to hold it?” “Where does it need to go?” “How do I let it sit 5 ft off the ground?” “How are we going to do all this and make it look completely simple and easy on screen?” As Adam said, every episode is storyboarded by David or Frankie [Cordero], who’s another one of our directors. So the whole crew knows what every shot needs to look like. [Other questions like] “How much set do we need?” “What props do we need in it?” “What is the camera framing?” “Where do the puppeteers need to be standing?” “How many puppeteers do we need?” All of that stuff is worked out in advance.

KQ: I also want to put in a plug for our associate director, Katie Ray, because she is the one who figures that all out, logistically, of where we need everything and when we need it and what order we’re shooting it in. It is a puzzle of epic proportions.

AR: Yeah, she has her home board on the set where she cuts out each storyboard and she pieces it together. She pieces together when we’re going to shoot everything, when it makes sense to group shots together. And you see her over there in between takes, just like scratching her head and looking at the board and trying to figure it out. She always does.

Culturess: Please shout out any other people who are involved because it takes a village, it sounds like, to really put these types of shows up. So that’s awesome. And obviously, this show is also a part of, I’m going to say, the Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood universe. So for this upcoming season, Trolley is included, which is a character from Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Was it really interesting to kind of see those worlds combined? It must have been cool to see callbacks to the other show that it was based off of. 

AR: Yeah. Definitely in season one, and then there’s characters of Fred’s that we’ve used throughout. Even ‘The Land of Someplace Else’ was his. He created this land, but Trolley is the biggest. It was a great idea. It was a wonderful idea bu then we’re like, “Okay, how are we going to do this?” because Trolley’s really big and also to make Trolley look like he fits in our world. So Justin Vandenberg and the design team just did the most amazing job making Trolley look amazing. Then it comes to shooting Trolley and how are we going to shoot Trolley with the puppets and make that work. It’s everything Kristin was talking about before: Putting puppets in Trolley. “How are we going to shoot it?” “Where the puppeteer is going to be?” There was so much to figure out for this character, but I think it worked really well.

KQ: I know Justin, our production designer, has talked about this in the past. Visually, Justin [Vandenberg’s] approach to the entire look, the entire world look on Donkey Hodie is a feeling of nostalgia. He says he designs everything from a childhood memory. So he really drew Trolley from memory before he even thought about how we were going to build Trolley. Everything in our world is a little squishy and wonky and cartoony. So the priority was, “Do we immediately look at Trolley and recognize that this is Trolley from Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. [Trolley is] also from Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood. “Does it feel like Trolley?” The answer is yes, but as Adam said, doesn’t look the same. It looks like Trolley for our world.  It’s the first time that characters are riding on Trolley in live-action. On Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, Trolley was like this [gestures to indicate Trolley’s small size] big. All the characters performed around Trolley, but our characters [on Donkey Hodie] get to perform inside Trolley and aboard Trolley and that’s really neat.

AR: Really neat and to shoot that took a lot of figuring out [in order]to make everything look great, but you’ll see, I think we pulled it off.

Culturess: That’s what I was really interested in, because I remember when I watched it, I was like, oh, because it was almost like to see it not be like it was like, okay, this is going to be really interesting. And I know since the show’s in its second season, I wonder, Adam or Kristin, if you have any input when it comes to any changes that were made for the second season, whether it know, maybe some different storylines or what changed from the first season and what did you implement into the second season?

AR: Good question.

KQ: Well, world wise, we did expand our world in a few ways. In terms of world building, we’ve added characters, and new ones will be introduced in coming episodes, which is exciting. We’ve also added new locations. The rainbow tree is a huge one. I’ll let Adam tell the story.

KQ (CONT’D): Yeah, Grampy. So the story on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, I’ll set it up, and then you [Adam] can take it. In Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, the original Donkey Hodie, who is now our Grampy Hodie, went and founded ‘Someplace Else’ because he was trying to build a windmill near King Friday’s castle and King Friday said, “Go build your windmill someplace else, Donkey”, which is where our story is. Our yellow Donkey is now the granddaughter of that Donkey. So the story of the rainbow tree goes back to when Grandpa or the original Donkey Hodie first came to ‘Someplace Else’, and he saw a bouncing rainbow one day.

AR: There’s so many stories in my head from the seasons. He saw a bouncing rainbow one day, and then he wanted to plant it. He saved part of the bouncing rainbow, and he wanted to plant it in ‘Someplace Else’ because he wanted to keep it for himself.  The bouncing piece of the rainbow grew into this beautiful rainbow tree in the middle of ‘Someplace Else”. It’s the focal point of our season. It’s a big reveal. It’s a beautiful set. Again, we’ve been talking about Justin [Vandenberg] and the design team, but in our minds, we’re like, “rainbow tree” and then he [Justin] just goes and takes it places where you can’t even imagine it, just brought it to life, and it’s so beautiful.

KQ: It’s a community gathering place, as Adam said. It’s a focal point of someplace else now. It’s where everyone comes together. It’s part of the natural environment and the built environment. There’s a ramp around the tree so you can access higher branches. So the community has really made the rainbow tree its special place.

AR: It’s in a bunch of special episodes this year, too and that’s all I probably could say on that. [Laughs]

KQ: We’ve also built the world in other ways. Like, we get to see Grampy’s basement for the first time, which is very cool and inside Bob Dog’s house. We didn’t really go inside Bob Dog’s.

AR: We built the world out a little bit more. So there’s ‘Someplace Cold’, which is close to our area, but it’s all ice and snow and it’s inhabited by some of the penguins that come by ‘Someplace Else’.

Culturess: That’s so funny! Oh, I love that. I like that expansion of the world. I think that’s a great way to explain what season two is going to be about. So for my final question, I want to know personally from you guys, obviously, you have creative control of the show, but I want to know, what do you get out of Donkey Hodie? Personally, I don’t know if you’re a parent or not, but I wonder for viewers what they can get out of it, both young and old.

AR: Wow. Well, personally and also, hopefully, they’re the viewers as well. What I love about there’s so much I love about the show, but what I love about it is that we can be really silly, and the show is full of surprises. You could sit down and watch it and laugh and be surprised, as well as learn what we’re teaching in the stories. It’s also what I love about it, which I hope others, too, is that it’s characters that you root for to succeed. Donkey has a lot of big ideas and things that she wants to do and also her pals, and you just root for them. So all that is what I love about it and its heart and it’s humor and its great music.

KQ: Yeah. I think that for me, it’s the same. Donkey Hodie is a joyful series. I think it’s one of the things that sets it apart, frankly, from a lot of other shows. There’s just so much vibrancy and energy and joy that comes out of the characters in the world in the show and the format. Like Adam said, the music, too, is such a huge part of our series, and it’s such a vehicle for joy. The choice around, what kind of music we feature, we take very intentionally. We want every song to be a song that you would be hearing on Top 40 radio, potentially. So we create, very intentionally, every element so that you are having fun, but that there is a lot of heart, as Adam said, which is one of the things that Adam, as head writer, brings to every story, is the quirkiness, the silliness, the heart. That is what we leaned into, quirkiness. Silliness was a big part of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, and it often, I think, is a little overlooked for the more earnest parts of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. There was so much silliness in that series, and we are inspired by that, and that is what Donkey Hodie is inspired by.

KQ (CONT’D): So, for me personally, as a producer, just in terms of the life lessons that we weave into every story, they are timeless. They are for all of us. ‘I can do big things’. ‘It’s okay to ask for help if I need it’. ‘I can wait’. We all need that. So we really hope these are important messages for preschoolers, who are developing their independence and coming into the world and figuring out who they are and how they relate to other kids and other people around them. For us, for adults,, for parents or other caregivers and co-viewers, for grandparents, they are things we need reminders of every day. ‘I can change my plan’ is a big one as a producer.

Culturess: Definitely [a] necessary thought, for sure.

KQ: I’m sure as a writer, too. You can change your plan.

Culturess: That’s what I love about children’s shows, that there’s always something for everyone, even though it’s targeted towards children. They’re family shows. Siblings, uncles, aunts, they can all enjoy and watch.

AR: Yeah, that’s how we approach it. It’s targeted. We have our demo, and it’s for this age group, but we do keep in mind the whole family, and we’d love to have the biggest, widest audience possible, and we think we can with the show.

Producer Jose Diaz Talks 100,000 Dollar Pyramid. dark. Next

You can watch Donkey Hodie on PBS Kids and Amazon Prime Video with a premium subscription. Keep up to date with Culturess for more television news and coverage.