Teen finds comfort in performing for children

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Photo by Laura Stetser/Justin Hlifka, 16, of Egg Harbor Township is owner of Justin the Puppet Master productions Photo by Laura Stetser/Justin Hlifka, 16, of Egg Harbor Township is owner of Justin the Puppet Master productions

EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP – Just a few minutes before showtime, 16-year-old Justin Hlifka’s speech is measured and hesitant. At times, he stumbles over his own thoughts as he tries to express himself clearly.

But once he disappears behind the black drape that allows him to stay hidden from his audience, his whole demeanor changes. His voice, now more confident and fluid, takes on different tones as he impersonates a variety of characters in his puppet show, which he performs at area childcare centers and birthday parties through his entertainment company called Justin the Puppet Master.

The oldest of the three children in his family, Hlifka was born with Aspergers sydrome, which is a condition that resides within the autism spectrum.

Individuals with Aspergers can typically function at a higher level than those with autism, according to the National Institute of Health, but children like Hlifka can still struggle with social skills, display unusual body language, have difficulty understanding figurative speech and have trouble with eye contact.

“He is socially awkward,” said his mother Lisa Hlifka. “But when he performs, all of that completely disappears. It’s amazing. It’s where he’s most comfortable.”

The Egg Harbor Township High School sophomore said he has always loved puppets and the arts. “I always loved ‘Sesame Street’ as a kid,” he said. “I love the fun they had and the way they taught the kids.”

However it was in middle school where he first discovered that he loved to perform.

His mother said he came home one afternoon and told the family he was entering the talent show as a ventriloquist.

“I said, ‘But Justin, you’re not a ventriloquist.’ But he practiced and that night I had people coming up to me saying they couldn’t believe how he was on stage. He was so comfortable. You could see in his face.”

Roles in school dramas and musicals followed, and earlier this year, he launched his own business after being inspired by another local performer, magician Chad Juros.

The customer chooses the theme. I have five different ones: comedy, drama, education, friendship or religion,” he said like a true businessman. “I hope one day to get all the way to ‘Sesame Street’ and work for them as a puppeteer.”

After his clients select the theme of the show, Hlifka first works on the script.

“I write the script, then work on remembering the words. Then I work on using the puppet to say them and then, the last thing I do is work on movement.”

The shows are typically a family affair. His parents lend technical support and transportation, while his sister Nicole, 10, gives voice to the female characters and his brother Brian, 14, videotapes the performances.

Lisa Hlifka also noted that the support her son has received from the school district has been a big contributing factor to how far he has come since he was first diagnosed with Aspergers.

“He really could have gotten lost in the shuffle because he is high functioning. It took me two years to get him classified. I kept saying, ‘something’s just not right.’ Since he was able to get the support he needed, it has been great. Dr. Bonnie Sebastian (district supervisor of autism and M.D. services) is an amazing resource. We are blessed to have her in this district.”

Hlifka politely interrupted his mother’s conversation to announce the show was about to begin.

He performed two skits for the day’s small audience – one with his oldest and most treasured puppet Eddie, who is a “real Jersey-style guy,” and one with T-rex puppet.

In the dinosaur skit, Hlfika told the story of how the dinosaur was kept in a cage because his captors were fearful of him. During the story, the dinosaur breaks free and makes friends along the way. At the conclusion, he asks his new friends to remember the lesson of the tale.

“Remember kids, it doesn’t matter what you look like on the outside. It’s how nice you are on the inside,” the puppet said. 

If you go

Justin the Puppet Master is scheduled to perform two free shows at the Jersey Shore Children’s Museum inside the Shore Mall 11 a.m. Monday, Sept. 17, and Wednesday, Sept. 26.

For information see visit his Facebook page or call (609) 383-0133. 

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