CARLY CIARROCCHI may not have set out to co-star with a chicken, but it's working for her.
The Wilmington, Del., native has a famously hard-to-spell last name - she's the niece of CBS3 anchor Pat Ciarrocchi - but to legions of preschoolers still learning their letters, she's Carly.
And as one of the co-hosts of Sprout's "Sunny Side Up Show," a daily block of live, between-series programming transmitted from the "Sunshine Barn" inside Comcast's towering headquarters in Philadelphia, she also functions as interpreter for Chica, a puppet chicken that communicates through chirps.
Ciarrocchi, who joined the Sprout crew two years ago this month, spoke with Ellen Gray about stomping with dinosaurs, meeting her fans and what she's learned performing with Chica.
Q) What's it like working with Chica?
It's a funny thing, isn't it? Because when I tell people my job is to just hang out with a chicken all day in the sunshine, they're like, "Wait - what?"
Q) Is it intense to be working live every day?
It is. You're constantly generating content. As a performer, like me, it's a total gift. You prep for a week and then you're on air the next week. So [one week was] Dinosaurs Week. The week before, we were writing our music and making up our games, and then we went live a couple of days later.
Q) Do you do Dinosaur Week a lot?
Yes. The repetition is key. So even if we do Dinosaurs Week three times in one year, it's valuable to [kids] because they get to have the experience of watching what they've seen before and know what's coming next.
I got super-jazzed about the content, but I had to remember: They're 3 years old and you will lose them if you try to complicate it. They want to stomp, they want to roar and they want to talk about T. Rex.
Q) You talk pretty fast. Do you have to watch that?
I do have to slow down, often. And actually, Chica, the specifics of her as a puppet, helps. She's a great reason to slow down. Because you have to be present with this puppet that has a beak that moves and wings that move, but that's it.
Q) What did you study?
I was a theater major at Northwestern in Chicago.
Q) Had you done much improv?
I had. I was in Chicago for a couple of years doing improv [at Second City and elsewhere]. I did Steppenwolf [Theatre Company]. I hustled a million jobs. I happened to be doing early childhood education during the day, to pay the bills.
Q) Besides being the oldest of seven, what kind of experience had you had with preschoolers?
I was teaching at a school called Bubbles Academy in Chicago. I did imagination classes for kids between the ages of 3 and 6, like superhero-themed class.
I also would do sets of music at Whole Foods with my guitar, so I got to learn firsthand what it is to have a real preschool audience in front of you, and how quickly you can lose them if the content in your songs is not active. They don't want to just hear you get up and sing a song. They want you to ask them to stomp and ask them to clap and ask them to repeat.
Q) Has your Aunt Pat given any advice?
She's been a wonderful resource. But also just watching her interact with the people of Philadelphia, as a kid being around her, she's a very kind and gracious person, and so I hope to bring that to the things that I do.
Q) Are you often recognized?
Children, I think, they're too young to recognize me out of context. I wear glasses, but I also wear contacts, sometimes my hair is up. Someone will hear me speak - because I have my low, recognizable voice, I guess - and they'll be like, "You sound just like that Sprout girl," and I'll be, "Yeah, yeah, yeah, that's me."
But even if parents recognize me and turn to the kid and say, "Hey, it's Carly!" the kid will just kind of look, be confused and be like, "Um, where's Chica?"
Q) Is that good?
It is good. So I can do other work. Particularly because we are like a news anchor in that we are using our real names and we are our real, human selves. I really wear glasses, I really have food allergies [to dairy and peanuts], I really have six brothers and sisters and I've shown their pictures on the air.
When Chica and I are making a recipe, I get to say, "We're not using peanut butter, because I'm allergic."