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There’s a cliché that puppeteers have a God complex — something about the need to stand above, or behind, inanimate objects with the power to give them animation, or life, just by pulling a few strings on a marionette, or twisting a finger inside a hand puppet. The puppet may talk back, even rudely, and may invade the soul of the puppeteer, taking over for a while, like an invented character channeling him- or herself into the body of a Method actor. But where actors can, in theory, lose themselves in their characters, there’s a layer of psychic protection for puppeteers. With the mere flick of a wrist, they can paralyze their own creation. Now that’s a control freak’s dream, the kind of power that could go to one’s head, if one were even slightly mentally unbalanced.
Brian Henson approaches the art of puppeteering with exactly the opposite philosophy of power and control. Henson is the son of Muppets creator Jim Henson, whose cloth-and-glue animations appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show and The Tonight Show in addition to various Muppet movies and a TV series. Since his father’s death, Brian has taken over as co-CEO, with his sister Lisa Henson, of the Hollywood-based Jim Henson Company.
Henson’s improv-comedy puppet show, Puppet Up! Uncensored, though still in development, is now playing once a month at the Avalon in Hollywood. There’s a strategic disconnect between the seven puppeteers and the vast, eclectic array of puppets at their disposal. Perched on risers and staring out like a jury, they range from mono-eyed aliens and weasels to bucktoothed children, and may be used in any of the actors’ improvised sketches, emceed by Groundlings ringmaster Patrick Bristow.
“We don’t try to fill the skin of the puppet,” Henson explains, sitting in his La Brea Avenue office at the Jim Henson Company headquarters — former site of the Charlie Chaplin Studios and A&M Records. A small delegation of Muppet miniatures, including Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy, watches us from a mantel. “We as puppeteers are observing the character, which creates an irreverent relationship to the puppet.”
Henson adds that there’s huge entertainment value when, onstage, the relationship between puppet and puppeteer crashes and burns. “If the puppeteer can enjoy the fact that their puppet is drying up, you can derive great fun from humiliating your own puppet. ... We try to be the opposite of precious.”
As though improvising with large, complex and technically intricate puppets isn’t challenging enough for an actor, plug in yet another element of emotional disconnection: Looking at your scene partner, so basic to the art of traditional acting and improvisation, is not allowed in Henson’s show. Because during the performance, the show is being captured on a video camera that’s simultaneously broadcasting it onto a screen high above the actors, the puppeteers must perform while watching a video monitor of the puppets. Furthermore, the video images they’re seeing are the reverse of what they’re doing onstage.
“We have a company class on Tuesday night, a combination of improvisers whom we’re teaching puppetry to,” says Bristow, who’s sitting across from Henson. “We have a drop-off rate when they realize how hard it is. They set up their camera at home and they practice. It’s like learning to play a musical instrument. Learning to walk the puppet, then lip-synch it.”
Adds Henson, “If they don’t [practice] it at home, they never get up to a standard to get in a show.”
Puppet Up! Uncensored has been in development since the summer of 2005, starting as classes. Henson’s aim is to “create a new comedic voice for puppets for this decade” through the melding of video technology and the live stage.
“The Muppets came out of vaudeville and variety television,” Henson explains. “Then there was a sitcom era, and never was there a new adult era for puppets. So we’re trying to find that new, wonderfully funny voice for puppets.”
The show has performed to acclaim at comedy festivals from Aspen and Edinburgh to Sydney, yet Henson is still working on perfecting the form. He says he tried it on television as a special for TVS, but prefers the live stage because of the conceptual power of having the audience’s focus flip from video screen to live actors. One of his ideas is to “roll it out in a big way,” perhaps a high-profile run in New York.
With a father who’s an icon in the field of puppetry, there may also be a legacy issue at play for Henson. “As a young kid, I was always into marionettes, radio-effects puppets, what my dad used to call the ‘special-effects puppets,’” he says. Between the ages of 14 and 17, when his father had become famous, the younger Henson turned away from puppeteering, planning to become an astrophysicist. It was his rebel phase. “At 17, I came back. I did Piggy and Kermit on the bicycles. My dad said, ‘You do this better than the Muppet people.’ That was exciting for me, and at that point, I put myself on a career path of doing special-effects puppets — carving a career not as a performer but as a director.”