Thursday, October 13, 2011

My Interview for

Recently, I was interviewed by Shanna Freeman for for an article appearing on their website commemorating the 75th birthday of Jim Henson. While bits of the interview were sprinkled throughout the article, I thought some might like to read the whole thing. She asked some great questions!

You can read Shanna's article here:

1. What would you say is the biggest misconception that people have about Jim Henson and/or his work? What do you wish that they knew about him?

The biggest misconception that people have about Jim Henson is that he was a children's entertainer. Throughout most of his career, he fought against being pigeon-holed as such. Despite Jim's artistic triumphs with such fantasy features as "The Dark Crystal" and "Labyrinth," both of which are imaginative works of genius aimed at older audiences, they were both initially unsuccessful at the box office. A common misconception about the art of puppetry in the United States is that it is strictly a form of children's entertainment. Though there are many artists who are creating new works of puppetry for adult audiences, some that have even garnered international attention including Julie Taymor for "Lion King" and, most recently, Handspring Puppet Company for "War Horse," a majority of people still place puppetry at the "kiddie table."

I wish more people knew that Jim was an amazing cultivator of talent. While he was certainly an artistic genius with a rampant imagination and an unwavering vision, he also understood how to put the right talents together to form a powerhouse ensemble. He assembled one of the most versatile and dynamic performance groups on "The Muppet Show," rivaled only by similar teams such as the early cast of "Saturday Night Live," and "Monty Python's Flying Circus." Along with Jim, Frank Oz, Jerry Nelson, Dave Goelz and Richard Hunt (later to be joined by Steve Whitmire and Kathy Mullen) formed a puppetry dream-team. I don't believe people give much thought to the skill set required for being a bona fide Muppet performer. It is not simply about flapping a puppets mouth to simulate talking, though doing that effectively with seemingly little effort takes years to perfect. Muppet performers, especially of the old vanguard, have to be expert puppet manipulators (breathing life into their characters through (movement), singers (in character voice), dancers (in heavy puppet costumes), perform hundreds of characters that might only be seen once, and probably the most important: they must give their puppets a depth of character that covers the spectrum of emotion. I think audiences associate the Muppets with being funny, which they certainly are, but they are also unafraid to show more vulnerable and emotional sides of themselves. The real power of the Muppets is their unashamed display of heart towards each other and the world as a whole. This was also one of the many aspects of Jim Henson.

2. Generally speaking, what are some common misconceptions about puppetry?

I think that sort of gets covered in the above answer.

3. What's your favorite Muppet and why? How about your favorite Henson production in general?

Of the main Muppet family, I'd have to say my favorite is Doctor Teeth. I love him for his big personality and his outrageous clothes. And c'mon, he's got a gold tooth! But I have always been a lover of the one-off characters from "The Muppet Show" that were hardly considered regulars. I loved Marvin Suggs, who mercilessly beat on the heads of his Muppaphone to play "Lady of Spain." I loved boomerang fish thrower, Lew Zealand and the ever explosive Crazy Harry (two classic Jerry Nelson characters). "The Muppet Show" was filled with bizarre and outrageous characters that I found to be hilarious as well as visually interesting to watch.

4. You've done some work with Muppets and other Henson creations like Emmet Otter; how does it differ working with Muppets vs. other puppets? As someone who grew up watching Henson's work, what was that like for you?

By and large, the Muppets strictly work for television, which sets them apart from the world of live puppet theatre. Performing puppets on television is an entirely different skill set which can take years to cultivate. Ideally, a Muppet performer stands with the puppet over their head and watches their performance on a television monitor, which shows exactly what the camera sees. This is how a performer can keep the puppet in frame and keep themselves (head, arm, etc) out of it. There is also no depth of field on camera. Characters often have to "cheat" where they are looking, which looks odd in our 3-dimensional world, but in the 2-D world of television is spot-on. Muppet performers rarely find themselves in the ideal situation of standing while performing. Usually, they have to contort themselves into pretzel-like formations to prevent themselves from being seen while still giving a flawless performance. This might not seem like such a painful sacrifice until you note that most Muppet performers on "The Muppet Show" were over six feet tall. Now go back and watch "The Muppet Movie" and think about where the performers had to be situated to pull off some of those shots. You might develop a whole new respect for the puppeteers.

As far as the Muppet/Henson puppets themselves, they are created by some of the finest craftspeople in the world. Jim understood that his puppet designers and fabricators had to be the best in order to create puppets that could be performed well. Hundreds of hours go into creating each puppet. Puppet builders have to have a knowledge of a variety of materials including foams, fabrics, plastics, wood, and latex just to name a few. A Muppet builder can be called upon to carve a puppet head out of a block of foam using only a pair of scissors, meticulously hand-stitch fleece fabric to create tiny puppet arms or sculpt and paint a plate of Styrofoam cookies for Cookie Monster to devour. While a Muppet/Henson builder may never know what to expect on any given day at the workshop, they are always excited to tackle the challenge.

Working as a Henson/Muppet puppeteer was the realization of a childhood dream. I grew up watching the Muppets in rural Alabama and became a die-hard fan. Puppetry and the Muppets unlocked my imagination and I knew what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I decided this as a fifth grader. After years of making my own puppets and performing in schools, libraries, churches, festivals and birthday parties, I was encouraged to audition for Muppets following their acquisition by Disney. "Sesame Street" was also conducting simultaneous auditions. Within a year, I had done work as a performer for both companies. To put a Henson/Muppet puppet on is like putting on an Armani suit or playing a Martin D-28 guitar: expertly crafted for maximum use. It was an incredible experience to work alongside some of the finest puppeteers in the world. Though they are all focused on giving top-notch performances, they do so with a fervent amount of fun and lightheartedness. While the work can be very intense and require long hours in the studio, there is a ove for the work and each other that pervades.Where there are Muppet performers, a lot of fun is sure to be had.

I also got to make friends of childhood heroes like Jerry Nelson. Though we never performed on-camera together, we bonded over music. Few people know that Jerry, besides being one of the most talented Muppet puppeteers, is also an incredible songwriter, an interest I also share. So, we swapped songs in his dressing room on "Sesame Street," accompanying ourselves: Jerry on ukulele and myself on banjo. This lead to a recording session of Jerry's songs on a album he made called "Truro Daydreams." I was especially honored that he asked me to come play banjo on some of those songs alongside the virtuoso "Sesame Street" session musicians.

I can also attest that walking onto the set of "Sesame Street" instantly transports you back to being five years old. It is pure magic.

5. Can you speak to what the grant you received from the Jim Henson Foundation in 2007 did for you?

This grant is still in the process of completion..don't really want to comment on it quite yet. (**"The Reluctant Dragon" was completed and debuted on 10/11/11**)

6. What's your perspective on the state of puppetry today? It's still mainly considered a children's entertainment medium, but what do you think of the darker, more adult themes being explored through puppetry?

It has been made evident to me that there is now a younger generation who are discovering Jim Henson's work and being inspired by it. It has now been 20 years since his passing in 1990 and the ripples of his legacy are proving to be long-lasting. Puppeteers are not just limited to television, movies and live performance to have an audience for their work. What is emerging now is an online community of puppeteers who have the ability to have their work instantly seen around the world. With the advent of crowd-funding websites like RocketHub and Kickstarter, emerging puppet artists are able to fund their independent projects. Puppets are still being used in commercials, music videos, television, film and in both large and small scale live performance. Puppetry has and, I believe, will continue to have a strong and steady heartbeat regardless of where it lies on the landscape of ever-changing popular culture.

7. What's your take on the direction that Disney has taken the Muppets since their acquisition?

Firstly, I wish they'd hurry up and release seasons 4 and 5 of "The Muppet Show" on DVD. That may sound flippant, but quite honestly, Disney is sitting on a goldmine of Jim Henson's work that is simply being kept locked up and out of the viewing public's sight. Whether intentional or not, this does no justice to Jim's work, which should be made available to been seen.

In my opinion, the Muppets have become an experiment to see whether or not a group of characters can survive beyond those responsible for their creation. Although Jim was the leader of his company, the Muppets' success lives in the unique talents and personalities of a specific group of individuals, which he carefully hand-picked. Besides the loss of Jim Henson, the Muppets suffered equally tragic blows with the passing of builder Don Sahlin in 1978, puppeteer Richard Hunt in 1992 and head writer, Jerry Juhl in 2005. Other core members of the Muppets team, like Frank Oz, have gone on to explore and succeed in other career paths. Subsequently, the task of maintaining and continuing the legacy of the Muppets without these and other key figures is no small feat.

I grew up with the Muppets of the 1970's and 1980's; what some might call "The Golden Era" for Muppets. They were at the height of their popularity and the characters grew stronger and richer with each project. I think it becomes difficult to formulate an opinion about where the Muppets will go simply because it can be very easy to judge them based on where they have been. Jim felt very strongly that one of Disney's strengths was its devotion to its characters. It was his hope towards the end of his life that Disney would be able to extend that strength to the characters he created. Jim ultimately left the fate of the Muppets in the hands of the audience, stating that he felt the characters would be around as long as there would be an audience desirous to watch them.

8. Puppetry is mysterious to many people; how difficult is it to become a puppeteer? What could be done to make puppeteering more accessible?

There are many paths to becoming a puppeteer. Some, like me, had the impulse as a child. Others come to it much later. Some fall into it by accident, others set a very specific course. Some learn on their own, others seek out formal training (I received my MA in Puppet Arts from the University of Connecticut in 2001). Some become interested in a very specific aspect of puppetry such as performance or construction. Others have a holistic approach, adopting the attitude that by being a performer one can become a more informed builder and vice versa. Some practitioners work as employees for larger companies, others strike out on their own with smaller efforts.Some work in television and film, others work in live theatre venues. Still others navigate all of those arenas. In short, there are many avenues in the world of puppetry one can explore and there are an infinite number of ways of arriving at puppetry's doorstep.

Puppetry remains one of the most accessible art forms. Whether by a parent simply entertaining their child with a store-bought puppet or by a Muppet performer giving life to Kermit the Frog, there are many points at which a person can approach puppetry. Puppets can be as simple as a paper bag with a drawn-on face or as elaborate and technical as some of the animatronic creations of the Henson Creature Shop. Now with computer technology, which Jim had begun exploring as early as the 1980's, it is now possible to puppeteer computer generated puppet characters in real-time. Puppets can be used by a variety of professions such as educators and therapists, who use puppets to allow otherwise uncommunicative children to express themselves. Puppets have a real power that is easily taken for granted. We think of how simplistic they are but there is beauty and strength in that simplicity.

9. What is your vision for your own puppetry work with All Hands Productions?

All Hands Productions is going through a tremendously creative growth period. We are still focusing on presenting quality live family entertainment and we are developing new shows that will be unveiled to audiences within the coming year. I am also hard at work developing a new project called "The Pirate Stanley Show," which will start as web-based content with the hope of expanding, possibly to television series. I am interested in cultivating the talents of Atlanta (where AHP is based) puppeteers, filmmakers, artist and creative-type folks to create new projects in a variety of different media. And, above all, I want to continue having fun working as a professional puppeteer.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Decades of Dollars Commercial Shoot!

Here are a few photos from a commerical shoot I worked on in May with talented puppeteers Tyler Bunch, Ted Michaels and Lucky Yates. The geese puppets, Gary and Marty, were created by the Henson Workshop in L.A. for the Georgia Lottery's "Decades of Dollars" campaign. We shot 8, 7-second commercials in 2 days. Most have already begun airing. Lots of fun to work with this bunch of folks.
Tyler Bunch with Gary

David Stephens

Birds gotta drive..

Wrangler, Amy Rush; Lucky Yates and Ted Michaels

Lucky, Ted and Amy (and Marty)

Amy Rush

Ted Michaels and Marty

David Stephens, Tyler Bunch and Gary

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Some Christmas Stories

Greetings and Happy New Year, friends and neighbors!

I hope you all had happy holidays with loved ones around you. And I hope Santa was good to each and every one of you. He certainly was to me.

During the last two holiday seasons ('08 & '09), I spent my time in East Haddam, Connecticut working on a musical adaptation of “Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas,” which Jim Henson originally produced as a television special in the late 1970's. I was lucky enough to work with some of Broadway's finest talents and worked side-by-side with the legendary Paul Williams. I was also fortunate enough to work with the amazing folks at the Jim Henson Company's New York Workshop who created all of the wonderful costumes and puppets for the show. But doing a Christmas show means you have to work over the holidays and in my case that meant being away from my family. Sometimes work is work and you have to take it when you can get it. Plus, the project was too good to pass up. While it was a lot of work and a lot of fun, there were definitely parts of me that missed seeing my folks and sharing the season with them.

For one reason or another, Emmet took a Christmas vacation this past year so I was able to stay in the sunny south during the cold months of November and December. I felt I had reached my white Christmas quota for a while. I did my annual run of “Santa's Missing Mail” puppet shows at the Atlanta Botanical Gardens and had huge crowds for each Saturday performance. I was excited about putting up my own Christmas tree in the house and stringing lights around the porch and front windows. Thankfully, the previous tenants had left the guide nails in place, so stringing the lights was a cinch.

My folks came up to Atlanta for Thanksgiving. My housemate and cousin, Stephanie's parents came down from Spartanburg, SC. Stephanie's sister, Allison came over with her boyfriend, Bob, and we all had a big meal together the Tuesday night before Thanksgiving Day. The menu was cut right from my grandmother's cookbook. All of Mildred Keown's staples of holiday eating were there. Every year my mother tries to match my grandmother's dressing and every year she feels like she's fallen short of grandmother's perfection. It didn't stop us from stuffing our faces.

My parents stayed in Atlanta until Thanksgiving Day. The day before, I pulled out the Christmas tree and all the lights. When we put up a tree in Connecticut during “Emmet,” I volunteered to be in charge of the lights. After graduate school, I had a retail job in a Christmas tree ornament store in an outlet mall in Foley, AL. During the summer. You would not believe the amounts of money people would throw down in July for snowmen and Santa Clauses. But during my time there, I learned how to properly light a Christmas tree. I learned you don't just wrap the string of lights around from the top to the bottom, but you have to weave the strand through the branches, which requires a whole lot more lights, but the pay-off is so worth it. On Thanksgiving Day, I turned on the tree, tuned in to the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade (selfishly wishing a little that I was on the Sesame Street float) and wished my parents safe travels back to Alabama.

I drove down to South Alabama the week before Christmas, fully ready to be in the holiday spirit. I was already well on my way having been listening to the Christmas music radio stations a full month before the day. During the drive, I thought about our traditions as a family. Since the last of my grandparents passed away three years ago, I didn't feel as though my family unit had established any holiday traditions, per se. I knew mom would have her annual Christmas open house for the congregants of dad's church. She would spend a week preparing homemade confectionery and baked goods for everyone to gobble up. She'd also decorate the entire house, which visitors always admired. Part of this decorating involved placing some of my old toy building blocks in my bathroom at home. She'd spell out “Joy” and “Noel” with these blocks. Growing up, I would always change the letters around so they spelled something like “Noy Joel” or “Ney Jool” or something ridiculous like that. She also put a bathmat in front of the sink that read “HO HO HO”, which I would turn around so it read “OH OH OH.” I knew my joke had been discovered when I would see everything put back to rights. I took great pleasure in carrying on that silly tradition this past year. My mom told me that while I was away doing “Emmet,” my father changed the letter blocks around for me in my honor.

Christmas morning, I woke up to carry out another tradition: that of making Christmas cards for my parents. This is something I've done for a long time and not just for Christmas. Usually on the morning of whatever holiday it happened to be, I would hastily pull out my markers and crayons and fashion a card for one or both of my parents. Sometimes they were elaborate affairs in which I tested my drawing skills. Most of the time they involved some family inside joke. This Christmas morning I got up and sat at the kitchen table with the art supplies I'd brought along, thinking about what to draw. I knew I wanted to draw something a bit more sentimental for my mom and something funny for my dad. For mom, I drew a picture of Kermit the Frog, seated next to a giant Christmas tree and playing a banjo. In the sky, there is a bright shining star amidst a dark blue sky. For dad, I drew a picture of Ernie, dressed as Santa Claus, being pulled in a sleigh by a very annoyed looking Bert wearing reindeer antlers. I wrote my parents a note in each of their cards expressing my love for them and my appreciation for all they have done and continue to do to support and encourage me.

We feasted on Christmas Day with a menu that mirrored our Thanksgiving feast. When our stomachs had settled a bit, it was time for dessert. There are only two things that my father prepares every Christmas. One is Chex Party Mix, which he sent me even during the years I was away living in New York or working in Connecticut. The other is a pumpkin pie that involves a graham cracker crust, a layer of cream cheese, pumpkin filling and pumpkin spice. This gets placed in the fridge until it sort of congeals. With a dollop of Cool-Whip on top, its the perfect holiday dessert (aside from my grandmother's pecan pie) Dad pulled out the pie and we noticed that the consistency looked a little off. I volunteered to taste it. I took about a two-knuckles worth sized bite and immediately spat it out into the sink. My mom took about a pinky-nail's worth and grimaced as hard as she could. “I don't know what I did wrong,” my father said. “I did everything the way I always do!” “Are you sure you used pumpkin spice?” my mother asked. “Yes!” he declared, “I looked at the bottle before I put it in!” I went over to the spice cabinet and discovered two identical spice containers with red caps placed next to each other. One was pumpkin spice. The other was cumin. I opened the container of cumin and discovered what it was that my father had put in the pie. We now refer to it as Bill Stephens' Ney Jool Pie.

We exchanged and opened presents around my parents Christmas tree, which is completely covered with decorations that either she has made or been given over the years. My folks got me an LP to MP3 converter, which I have been using ever since I got it. I also got a night light in the design of the leg lamp from “A Christmas Story,” the viewing of which is another family tradition. Well, at least for my dad and me. Mom hates it. Rather, she says she doesn't get it. Dad and I love it and enjoy going around the house all day quoting it. “YOU'LL SHOOT YOUR EYE OUT!” It drives her nuts. We do the same thing with “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”

I spent the better part of the days around Christmas cleaning out storage. My dad constructed a studio for me when I got out of grad school while I was living in Alabama. It has since become a storage building for all of my past projects and accumulation of stuff. When I would come down to visit, I would tackle a little bit each time, throwing out bags of superfluous rubbish. This trip, I really tackled it and went in with a prize fighter's attitude. It felt good to be at the end of the year and making a big purge; making room for more things to come and more adventures. But most especially it was nice to discover that my family and I do have our own traditions around that time of year and it makes me happy to hope that we will continue to share them together in the coming years. Though, I think we can all do without the Ney Jool Pie next year.

I hope you all had a wonderful season of happy holiday traditions. Here's hoping for a happy and full 2011 with those we love.