Henson Diversity Training Workshop: Day 1

At 6:30, fifteen of us have gathered at the Jim Henson studios. It’s sunny so we’re meeting in the courtyard and chatting. I’m delighted to see Raymond Carr, who I worked with on Lazytown. I recognize one other woman who was in the audition group after mine. I don’t know anyone else. What is striking, compared to most gatherings of puppeteers I wind up in, is that I’m one of only three white people there.

We’re a mix of folks with backgrounds in puppetry or improv. Some have both. Some have only one. Some are brand-new to the whole thing. And everyone is excited.

We’re led over to the cafeteria and they feed us dinner. I know I talked about it after the audition, but really, the kindness of the people here is just amazing. I mean — they are putting on a free workshop, and then making sure we’re fed. The dinner also has another side effect. It gives us time to get to know each other without the pressure of teachers present. It’s an icebreaker and builds a sense of community.

Then Allan leads us into the big studio space. They’ve got a camera and monitors set up — this time it is not reverse scan, which will be easier for me, but harder for everyone else. Allan and Kevin orient us, explaining what the workshop will look like. They’ve already done one session, with the Monday/Tuesday track, and based on that, they tell us that they decided to extend the “for everyone” workshop from two weeks to three. Why?

They’re nice, yes, but because they realized that it wasn’t fair to the people who had no video experience. It takes awhile to rewire your brain to work like this, so they want to give people more time. It’s the only way to judge accurately.

They warn us that we’ll be starting really baseline, to get everyone to a level place. That means that those of us with video experience will be reviewing, but reviewing is good.

We aren’t working with puppets this week. We’re using “Peepers” created by Hobey Ford, which are these nifty eyeball things that slip onto your finger. So your bare hand is a puppet. They are great fun.

What’s nice about starting like this, is that it reduces the strain on the puppeteer — no weight — but more importantly, the teachers can see the mechanics of what is going on in your body. Tension is really easy to see when you have a naked puppet.

So, we start off, with just learning to stand up straight and focus. Then we say the alphabet. Over and over and over. At a certain point in the evening, my brain shut down and I lost my place in the alphabet — embarrassing and hilarious. I was not alone in that, but still. I was like, “L, M, N, O, P… Wow. Apparently, I can’t say the alphabet unless I sing it. Um… W, X, Y, Z.”

They gave a ton of individual attention. Helping people who were new, learn to correct. And they kept reminding people, over and over, that this was a new skill and that people shouldn’t beat themselves up about what they got wrong, but recognize when they improved. Small steps will lead to a big improvement.

Watching Kevin and Allan analyze a puppeteer and help them come up with ways to retrain their body was great. Allan explained that, when he was learning video puppetry, that he’d identify the problem. Like, the puppet is leaning to the left, and look off to the side. Then, rather than trying to fix everything all at once, he’d tackle one problem at a time. First correct the lean. Then adjust the focus.

It’s good advice in general, you know? Identify the problem, then break it into manageable pieces.

It was a great evening. I’ve never had so much fun spending an evening reciting the alphabet. Maybe I’ll even remember the letters in order next time.

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