So- What’s it like to audition for a Henson workshop?

This weekend was a good example of what it’s like to have more than one career simultaneously. I was at the Nebula Awards Weekend, which was fabulous, and left at 4:00 to go to the airport. This meant I missed the Nebula Awards Ceremony itself, but one has choices to make.

Because in order to have watched the ceremony, I would have had to take a red-eye to LA and then been exhausted for the audition. That kind of defeats the point of going. So. So I skipped the awards and then watched them later streaming, (OMG! You guys! Congratulations!) because I was going to audition for this.

Jim Henson Diversity Initiative

I know! Right? How awesome is that! It’s fantastic when a company self examines itself and says, “Hey! All of our puppeteers are white guys. Maybe we should get some other folks in.” So I dutifully sent in my resume and puppetry reel and crossed my fingers. Last week, I got word that I was invited to audition and dropped EVERYTHING.

The only thing I knew before arriving was that we were going to be having a basic puppetry workshop and then doing some improv.

I was nervous about being late, because LA and traffic, which wound up with me arriving an hour early. My plan was to go sit at a coffee shop until time, but the security guard waved me through to sit in the courtyard with the other folks. This is the first thing to tell you about auditioning for the Hensons: Everyone is nice. EVERYONE is nice. They went out of their way to make this a comfortable and encouraging environment.

Because I was so early, rather than making me wait until my group’s time, they let me go in with the 3:00 group. Super-nice, because it reduced the amount of time I had to fret. And I was nervous when I wasn’t distracted. Not about the puppetry, because that part I have down, but just about being there. It used to be Charlie Chaplain’s studio and I have a huge posthumous crush on him. Time travel? Oh yeah– I’d want to go back in time and… ahem.

So the Jim Henson Company is there now.

While we were waiting, Allan Trautman came out and gave us an overview of what was going to happen. He took a lot of pains to reassure the folks with no puppetry experience that they didn’t need to worry about it, just to have fun. And his attitude, which was very relaxed and engaged, helped with that. The audition was to be in two parts. Stage one was a group workshop. Stage Two was individual sessions.

Stage One – The workshop

Drew Massey and Donna Kimball, who are both amazing puppeteers, took us into the soundstage for a quick puppetry workshop. I say soundstage. That or the world’s largest blackbox theater. It was dark and cool and populated by ten chairs, four giant mirrors, a camera, and a table full of Muppets. They asked who had puppetry experience, most of the group raised their hands. Improv? Again, most of the hands went up. Television puppetry? Fewer of us, but still some. What sort?

The answers were varied: Took a workshop, weekly web series, and me, “Um… I was on Sesame Street two weeks ago.”

Drew winced. “I’m so sorry– We’ve got a reverse scan monitor to be easier on the new folks. Just tell them when you go in that you’re used to a standard monitor.”

What that bit of jargon means is this. Normally, video puppetry is done with a standard monitor, so the puppeteer is looking at a video screen that shows exactly what the camera sees. A reverse scan monitor is flipped, like a mirror. It’s easier on a new puppeteer because we’re all used to how a mirror works.

A video puppeteer, on the other hand, has trained their brain to work so that seeing the puppet move in apparently the opposite direction is normal. We do that because it allows us to see the same composition that the audience will see. In visual storytelling, the direction of travel is really important, but that’s a whole other post. Point being that I was about to have the same experience that a newbie puppeteer would have because my monitor would behave in the opposite way from the way I’d been trained. Hopefully that makes sense.

Again, though, this is an example of how gentle they were trying to be with the process. It made a much more level playing field for everyone.

They then had us go “puppet shopping” which means that we got to go over to that long table of Muppets and pick on up. And put it on. These are really lovely creations. And no, none of them are regular characters.

Put us in front of the mirrors, before introducing the monitor, and just had us count to twenty “to see what style lipsync everyone is doing.” Which is a nice way to say, “we want to see if you even know how to lipsync.”

This group did, so they moved straight on to walking. We just walked in a follow-the-leader circle, watching the mirror, so they could see if anyone needed coaching on how to walk a puppet. Again, this was a solid group.

Next came camera introduction. The instructions were simple:

  1. Walk to the center of the monitor.
  2. Stop.
  3. Turn to face the camera.
  4. Look left.
  5. Look right.
  6. Exit the way you came in.

They were planning to go straight down the line, but the first woman in the line said, “I’d really rather not go first.” She’d been one of the ones who had not had any puppetry experience. Rather than forcing her to be an example, they reassured her that this was fine, and moved to the next person in line. Me.

So I lift my puppet — a little boy scout or the world’s youngest sheriff — and enter the frame and immediately pull the puppet back. “Whoa– That’s weird.”

Donna laughed. “I know. Give it a minute, you’ll readjust.”

Because the monitor was acting like a mirror, the puppet appeared on the opposite side of where I expected to see it. What I found fascinating was that when I was looking in an actual mirror, I had no problems. But something about looking down at a screen made my brain refuse to treat it like a mirror. But, I did readjust quickly, as promised. I had a little trouble overshooting the marks, because when I tried to correct for what I saw on the screen I would correct the opposite way. That’s what happens to newbies with a standard monitor, so at least I knew what was happening.

(If you want to experience this, by the way, you can go into G+ hangouts and flip the image so it’s not a mirror image.)

As they went down the line, they helped people adjust and learn how to situate themselves in frame. Once we’d all done that, we started into a session of Round Robin improv.

So puppeteer A would go to the middle of the frame and establish a one shot (single figure in frame). Then puppeteer B would enter and A would counter to  create a two-shot. And here I learned something new! Which is always exciting.  They referred to the monitor in terms of zones.

Here! I’ve made you a diagram.

Monitor zones

So we entered, went to Zone 3, then countered to Zone 4 when the new puppet entered and stopped in Zone 2. Two-shots still work exactly the way it works anywhere else, but having the zones numbered makes it way easier to teach. Totally using that from now on.

The round robins were a load of fun. Each time we finished, we’d swap out for a different puppet and were asked to use as many voices/characters as we could. The entire time, they were encouraging us to be bold in our choices. A bold failure is better than a dull success. By the end of the session, I had acclimated to the reverse-scan monitor, as promised, and was just having fun.

They took us back out to the courtyard to await Stage 2.

Stage 2

Here they took time to orient us on what was going to happen next. We’d be taken, one at a time, into the screening room where we’d have a private audition with the casting team. And then began the long wait as the first woman went in. The second woman waited, “on deck” on the porch of the screening room aaaalll the way across the courtyard from us. We could see them, but couldn’t really hear.

The rest of us sat in the shade in the courtyard and shot the breeze, trying to make each other comfortable and calm. I know I needed the distraction. It was an amazing group of women. One of them had the best story.

When she was in elementary school, she was obsessed with puppets and a puppet troupe came to her school. They were going to be using volunteers in the show and train them. She was picked. And the day before they arrived, she broke her arm and didn’t get to do it.

Now she was here. She was just beside herself with joy at just being there. Which is exactly the way to go into an audition like this.

Another woman had been bitten in the face by a dog on Thursday. She’d had surgery. This was her first public outing and by God, she was not going to miss the chance. Everyone was brave, strong, and just happy to be there. It was a great group to wait with. Everytime someone came out of the screening room, they’d come back over to the courtyard and we’d cheer that they got in.

See… They got “hundreds, and hundreds, and hundreds” of applications. They picked 100 of us. Just being there at all was huge.

One woman, a puppeteer of colour, actually teared up a little when she was told how many people applied. “I didn’t know there were that many of us. I always felt like I was the only one.”

So. We waited. I was second to last and headed over to the screening room porch to wait. This was the only time that the nerves really came out. That ten minute wait. I paced. I stuck my hand in the air and practiced lipsync. I sang a little. Ran through character voices that show my range. Anything, really, to distract myself from the fact that I was about to audition for Brian Henson.

Who I’ve met. Who is lovely. But still.

In I go. They stopped me on the threshold, “Give yourself a minute for your eyes to adjust. It’s really dark in here.” See what I mean about kindness? Just the little considerations like that.

The audition is deceptively simple. I get to pick a puppet from a table and then I’m to do an improv scene with Allan Trautman based on a prompt provided by Peter Bristow (the host of PuppetUp! and an improv god). Switch puppets and do a second. That’s it.

In front of a reverse scan monitor. I say, “I was told to say that I’m used to a standard monitor.”

Immediately, everyone says variations of “Oh God. I’m so sorry” with a lot of reassuring laughter and comments about what a brain twister it is.

Let me say that Allan Trautman is a generous and fun improv partner. The first scenario was a job interview for a chat room moderator. I had a buxom blonde bombshell, with my Mae West/phone sex voice, so — remembering the advice to be bold — I decided that she had previously worked in a BDSM dungeon, which made her perfect to spot abuse as opposed to consensual play. Laughter all the way through. Thank heavens.

Next, I was drawn to a little girl puppet with pigtails. “Are you looking for children’s voices?”

“If they are edgy. Sure.”

I pick her up. Edgy? That I can deliver. Mentally, I decide to play her like she’s one of those thirty year olds who keeps getting cast to play children. Sounds like a child. Mouth outta the gutter.

The prompt for this scene was that we were cleaning up from throwing a party.

Allan’s puppet was looking at the ground, “Hey! I think that party was really a success.”

I entered my backwards, looking off camera. In my little girl voice, I say, “Yeah. The only problem with this sort of party is cleaning the semen off the walls in the bathroom.” (sorry, Mom)

Huge laughter. And we’re off! A couple of lines in, I realize that this could go down the wrong path if I don’t work in that she’s actually an adult, so I steer the conversation to just talking about the kind of implements that one uses to clean semen. “Which is so spoogie” and then a rundown of various squeegies. It was fun. They were laughing, thank heavens.

When I finished, Patrick said, “Well, it’s good to know that you aren’t afraid to go there.”

Really, really not. I thanked them. They thanked me. And that was the end.

And the outcome of the audition? Triumph! It was fun and I learned stuff.

Oh– Oh you mean… Yes. Yes, I got into the workshop! Well, the first half. They’ll work us for two weeks, and then choose a smaller number to continue on for another six weeks. Regardless, this was such fun and I wouldn’t have missed it, not even for the Nebula Awards.

 

 

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25 Responses

  1. Ana

    Thanks for sharing the experience and congrats on getting into the workshop! What an unforgettable experience all the way around. I cannot wait to hear more about your adventures!

  2. Kat Richardson

    Yay! Congratulations and that sounds like a fantastic audition experience. What a fun bunch–I hope some of courageous and amazing group mates made it in too!

  3. S. J. Pajonas

    Omg, laughed out loud at your “little girl” puppet! Hilarious. Congratulations on making it in! What an amazing thing. I can’t wait to hear more about it!

  4. Dave Hogg

    You are one of the few people I know that when I read something they’ve written, I “hear” in their voice. In your case, your voices.

    That’s an amazing story, and I’m so happy it went so well for you. I’ve had a rough 24 hours, and I really needed the laughs that I got from reading that.

  5. Wendy

    How interesting and fun.
    The Zone thing is great – I think I’ll try it next time I work with street characters. It’s so much more specific than ‘cheat out and give focus’

  6. Bob Portnell

    What a great time. Thanks for sharing that with us.

    Wow. I think back a few weeks to the announcement of a new prime-time Muppet series … and connect a dot to this …

    … it’s probably too much to imagine ALL the dots connecting, but wouldn’t it be loverly?

    Best wishes.

  7. Ali

    The Jim Henson company can take all of my money for being so inclusive (and kind)! What an awesome experience.

    Now I wish I had asked you to do some of your favorite voices during your book tour.

  8. Kelvin Kao

    Mary!

    I knew I can count on you to give a detailed account of this. I auditioned too, on Saturday with the 4pm group. I did NOT pass the audition, but what a fun experience with the kindest people!

    I felt the same about how they really made an effort to relax and not feel about the puppetry experience part. There’s only one person in our group that did not have any puppeteering experience. Some people have even worked on things like Walking with Dinosaurs and Lazy Town (unfortunately I don’t remember who it was).

    Isn’t it crazy that they actually give you a workshop, practice, and warm-up before the actual audition? I picked up a little tip about eye line which I did end up using during stage two of the audition.

    The dividing screen into five zones thing is something I’ve not heard of, but was very effective. It reminded me of how they do dance numbers on stage, where the centered would be marked 0, and then two each side, 2, 4, 6, 8 and so on, so that dancers know where they ought to be. And like you did, when I was hitting zones, I do find myself adjusting my position in the wrong direction, but did adjust to it after some practice.

    While we were waiting as a group, I shared a story that I read once, about a puppeteer, who, after a long day of work with this left is right and right is left stuff, had trouble backing up her car in the parking lot. You know where that story came from.

    I really wasn’t that nervous, and was just really enjoying it while sitting on the porch waiting. I’ve driven by the studio so many times but had never been inside so it was just fun to be in there. Then a guy that just finished his audition came out and mouthed “Holy shit!” and told me “Just so you know: Brian Henson is in there. And Kevin Clash!” Okay, now I was having jitters.

    But when I went in, Allan quickly put me at ease when he welcomed me in. I took a three-hour workshop a few years ago from him and he still remembered me. I noticed that my name was written backwards on the slate, and said “ah, this mirror thing is going to throw me off”, to which he replied, “no worries, I’ve been dealing with that all day.”

    The first scenario I was given was job interview for Santa Claus. (Or was it a mall Santa? Either way, that’s the direction I took.) I chose a character that stayed up all night studying all the Santa career (intro, retirement planning as seasonal worker, etc.) books he found and was now jittery because it. My second scenario was to pick a character with a strong specific emotion for iPhone 6. I picked a girl that was mad at the iPhone 6 and thinking it was sent here by the devil himself, because her brother had just walked into a pole (and a spiky one at that!) while using the phone and now he was in the hospital. I had fun. They laughed. I couldn’t have asked for a better improv partner than Allan for the audition, really.

    It was totally a fun experience. They are such nice, kind, and talented people. I feel honored and humbled at the same time. I didn’t pass the audition, but I was feel so lucky to be given an opportunity to audition.

    But wow, I didn’t know those were the numbers of submissions and auditions. I just knew that not all of my friends who submitted made it into audition, and of course, many who auditioned would not actually make it into the workshop. Those were some crazy numbers to know!

  9. Ann Tucker

    Thank you for sharing this in a way that had me feeling like I was there. What a wonderful time it sounded like. Congrats on making it to the next round.
    And thanks to Kelvin for sharing your experience as well.

  10. David Lubkin

    Thanks! That was great. Especially for anyone who likes Jim Henson, which is to say everyone.

    And I remember your child’s voice, so I could hear that improv in my head. But I’m curious about your Mae West….

  11. Ellen Datlow

    Mary,
    I love hearing about your auditions and workshop experiences. Thank you for sharing them and congratulations again for getting into the workshop.

  12. Diatryma

    Every time you post about puppeteering, I want to become a puppeteer. Every single time. You are amazing, and thank you for posting this.

  13. Cheryl

    Wow — that was really interesting! I’d read that you were a puppeteer, but I wasn’t sure what type of work you’d done. Thanks for sharing this story!

    Also, I’m almost finished Glamourist History 1 and can’t compliment it enough. I’ve had so much trouble lately finding books that really satisfy me — the right book for me, or the right book at the right time, or both — and this one totally hit the mark. I *love* it and can’t thank you enough for writing it. I’m looking forward to starting the next one, and I’m so excited knowing that there are even more available after that. Your work may be all I read for the next month. 🙂