When I’m teaching writing, one of the things I talk about puppetry a lot. In particular, I talk about the way it taught me to practice and how I apply that to fiction. It’s why I like taking classes that will stretch my skill set.
I’ve been a professional puppeteer for over twenty years. Most of that has been on stage. I’ve done some work with film and television, even including stuff for Jim Henson Productions. They are very, very different skill sets. I’m a damn good stage puppeteer and a competent video puppeteer. Most of that has to do with which I’ve practiced more.
Sesame is holding a workshop for highly talented puppeteers, age 18 and over, who are looking to develop and hone their on-camera puppeteer skills. If you are familiar with the Sesame Street style of puppetry, and interested in the opportunity to participate in a puppeteer workshop in New York City in early 2014 please apply as directed below:
Make a short video (3 minutes MAX) showcasing your talents as a puppeteer following these guidelines:
Introduce the video as yourself.
Enter and exit frame with your puppet (it’s helpful if the puppet you use has good eye focus).
Show a variety of character voices (3-4 minimum). Please note: we want to see your original character voices, not your imitation of existing Sesame Street character voices.
Finish your video with a short song…we would like to hear you sing!
This is what my audition video looks like this. (By the way, the puppet is one I borrowed from the Puppet Kitchen since I did the audition while in NYC and away from my own stuff.)
Those three minutes? I spent a couple of weeks beforehand practicing basic lipsync again, because I haven’t performed any real video puppetry in awhile and my technique was rusty. Once I had that in my hands again, the main video only took four or five takes. Most of those were me forgetting which voice I was switching to.
And the result?
I was accepted to the workshop, which delights me.
DELIGHTS me. Among other things, it give me the opportunity to ask, in earnest, if they can tell me how to get to Sesame Street. I’m fairly certain there’s no other way to ask that question.
Now, to be clear. This is a workshop only. It’s not an audition for the show. Still, it is a chance to work with two of the top performers in the industry and, as they say, hone my skills.
So what does a workshop like this look like? Basically, it’s three days of puppetry work with a group of other people. It will be fun. It will be sweaty. It will be physically exhausting.
The acceptance email says:
Key items we will be focusing on at the workshop will include:
Precise lip sync (variations in sync and manipulation)
Ability to perform with a standard monitor (not a mirror or reverse scan)
So… now you want to know what by that last bit means. Video puppeteers work in front of a camera and use a monitor to watch the performance as it happens. The easiest way to think about it is that the puppet is actually the image on the screen. You’re using the object on your hand to control the image on the screen.
What gets difficult for some people is that the monitor isn’t reversed. In other words, when I move my right hand, the puppet also moves it’s right hand. While in a mirror, the left hands is the one that appears to move. If you have a video program on your computer, open it and turn off the mirroring so you can see what I’m talking about.
It requires a little bit of rewiring of the brain, and some folks have trouble with it. Funny thing is, when I started teaching via G+, I had the exact opposite problem because I was so wired for monitor work, that I kept doing things backwards for the monitor.
Anyway… all of this is to say that this is going to be a heck of a lot of fun. I’ll be in NYC in early February, but probably will not have time to do much hanging out because of the aforementioned sweaty exhaustion.
And writers? If you need any clearer example that it’s okay to be a pro and still be a fan… You should have seen my face when I opened the email.
It’s only a workshop, but it’s still Sesame Street.
Now… I’m going to want to practice between now and then because we’ll be working long days and I need to get my stamina back up. Funny thing. Writing? Does not use the same muscles as video puppetry. This is where you get to play. Ask publishing/writing questions in the comments below and I will have a puppet answer them for you.
So this is the week that I’m at the Sesame Street puppetry workshop. It is fun. Oh, guys… it is so much fun.
Trying to describe it for you, that’s harder. It’s such a movement based form and a lot of the moments of ah-ha! are involving subtle things like the precise angle of your hand and the difference that a single millimeter can make. Not even exaggerating there.
But I’ll try, because I’m supposed to also be a writer and all good with words and stuff.
There are twenty-five of us in this session. 300 people auditioned. They narrowed it to 50 and we’re split into two sessions. Then those sessions, they split down into 8 person “pods.” There are three instructors, Marty Robinson, Matt Vogel, and Peter Linz. The participants range from people who are brand new at this to people who work for Henson and everywhere in between. Some folks I’m old friends with. Some I’m just meeting. Everyone is nice. EVERYONE. It’s a great group.
In the morning, we started at 10, with a brief orientation session and then were sent off in our pod to one of the instructors. They are having us rotate between the instructors, which is kind of funny because it feels oddly like class change in highschool. I keep thinking I should start passing notes.
My first session was with Peter Linz. Peter and I have known each other since before he started at Sesame Street and he is my oldest puppetry friend. He is brilliant at this and a damn good teacher. They had told us that they were going to start with some basics, just to help them assess where we are were. Peter’s first exercise is the same one I use when I teach probably because we both trained at the Center for Puppery Arts. Recognizing the form of the exercise is not the same as having the execution, and usually I do tabletop puppetry not video. So it was familiar and strange all at the same time.
Basically, you walk the puppet into frame, turn to the camera and say, “I came from over there [look] and I’m going over there [look]. Nice talking to you. [focus on camera.] Goodbye.” And then walk out.
Sounds dead simple, right?
Yeah… Walking was fine. Focus was fine. Lipsync was sloppy. There was a very slight delay on the monitor and I honestly don’t know if I was being thrown by that or if I was just out of practice. I suspect that it was a combination. I am out of practise, so the slight delay threw me more than it should have. Think of it like hearing your own voice when talking, but a movement based thing.
Anyway, Peter was super and helped me correct a couple of things. That millimeter difference? It was how far I was turning the puppet’s head and the angle at which I was turning it. It was the difference between, “That puppet moved” and “That puppet is looking.” Know what I mean? He’s just so good at instantly seeing what you are doing and how to adjust it. It was really exciting to feel improvement at the end of just an hour. We did some other back to basics stuff, but with a focus on nuance.
Then we went to Matt Vogel, who’s focus was on the acting aspects of puppetry. Although we were still doing basic things like entering, saying our name and exiting, the emphasis here was on making sure that we were moving with intention. The first session was very much an evaluation of our individual baselines, but even so the small tips were great.
After Matt, we went to Marty. I’ve known Marty almost as long as Peter and have performed with him before. This is the fist time I’ve been formally instructed by him though. Again, we were entering, talking to the camera, and exiting. The first session with him, my lipsync was clean. It got sloppy again later, which might be fatigue or maybe that I was trying to speed up. Hard to say.
You will notice me obsessing on this. It falls into the category of things that I used to be really, really good at and it’s atrophied because it’s a muscle memory and I’m not performing regularly these days. It’ll come back fast but… the difference between what I remember being able to do and what I am currently doing is a little frustrating.
Marty then had us start doing group work and this was great. It was a lot about how to compose a frame so it looks good. One of the ways that video puppetry differs from stage is the monitor. It’s basically a television that shows you what the camera is seeing. As a video puppeteer, you are not only acting with the puppet but also helping compose the frame. It’s very much like an actor hitting their marks or cheating to give another perform room in a scene. The difference is that you can see when the other puppeteer needs more space and then adapt to them.
Then it was time for lunch.
Yeah… The morning was packed.
After lunch we were put into new pods and then rotated between our three instructors again. My new pod started with Marty. We did a lot more group work. One person would start a scene, then another character would enter and engage them in conversation. Character 1 would exit, leaving character 2 alone. Character 3 would enter, and you’d just repeat that cycle until we’d rotated through all 8 puppeteers. It was very much about give and take.
We also played something called “stop and go.” Six of us in the frame, which is crowded, and you just milled about until Marty stopped moving his puppet. At that point, no matter where you were, you had to look front and try to adjust to make the frame look good. Sometimes, in the back, it was hard to see the monitor. That makes it challenging, but not an excuse.
Then we did some choreography, very mild. Moving in unison is important and can also totally throw people. I was fine on all the left right, up down, back forwards. When we got to the figure eights with our heads… I apparently just stopped being able to process. Suuuuuucked at that. I’m going to set up the monitor tonight and see if I can figure out why. Marty also had us practiced double-takes. Synchronized group double-takes.
From there we went to Peter again, for more walking and staples of choreography. By this point, I felt like I was back in the saddle again. Thank god. He had me walk left and right. Then downstage right and left diagonal crosses — I should explain that the reason these are hard is that you have to change your height as you get closer to the camera, in order to make it look like the puppet is remaining the same height. It can be tricky so I was relieved that I remembered how to do them.
Um… what else. Oh. More choreography, this time in a group while singing “Twinkle Twinkle.”
Then to Matt who had us do improv exercises with the puppets. As an example: Three puppets in the scene. One puppet starts solo. The second enters and says, “Hello” then — oh, heck. The only thing we were allowed to say was “hello.” The purpose of the exercise was to give the word intention and to learn to share the frame with the other puppeteers.
We ended the day with all twenty-five us in one room and the instructors. They did a demonstration of assisting, which means two puppeteers on a single puppet. It is so nice to watch them work because all three of them are amazing performers and work together effortlessly. Or, as Marty says, “I make the same mistakes you guys do, I’ve just done this enough that I can correct them fast enough that you don’t see them.” After that we broke into groups of four and did improv scenes.
Ours was about a drill sergeant who was supposed to conduct a test, but all of his soldiers faked a horrible illness in order to get out of it. Silly but fun. Because our group had five people, I offered to live hand for the drill sergeant.
And…. that was the day. Tomorrow we’re apparently doing more scene stuff. I can’t wait.
You guys… today was so much fun. I was smiling so much that my face hurts more than my arm.
Bonus quote: “Make sure you don’t show the pooper.”
I am sitting on the couch with a glass of red wine and a bag of frozen peas. The frozen peas are icing my shoulder after today. It’s not so much that I’m in pain as that I would like to not be in pain tomorrow. Icing after rehearsal used to be part of my daily routine, and it is an odd thing to feel nostalgia for.
Today was another amazing day and we spent a lot of time with puppets up. Today we were put back into our original pods and again rotated through the instructors. The emphasis today was on performance and acting.
My pod started with Peter Linz again, who put us through emotions and common physical movements, like jumping, hopping (not the same thing) and tripping. He set us up in a group of four on the monitor to start and just ran us through the emotional wringer. Since our group was up first, Peter was in with us and would demonstrate what he wanted us to do. Our job was to match the idea of the emotion, though not necessarily do an exact copy. Some fo the things are easy to explain like… laughing. You move the head to demonstrate the breath of the laugh, but you don’t articulate each “Ha” with a mouth movement. If you try a laugh with your own body, even a fake laugh, you can see why lipsyncing each part of “hahahahah” doesn’t make sense.
Other things are harder to articulate, like the specific movement involved in a bashful shrug. Most puppets don’t have articulated shoulders and collarbones with which to shrug, so it’s a head movement, which gives the sense of a character digging his toe into the ground, ducking his head, and hunching his shoulders, while being pretty close to only a head movement. Certainly there are no feet involved.
Most of this was familiar territory for me.
A new piece was fainting — the puppet, not me. Faints are most effective, apparently, when done straight upstage. It begins with a slow movement starting from the fingers, which control the upper jaw. Those tilt up and back, given the sense of the eyes rolling back in the head, until the eyes are basically hidden and then you accelerate down in an arc from the shoulder as if the weight of the head is pulling the puppet down. Surprisingly difficult to get all the pieces put together at the right speeds.
From there we went to Matt, who had my favorite class today (sorry guys) largely because it was the first time that I felt like I was bringing something from my writing life back to the puppetry side. Allow me to explain.
Matt’s sessions are focused on acting and doing scene work. Today we were paired up with scene partners. I had Frankie Cordero, who is a very good puppeteer that I’ve performed with before. This immediately gave me a leg up. The scenes that Matt gave us are called A-B scenes. I have not run into these before, or at least not known that I had. Basically, it is a scene that is dialog only without a lot of detail so you can push it in multiple directions, depending on the context you give the lines. Our job was to decide who the characters were, what the conflict was, and create a beginning, middle, and end. Then rehearse it with puppets. In half an hour.
Anyone who has taken one of my writing workshops — oh, heck, I actually have this exercise on my website — but I teach exactly this when I’m teaching writers about dialog.
Our scene was taken from Spare Scenes: 60 Skeletal Scenes for Actors and Directors by Diane Timmerman and was called “Syllables.” Frankie and I each read through and then talked about the things that seemed obvious. It was a couple who were having an argument. That’s not enough, so we started getting more specific and trying some different scenarios. We considered playing against the text and having it be all flirty instead. In the end, we decided to go with a couple playing Scrabble, he ticks her off by flaunting his superior vocabulary. She has had enough of this sort of teasing and questions the entire relationship. At first he thinks they are talking about the game, then realizes that he has seriously screwed up. Apologies and happy ending.
So where did Scrabble come from? Part of the dialog was:
A. Now that is rich.
C. Yes rich.
A. Is that a word.
You’ll note that the only punctuation are periods at the end of sentences. The actors are free to change the punctuation, but can’t add or cut words. So when we did this, I mimed placing four tiles. “Now that is rich.”
Frankie’s puppet looked at it and was all, “Rich?” as in “Really? That’s your word.”
My puppet said, “Yes. R. I. C. H.” (A little bit of cheating there, but I thought of it as altering my enunciation. Ahem.)
Frankie then rapidly placed tiles, looked up in triumph and said, “Caloric!”
My puppet peered at the “board,” which we were totally miming, and said, “Is that a word?” the same way people do at least once in every Scrabble game I’ve ever played.
Then we got up in front of the camera and did it for the group. This was a little nerve wracking because we hadn’t gotten a lot of camera time before doing it, but you know, no one else had either. I did a cross from left to right, that had made sense without the camera, but didn’t actually have enough space to do it for real without breaking the edge of frame, which is a no-no.
(Pardon me while I remove my ice pack)
When he gave us notes after, Matt suggested a cross from center left, which is where my character was seated) to down left and play the depth of frame rather than the distance. It’s the same idea, but an example of a difference between stage and video.
After the four groups in our pod each did their thing, which was great fun to see, we moved on to Marty’s room.
Here the fatigue began to show itself.
Marty put us through a whole series of exercises again. We did more stop and go. I kept winding up in the back of the group and had some trouble seeing the monitor, which was a problem. Understand, that it is my responsibility to find the monitor, and in a show setting, there would be one back where I was. Here? Wall o’ bodies. So that was frustrating because I couldn’t find a way to fix the problem but felt like I ought to be able to do so.
Then we did this thing where we’d start at the back of the frame, creating a wide shot, and do really big emotion, manipulation, and chew up the frame. From there we’d walk directly toward the camera to a medium shot, with a medium level of excitement and manipulation, followed by Extreme Closeup with small, subtle manipulation. I wish I’d gone later in that round, because I picked up some tricks from the other puppeteers that I would like to have tried, but there are advantages to going first, too. The bar hasn’t been set yet. La!
The last exercise was a focus one. Two puppeteers at a time. I was on the right, Frankie was on the left. The goal was to make hitting clean focus, which means that the puppet is looking directly at the camera, instinctively. Sliding on a plane, we’d send the puppet out of frame to the side and pop the focus when we came back in. Then down and up, same thing. This wasn’t about getting the focus into muscle memory, because that will change with every frame, but to rewire our brains to recognize and be able to hit correct focus quickly. Marty demonstrated first, and as he did it would say when it was correct, and when it was acceptable, and when it was bad. Clearly, he had a high percentage of correct, but it was nice to see that even at his level bad still happened.
Once we started getting a high percentage of correct hits, Marty began to make it harder. First, Frankie and I had to move with synchronization. This didn’t mean we had to move in the same direction, but that the beginning and ending of each movement needed to happen at the same time. He and I got that almost instantly and the folks that went before us took a little longer.
I used a stage trick.
It’s this. Audible breath to signal my partner that I was moving. We didn’t talk about it, but having that additional cue is subtle, and totally natural.
Unfortunately, getting that so quickly meant that Marty felt like we were ready for more challenging things. Now, it was slide in, hit focus, look at each other, look back to front, slide out and repeat. Again, we got this pretty fast. Yay, breath.
Now we had to slide in, hit focus, look at each other, open our mouths, look back to front, slide out and repeat. Right about here is where my brain started just saying “No.” At first, I was fine. I thought we were moving in pretty good sync.
Then Marty said, “You two are doing one thing differently, do you know what it is?”
Frankie and I looked at each other. “Um… No.”
“Does anyone else know? Don’t tell them.”
The entire class said, “Yes!”
“Try it again and see if you can spot it.”
The moment we started again, I realized that Frankie was keeping his puppet’s mouth open as he looked back to front, while I had been closing mine. I tried to change to match him. and my brain completely shut down. I stopped being able to tell right from left and up from down. All of my monitor skills were just deleted from my brain. And here, I can only say, “Thank God, I’m forty-five,” because I had enough sense to stop, laugh, shake it off, and put the puppet back up. Then we nailed it.
Then we went to lunch.
Frankie and I had lunch together so we could work through our scene and make some specific blocking decisions, and refine our beats. Also to just shoot the breeze.
After lunch, all twenty five people were back in the main studio. We were given puppets and half an hour to rehearse. Then everyone started performing for each other. They were recording the scenes (No. I don’t have a copy to show you.) so that we could watch playback while Marty, Peter, and Matt gave us notes. I will just say that Frankie and I showed well,
The format that the notes took was that they would ask the group, “Could you tell what their relationship was?”
“What were they doing?”
And then from there, they gave specifics about what we could do to improve the scene. Things like, “You could raise the stakes, by standing with more force.” After they gave the notes then they showed playback of the scene so we could keep those notes in mind while we watched. The difference in my performance level between today and yesterday is noticeably improved.
One of the groups in another pod had the same scene and did a totally different interpretation with a teacher and a student. It was a lot of fun to see all the different ways people interpreted scenes.
Though I am saying less about the afternoon, we went from 2:00 until 6:30 on the acting stuff. But since writing it up would involve a play-by-play of other participants’ scenes, and I didn’t ask anyone for permission to do that, I’m going to skip it.
And now, I am going to finish my glass of red wine and go to bed. Tomorrow we have only a half day, but I will still need my full brain to survive.
Bonus random quote: “If you’re going to stuff the chicken, stuff the chicken”
Today actually began with snow, freezing rain, and many subway lines being down. A lot of the participants had to walk to the workshop today, but such was our zeal that pretty much everyone made it and made it on time. We traded stories of wading through slushy morasses and generally all seemed to feel a certain masochistic pleasure, you know… “Back in my day, we had to slog to puppet workshops through calf-deep slush, uphill! Both ways!”
Still, because of the transit difficulties, Marty, Peter and Matt started us with the Q&A portion that they’d planned for the end of the day. Questions were things like, “Differences between TV and film puppetry?” Answer: Very little. The biggest is that often you have a crew that has never worked with puppets on a film, whereas a tv show, because of the repetition, they are more likely to figure things out. Also, there’s sometimes a flicker on the monitor if the video feed is coming from behind the shutter.
Once we were all assembled, they started demonstrating how to do rolly work. A rolly, or rollie… hm. Never seen it spelled before. Anyway– a rolly is a small rolling stool, sort of like rolling stool in which the cushion is attached directly to the castors. Plus some noise dampening stuff, like a baffle round the outside edge and some extra foam to control echoes. They started with two characters, Telly Monster and Wilbur (not his real name), a little green puppet.
They showed basic tricks like, “loading,” which means stretching your legs in front of you in the direction you need to move, so you can pull yourself in, rather than having to move with little steps. Once positioned, you pulled your legs up, or tucked to the side to make room for the other puppeteer. They demonstrated changing position with other puppeteers. How to interact with a live actor and two puppeteers. Showed us how to “bobsled,” which is when you line up your rollies and straddle each other like bobsled racers. The biggest thing, through all of that, was having an awareness, through peripheral vision, of what was happening around you and making space for your fellow performers.
Then Matt and Peter stepped out, and let the participants start rotating through the scene. I hopped in to live-hand for Telly. I probably should have gone for the rod puppet instead, since assisting is what I did on Lazytown, and I have actually live-handed for Telly a couple of times (Back in Elmo in Grouchland,when Marty’s usual right hand, Pam Arciero, wasn’t available). I will admit that I headed for Telly simply because it’s fun and Marty is a joy to assist. Telly’s intentions are so clear, through the breath and rhythm that it’s like being partnered with a really, really good ballroom dancer. I just have to follow and not screw up. No idea how I actually did, but Marty didn’t grab the right hand, which is a way lead puppeteers will restrain wild assistants. On the other hand, he may have just been letting people screw around and screw up on purpose. Regardless… such fun.
Also fun to watch other people jump in and improvise. While they were doing that, Matt came in and said, “How many people here have wet feet from the slush?”
Most of the hands went up.
“Who would like dry socks?”
My hand totally shot up. Waterproof boots are great, unless they are only ankle high and the water/slush/doom is higher. The reason I tell you this is not to make you jealous of my dry socks but because this sort of generosity of spirit characterized the entire week. It’s not just that Marty, Matt, Peter and the folks at Sesame Street were willing to share their experience with us, but they think about us as individual people, too. My feet offer their thanks.
After that, they handed out actual Sesame Street scripts. I was in a group of six people doing a bit called “Sons of Poetry.” My team made a couple of mistakes. They had said that we had only twenty minutes to put the piece together so we needed to get it up on its feet as quickly as possible. They also said that twenty minutes was way, way more time than they ever had to plan things. So my team read through the script quietly, divvied up parts, and then grabbed puppets and tried to rough block it AND do our read aloud at the same time. That was a mistake.
Marty and Peter saw us and came to suggest that we should probably do a table-read first. (Table reading means you read it, usually at a table, without puppets) Basically, that would give us a way to figure out pacing and beats before we were attached to puppets. So we put the figures down and did that. We should have done it first, because the time we spent rough blocking, while not totally wasted, was not used as efficiently as if we had table-read it first.
We were up third. Now, I don’t have our version to show you, but I CAN show you the original Sesame Street sketch. When you watch it, know that I played Jax in our version, although we were not using those puppets.
I didn’t get to see that clip until I started writing this up tonight. What is interesting to me is that our blocking was very similar. The Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett characters were center screen. We had two Sons of Poetry on the left, and two on the right.
Our version was… rough.
We tended to sink in the frame. For me, this was straight-up fatigue. My puppet was one of the taller ones, so I was stretched to full height and on my toes. If I’d been thinking, I would have taken my shoes off, because I have a weird thing with the way my feet are built so I can go onto my toes and “lock” there. This is handy because it means that I don’t usually need an applebox to be taller.
A brief digression. When one puppeteer is too short, they put them on a box, which is called an apple box. Apple boxes are a weird industry term leftover from when they were actually boxes, that are now standard heights. The downside to having them is that it means the short person is locked in place and the tall people have to work around a box on the floor..
Back to the scene. As handy as it would have been to “lock” onto my toes, it’s also good that I didn’t because it means stocking feet, which would not have been a good choice today because… Midway through the scene, as the Sons of Poetry were heading for one of their huddles, while the Browning and Barrett puppeteers were backing upstage out of our way. One of them stepped on my foot as I was trying to clear, and caught me at at angle so I literally fell out of frame.
(Oddly, this happened on the first day as well — I will say, that I found both hilarious. While collisions happen less often in a group of seasoned pros because they are more aware of their surroundings, you do just sort of run into each other sometimes. Marty told us a story about getting actually knocked out during a scene. I also took an elbow to the jaw yesterday, but saw it coming and turned with it. Tight spaces. Limited vision. Hands wrapped in foam. Accidents happen. Most of my injuries in life have been from puppetry. Ask me in a bar sometime about the Little Shop accident that took me out of puppetry for two years.)
Anyway, I got the puppet up again as quickly as I could, but it was entirely without finesse. We had some missed lines and other bobbles. It was a good experience, but I wish I had a chance to run it again.
We watched the other teams run through and get their notes as well.
And then… it was over.
I wanted more time. Desperately, wanted more time. I felt like I was just hitting the point where I was going to be able to start finessing things when we had to stop playing. Of course, that fits in with the old adage, “How long does it take to make a puppet show? One more day.” A group of us went out for lunch and met up with some of the next group of twenty-five. We shared notes and were all sad that we wouldn’t get to play together tomorrow.
(Tor Books — August 21, 2018) Continuing the grand sweep of alternate history laid out in The Calculating Stars, The Fated Sky looks forward to 1961, when mankind is well-established on the moon and looking forward to its next step: journeying to, and eventually colonizing, Mars. Of course, the noted Lady Astronaut Elma York would like to go, […]