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.”