Reflections in a googly eye
Last night, my wife and I caught a performance of Stuffed and Unstrung, the decidedly R-rated improv comedy show featuring puppets from the Jim Henson workshop. The evening was fun but uneven, like all improv, and I’d say that the cast was significantly better at puppeteering than at improvisation—but I still had a blast, and I left the theater full of admiration and envy for the performers involved. I’ve always had a certain fascination with puppeteers, especially of the Henson variety, but it’s only recently that I’ve begun to understand why. As the wonderful documentary Being Elmo makes abundantly clear, not only is this a challenging art form in its own right, but it’s an emblem of what all the other arts should aspire to be—a medium where all you need for creative expression is a few dollars’ worth of fabric, some googly eyes, and the willingness to work at it for the rest of your life.
A novelist, as I’ve said before, needs to know something about everything, but that’s nothing compared to the skill set that a puppeteer has to master. A few minutes at the touring exhibition of Jim Henson’s Fantastic World is enough to fill you with awe at the range of Henson’s abilities—in addition to his more famous talents, he was also a gifted animator, illustrator, graphic designer, and experimental filmmaker—but he’s only the most illustrious exemplar of a vocation that encourages every performer to be a jack-of-all-trades. Even on the professional level, a puppeteer can be expected to write his own material, build his own puppets, sew his own costumes, design sets, handle camera and sound equipment, and draw alternately on the various skills of the actor, clown, acrobat, voiceover artist, singer, comedian, and mime. And it’s a job that continuously challenges the performer’s inventiveness: many great routines or characters begin as solutions to technical problems, only to evolve into something singularly beautiful and weird.
It’s no surprise, then, that even the earliest surviving performances by Henson, Frank Oz and others are bursting with ingenuity—this is a medium where you need to try everything once, often under considerable constraints. These can be constraints of money, space, or even time: Henson’s big breakthrough came with his commercials for Wilkins Coffee, which had precisely ten seconds each to tell a joke and deliver a pitch. And such limited resources can lead to surprising solutions. Henson made the first version of Kermit out of one of his mother’s old coats, and there’s a long tradition of creating puppets from whatever happens to be lying around. In short, it’s the most economical form of theater there is, and as a result, it often flies under the radar, as in the former Soviet Union, where, according to the director Peter Sellars, the most subversive and experimental drama was being performed in the puppet theater.
We’re left with something close to art in its purest form, at least when it comes to the reactions it inspires. When I was a child, I don’t think I ever made a distinction between the Muppets on Sesame Street and the human performers around them: they were all just members of the same cast. Even today, it takes a special mental effort for me to picture the puppeteers standing just below camera range. (At Stuffed and Unstrung, much of the action unfolds on two video monitors to either side of the stage, so even with the performers right in front of you, it’s easy to forget that they’re there.) A bit of felt and foam rubber, in the hands of a skilled performer, turns into real person, with its own personality and emotions. The more I think about it, the more amazing this seems, even though it’s not so different from what all art hopes to do. In the end, we’re all puppeteers. It’s just the lucky ones who get to do it for real.