The cramped and creative world of the puppeteer
Anney McKilligan is one four people who operate 22 puppets – including squirrels, woodchucks, and possums – at a stage production in Connecticut.
East Haddam, Conn.
Anney McKilligan lies in a coffin-like box beneath a fabricated car that’s rumbling across the stage of the Goodspeed Opera House here. She manipulates a paddle between her thighs, a lever next to her leg, and three sets of rods with her hands. Part mechanic, part artist, she uses the tools to animate the “actors” in the car above – five raucous and uncannily lifelike puppets.Skip to next paragraph
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The audience seems to appreciate her work even though they don’t know who she is or what she’s doing: It laughs loudly at the sniggering weasel and water-spitting catfish. But Ms. McKilligan is growing increasingly uncomfortable. Her tiny compartment is dark and cramped. Worse, white smoke, meant to depict exhaust, has begun filling her hidden lair.
“With puppeteers, there’s a whole other story going on behind the scenes,” says McKilligan. “Nobody knows what you’re going through.”
Welcome to the creative but invisible world of the puppeteer. This is not your parents’ puppet show: It’s not a matter of putting your hand in a sock or dangling a toy soldier from a string.
Like acting, puppeteering is a stylized, demanding, and professionally competitive art form. One puppeteer in this stage production has a masters degree in his craft. Hundreds of people auditioned for just a handful of slots. The few fortunate enough to get hired sit on their knees for hours during a production, creating characters out of inanimate objects.
In the process, they are contributing to an artistic tradition that has helped redefine our notions of comedy, often evokes memories of childhood, and, more than anything, fuels our imagination. “There’s a part of you that knows the puppet isn’t real, but there’s a part of your heart that wants to believe that it is,” says Tyler Bunch, the puppet captain of the Goodspeed production. “All the puppet does is open and close its mouth, but you could swear you saw it smile.”
At 33, McKilligan never thought she’d be wearing a Cookie Monster scarf. She is one of four professional puppeteers working in the stage production of Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas, a musical originally written for television by the late puppet pioneer and Muppet icon Jim Henson. McKilligan never intended to be a puppeteer. Then again, neither did Henson. He came to puppeteering accidentally, in 1956, as a way to break into television.
McKilligan wanted to be an actress and studied acting and design at New York University. After college, she grew discouraged trying to break into theater. Puppetry helped her get work. McKilligan excelled as a character actor, but she was too young to get cast in roles that inspired her. “When you’re a puppeteer, you can be an old lady when you’re 30 and nobody knows the difference,” she says.
McKilligan worked first as a puppet wrangler (a puppet caretaker) for stage productions. She then became a freelance builder and puppeteer for the Henson Company. Her office was in the Henson Workshop in Manhattan, which houses many of the characters used on Sesame Street. She loved the materials available to her in the shop – yards of puppet fur, a drawer filled with eyeballs, spools of brightly colored fabrics.
Her first job for Emmet Otter was building Yancy Woodchuck, a 44-inch, full-body puppet. Bringing Yancy to life was a particularly challenging assignment: He had to appear to be free standing, and he had to play the banjo. “Being a performer was important when I was building Yancy,” says McKilligan, “because I had to understand how I was going to operate him. A lot of puppets have practical hands – puppeteers wearing gloves with moving fingers – but playing a banjo is really specific.”
Yancy’s scene requires three puppeteers to manipulate his arms, legs, and head. McKilligan’s design lets puppeteer and musician David Stephens slip his arms through holes in Yancy’s wrists and into special gloves that are fur on top, spandex underneath, and have banjo picks sewn into the fingers.