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.
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Mr. Stephens has Yancy play an old-time song called “Barbeque” on the banjo strapped across the puppet’s chest. A black backdrop and special lighting makes the black-clad puppeteers nearly invisible. “Puppets get away with ridiculous things,” says McKilligan of her banjo playing woodchuck. “But we’ve created a whole world, so everybody buys into it.”Skip to next paragraph
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Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas is the first Henson production ever to be adapted for the stage. Originally a children’s book, it tells the story of a single mother and her son who find emotional and spiritual wealth in the midst of poverty. In 1977, Henson turned Emmet into an all-puppet TV musical. The current production, which opened Dec. 7 and runs through Jan. 4, 2009, includes a cast of 16 human actors dressed in elaborate animal costumes, as well as the four puppeteers who operate 22 puppets.
Competition for the four slots was intense. Those selected not only had to puppeteer, but act and sing. Many of the actors and the director came from Broadway. Grammy-winner Paul Williams wrote the music and lyrics. Brian Henson, Jim Henson’s son and co-executive director of the Henson Company, produced the show.
The Goodspeed theater is not designed for puppet-heavy productions. The puppeteers are hidden in the orchestra pit and dress in black. (The orchestra sits backstage.) Still, many patrons in the balcony can see them work.
The puppeteers hold the figures over their heads while sitting high on their knees (they all wear knee pads). Because they operate so many different characters, they scramble back and forth – at times looking like they’re playing Twister.
“I’m a squirrel, then a rabbit, then a squirrel, then a possum,” says McKilligan. “The actors’ journey through the play makes sense. Whereas my role is doing 20 different things that don’t.”
One benefit to being hidden is that McKilligan was able to keep a “cheat sheet” of her character lineup handy for the first few shows. The downside is that she has bruises from bumping into metal beams supporting the stage – black-and-blue proof of an old puppeteer adage: If it doesn’t hurt, you’re not doing it right.
In some scenes, when McKilligan operates the catfish through a trapdoor in the stage, she has no visibility. “In rehearsal we use a mirror,” she says. “But you really should be able to do it with your eyes closed – with muscle memory.”
Eye focus and jaw movement are vital to making a puppet come alive. Its mouth must move in sync with the dialogue – a difficult skill done by manipulating the lower jaw while the upper jaw remains stationary. McKilligan tries to achieve the illusion by thinking about the puppet as herself. Though hidden in the pit, she displays the same elation, sadness, and silliness on her face that the creatures are experiencing.
Being hidden makes it easier for her to be dramatic. One of her characters, Penelope Possum, sounds like Granny Clampett from the “Beverly Hillbillies.” Her squeaky voice and comic one-liners have the audience rollicking. “Having the puppet on your hand frees you,” McKilligan says. “It’s not Anney making these crazy choices, but the animals. I feel less foolish because the puppets have to be larger than life.”
It’s this exaggeration that makes us laugh at puppets, especially ones with well-known mannerisms. “Everybody knows the Muppet nod and the Muppet walk,” says Mr. Bunch.
Puppets are making a modest come back. FAO Schwartz recently opened a design-your-own Muppet workshop in New York, and NBC aired a new Muppet Christmas special.
But that doesn’t necessarily mean more work for puppeteers, most of whom are freelancers. To expand, McKilligan and two colleagues are now designing puppets for TV commercials. “Puppetry is an all encompassing art form – writing, directing, performing, building,” says McKilligan. “And you can carry it all around in one suitcase.”