New Strings Attached

From 'Being John Malkovich' to Julie Taymor's stage extravaganza 'The Lion King,' puppeteers find themselves in demand from Hollywood to Moscow.

Alan Trautman is elbow deep in flashy metal control grips, his eyes locked on a computer screen. He manipulates the grips as he dances and smiles and exchanges rapid-fire repartee with another actor in a similar contraption next to him. As they interact, giant screen images of Kermit the Frog and Rizzo the Rat mimic their moves.

Just another outing for familiar ol' Kermie and Rizzo? Yes, and lots more.

Jim Henson Interactive, housed around the corner from the legendary Creature Shop, features Kermie in real time on a Web site (

The online image of this famous frog is this generation's handpuppet, representing nothing less than the future of one of the world's oldest and richest art forms: the art of giving life to inanimate objects, or puppetry.

It is also part of the flowering of what those who have devoted entire lives to the profession are tentatively calling a "mini-golden age."

For proof, they point to puppeteers who find themselves in demand from Hollywood to Moscow, colleges granting MFAs in puppetry to people who have contracts before they collect their diplomas, and a steady membership growth in national groups.

"All my students seem to have jobs when they leave here," says Frank Ballard, arguably the American Geppetto, or trade master to several generations of puppeteers. He founded, and directed for 30 years, the nation's only MFA program in puppetry, at the University of Connecticut in Storrs. "Between Hollywood and the amusement parks, there's a huge and growing demand."

In the past 10 years, programs have expanded to the likes of the O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford, Conn., and West Virginia University in Morgantown. The membership of Puppeteers of America (POA), the preeminent national organization, has steadily risen to around 2,000, up from 300 members 30 years ago.

Mr. Ballard admits that much of the work goes unrecognized by the general public. "All these creatures in film and television, most people don't realize there are puppeteers behind the scenes," says the puppeteer who also founded the Ballard Institute and Museum of Puppetry (located in Storrs, Conn. as well) in 1996.

A few practitioners of this gentle world of strings and rods have actually broken through to the mainstream, via film and Broadway. Phillip Huber's marionettes were a critical standout in last year's Oscar-nominated "Being John Malkovich," and Julie Taymor's stage extravaganza "The Lion King" gave life-size rod and mask puppetry a whole new generation of fans.

The film did spotlight Mr. Huber's creations for a moment. "Suddenly, everybody regarded it as hip and cutting edge," he says with a sigh for the years he's honed his craft away from the limelight. For the first time, he says, he got a tangible return on the attention.

"I booked a small theater in Santa Monica," he says, for a single weekend, hoping to sell two shows. "We had to keep extending it and sold out 17 shows."

For the most part, though, recognition is an uphill battle.

Henson's Creature Shop has led the pack in widespread-but-unrecognized work onscreen. Think of the gorillas in "George of the Jungle"; the menagerie of "Dr. Dolittle," in particular the tiger (a sequel is in the works for 2001); the creatures of the Sci-Fi Channel's "Farscape"; an Oscar for Best Special Effects for "Babe"; the snowman in "Jack Frost"; and the list goes on.

All of this builds on the landmark work of puppeteer Jim Henson, who had to fight his own battles in the beginning. Henson first set up shop in London three decades ago because he could not find a creative home in Hollywood for his Muppet characters.

The battle for respect continues on several fronts, says Creature Shop director, David Barrington Holtz. If it's not the effort to overcome the notion that puppets are strictly for kids, it's the other side of the coin.

"Puppeting [sic] is under pressure because studios want to go with CGI [computer-generated imagery] because it's fashionable," says Mr. Holtz. "I hope in time it will be recognized that the computer is not the solution to everything."

He points to the arcane but financially significant area of credits and payments, as an example of the challenges. "They don't want to pay the puppeteers as actors, which they are," says Holtz.

Rather, producers want to credit (and pay) them strictly as technicians, which hampers a real understanding of the contributions of live puppeteers versus CGI. Ironically, Huber adds, even when the strings are shown attached to a live puppeteer, as they were in "Being John Malkovich," some professionals balk at accepting the contribution.

"Comments came back to me from Disney animators that there was a bet going around the studios that there was no puppetry in the film, that it had to be CGI," he says. "They were really offended to think that basic puppetry could achieve that effect."

"That effect," of course, is what makes puppeteers so passionate, in the face of rejection and ignorance.

"It can deliver the heart and soul of the human experience," says Huber, something, he adds, CGI can never really do.

Puppets deliver the essence of an experience, he adds, something beyond the everyday reality, and a communication between audience and performer that only works with a real person doing the work.

Live artists also affect the creative process. The presence of sentient beings behind imaginary characters gives the other actors - and the director - more to work with, says Henson's Holtz. "In many CGI movies, the actors are having to work to a tennis ball on a stick and this represents a character. That's very hard to create a living relationship."

With live performers, anything can happen, just as in real life. "The actor can respond to a character that's actually present ... and a good puppeteer can generate something that's not in the script."

Sadly, say many older puppeteers, the profession used to have a wider audience and much more respect, "and not all that long ago," says Alan Cook, a preservationist for POA ( and owner of the largest collection of puppets in the US. At one time, in the 1940s and '50s, puppet acts were common adult entertainment.

"Almost every nightclub in America had a puppet act," says Mr. Cook, who has retired as a performer and lives in Pasadena, Calif., with his collection.

"One of my best friends did Carnegie Hall, and it was a normal thing to do."

"It was television that changed everything for puppeteers," says Huber. "It reduced the art form to children's baby-sitting." Henson helped reverse that trend by introducing characters with heart and soul, he says, but the battle to return the world of puppetry to a position of respect as an art form is still being fought.

"We're the orphan art form," says curator Cook. "But, just like the old Punch and Judy characters, who die and come back for another show another day, we have a resurrection theme." Puppetry has been around nearly as long as humans have tried to communicate.

"It's an ancient craft, picking something up and giving it life," agrees Bruce Lanoil, hard at work back at Henson Interactive, giving life to the digital Rizzo. "It's as basic as the tribal chief getting up to dance in front of us."

To which his partner, Mr. Trautman, adds, "All this technology," he says with a wave at a room chock-full of cutting-edge digital technology that puts Henson online around the world, "all this is designed to allow one puppeteer to do what he does best, and that's communicate. It's getting back to what's always worked."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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