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.
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.
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.”
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.”