STUFFED AND UNSTRUNG: The Pioneers of Puppetry Talk Craft, Henson, and Pole-Dancing Muppets
The Jim Henson Company may be commonly known for its children's programming such as SESAME STREET - but the brand of pioneers of puppetry isn't afraid to show off the subversive underbellies of its fuzzy, legless characters, and the actors that control them. STUFFED AND UNSTRUNG, an improvisational puppet show billed as "adults only," created by Brian Henson, the son of Jim Henson, and actor/improv wonder Patrick Bristow (SEINFELD, ELLEN), is set to play the Bank of America Theater in Chicago from June 12-17. The show is performed centerstage, where the actors/puppeteers are completely visible, and the stage is flanked by two monitors, in which the puppets are shown from the waste up - what Brian Henson calls "the Henson technique." BroadwayWorld was fortunate enough to sit down with creators Brian Henson and Patrick Bristow (who serve as a puppeteer, and director/host, respectively,) as well as puppeteers Peggy Etra and Victor Yerrid.
Can you tell us a little bit about how Stuffed and Unstrung originated?
Brian: Well, it started as a weekly workshop class that Patrick was teaching. I pulled together a bunch of our puppeteers, and we wanted to learn improv comedy skills within the puppeteering world. And Patrick came into teach this workshop for once a week. And it was a screaming success. Well, it was a lot of fun for all of us, and we realized this was kind of a whole new take on improv that was mostly making us just have so much fun with it. We did one performance for an invited audience, there was a presenter there for the Aspen Comedy festival, and we said, ‘this isn’t a show - this is just part of our training, it’s a workshop!’ And she said, ‘whatever you just did, bring it to the Aspen Comedy Festival!’
It started as an experiment, and it developed by popular demand into a show. We just kept saying, ‘it’s not a show!’ We were then invited to Edinborough, and it kept going that way until they demanded we went to Melbourne, and we kept making the show better, and better, and better, and then it had one big growth spurt to become STUFFED AND UNSTRUNG.
Now, it’s got some variety show pieces, and pieces from my dad’s early days, things he’s created, it’s not all improv comedy, now it’s a bigger, more spectacular show.
STUFFED AND UNSTRUNG is largely improvised, like you said, but is there any sort of accepted structure or preparation for each show?
Brian: [motions to Patrick] As the director?
Patrick: There’s an opening number, a closing number, a couple of imagery recreation pieces, we have blocks of improv we know we’re going to do. And first of all, they’re all short form improv. So they’re like 3 minutes, 4 minutes, some are structures your audience may be familiar with, like New Choice or Bell and Buzzer, and some of them are just us getting one word suggestions and letting the puppeteers work their magic. So is there a structure? Only in as much as we do a couple standard improv structures but there’s still a lot of room for it to go where it’s going to goin different slots in the show. Does that make sense?
Yes, that absolutely makes sense. I was just curious how the format worked when a touring show is largeley improvised, and the content changes every night.
Brian: It does change every night! When we hit a town, when people like the show, they’ll often come and watch 4 or 5 performances, because it is so different. There is a small percentage, 25% maybe, that will be pretty much the same every night -
Patrick: But you know that they’re obviously choreographed set pieces.
Brian: Right, right. But the rest, it changes on a nightly basis, and yet it’s very tightly rehearsed and the structures - there are structures that are known - but the content is completely fresh. And there are some called ‘spot scenes’ that Patrick will call out, and when the performers are asked to do a ‘spot scene,’ it means there’s no structure at all. The audience says -
Patrick: “What do you wanna see? You wanna see Virgins on Mars? A yoga disaster?”
Brian: The audience will say two-to-three words, and that’s just it. The cast will just go. And that’s a lot of fun.
Patrick: The audience loves that power.
Victor: So we give it to ‘em.
So as puppeteers who perform in the show, Peggy and Victor, how do you run with that?
Peggy: It’s heaven. It’s like, you get on the rollercoaster, and once it goes, you’re just going. And you’re enthusiastic, and we’re six performers who have performed together for awhile and there’s a bunch of trust and real affection for one another, and it’s just exciting.
Victor: I just listen to a suggestion and think, ‘how can I outshine the other performers?’ [everyone laughs] I try to talk the most, have the loudest voice.
Patrick: You try to get closer to the camera and fill the frame [on the monitors.]
Peggy: That’s right.
Victor: That’s the kind of trust that Peggy and I share. [smiles at Peggy, she laughs.]
Peggy: It’s, it’s true. He [Victor] was my first teacher actually. Anything I do that looks good: [points and half-bows to Victor] thank you, Victor.
Oh, wow. What’s that like?
Victor: As Brian said earlier, a few main puppeteers who had been with the company for awhile, and as they needed more performers -
Brian: Just over the years. It’s been seven years now.
Victor: They started bringing in improvisers who had not done puppeteering, and Peggy was one of those. And as the puppeteers were being trained to be better improvisers, the improvisers who being trained to be strong puppeteers, and hopefully you know, when you see the show, you can’t tell who came from which background. We’ve all kind of risen to the same level, is the idea.
So, Peggy, what was it like to pick that up?
Peggy: You know, it was fabulous. But I will say, the first time I got in front of the camera with the puppet on, what you don’t know is that the monitor isn’t flipped, so if you move the puppet to the left, it moves right - and in that moment of time, I thought my brain was gonna explode. I was like, ‘seriously? What have I done?’ And I thought, ‘this is one of hte biggest challenges in my life. And how fabulous is it?’
Patrick: And she worked really, really hard - the thing is, they can’t just take the class once a week, it’s like if you’re learning to play a musical instrument - you have to have some respect for it. There’s a lot of practice, a lot of analysis, there’s just a lot of drilling, drilling, drilling -
Brian: Drilling, yeah. There’s a lot of drilling.
Peggy: Yeah, there’s just a lot to do. And then the biggest thing coming from an improv background, is you make eye contact, you check-in with everyone to ask, ‘how are we doing? Are we all on the same page?’ But with puppets, the style, you don’t look at each other, the puppets look at each other - these puppet eyeballs. This is a whole genre that is exciting and crazy.
Patrick: They have to go to the monitor all the time, one of the first things I had to adjust to in approached improv when I was teaching puppeteers. Once I got past talking to the puppets...[gives a questioning face] and giving them notes...yeah. It’s embarrassing. But I did that at first. But then it was to ear listening skills since they couldn’t listen with their eyes - they have this distraction of playing with a musical instrument, basically. It forced me to come up with, if not different excersises, then to focus on listening connection. And that actually informed my outside improv teaching as well. So, in part of this, and I know I’m on a tangent here, but it revitalized my improv teaching. Which I had been doing for many years prior to this, but now, having to unlock a different formula, was you know, really inspiring.
Victor: God, you know, Patrick is really old.
Patrick: But I work at it. [points at his face]
Victor: But I will say, people do watch the monitor because that’s the only way to keep the scene kind of alive. But to me, I feel like there’s a lot of bonus contact in that if a puppet goes way up stage, and does something secretly up there - I’ve seen improv shows where I’m amazed at how much live performers can pick up about what a guy’s doing back there without really looking - but we can actually see it. I can see what that guy’s doing back there, and even though my puppet doesn’t see it, I know I’m about to be surprised or hit over the head. There are some advantages.
Brian: Right, Frank Oz used to say, “The way to become a lead Muppet performer was to just upstage until you win.’ [Everyone laughs] But the truth is, in puppetry, you don’t have to be polite. In acting, you have to show some respect: if a performer is downstage, and this is there moment, and you’re upstage and just start doing something, and the audience starts watching you, you’ve done a disservice to that downstage performance. But the great thing with puppets, as Victor said, is that we’re all watching a TV screen. If anybody does anything in that frame, we all know it. Upstaging is not impolite, it’s part of the Muppet tradition and the Jim Henson tradition, because Jim Henson puppetry has always only been done for the camera. And that’s the way it’s always been done. There’s always been a monitor, so there’s never been that upstage-downstage respect going on. So you always expect someone upstage to be upstaging.
The monitors, have they been with STUFFED AND UNSTRUNG since its inception at the workshop?
Brian: They’ve been there since the inception of the first Muppet. [Victor laughs]. My dad's whole idea was that the TV set in people’s homes would become the puppet stage, it was his very first idea. I want that square [mimes a TV screen] to be the stage, and that puppet to be like it’s inside your TV! ...If you don’t have a camera, you’re not really doing the Henson technique.
Victor: I think that’s what gives reality to the puppets, because when you know, you see a human on TV, it’s not always a full-body shot, it’s a three-quarter shot, that’s what we’re used to. So when you see a puppet, you assume there are legs and they’re walking - so it adds a whole level of reality to what we do that makes the puppets seem so real. That’s one of the cool parts of our show. That reality is created up there, you kind of see the behind-the-scenes part and the live part at the same time.
Brian: We call it two shows in one: one being in center stage, where you can watch the puppeteers, and everything that we’re doing, and the other show is the puppet show, which is on two screens on both sides. So you can watch the illusion, the puppetry, or you can watch center stage, and watch how we’re doing it. It’s the behind the scenes show that nobody’s been invited to see by the Jim Henson company. At the same time, you’re seeing what you’re used to seeing, the Henson puppetry from the Muppets or Sesame Street.
So, how do you win the audience over and get them to participate in such a large theater?
Patrick: With a snappy song, an explanation, and I come out scream, ‘How you doin’?!’ And then they’re there and we got ‘em. [Everyone laughs.]
Brian: He wins them over! [points to Patrick]
Patrick: The cast comes out and does an opening number that explains what we’re doing, so by that point, people have gotten a taste of the tone and the adult nature of it, and gotten used to seeing puppeteers and puppets with no masking. So by that point, they’ve wrapped their minds around it. We used to always over-explain everything. But we dropped that awhile back, and the audience doesn’t miss it, because, well, they can see.
Victor: That was always a big joke though, people used to think they were feeding us lines over the monitors -
Patrick: Yeah, like the writers were Skyping us. And just like when we used to have these black headband microphones, I’d have to say, you know, ‘they’re not ninjas or part of a cult.’
Victor: [looks at Patrick] You wouldn’t really think Patrick was very engaging as a host, but he’s surprisingly good! He comes alive!
Patrick: It’s mostly Red Bull.
Patrick: As you can see, there’s a little bit of taking the piss out of each other. And it’s fun to watch the cast fuck with each other on stage, and occasionally they fuck with me, but they pay for it. Oh, what was that thing? When you called me in the middle of that scene?
Peggy: Oh! We had a scene where he [points to Patrick] was the ‘celebrity’ and so we ended up calling him.
Patrick: So the puppets called me, and I’m outside of the scene actually directing - doing my job. ‘Hello?’
[Peggy begins screaming in a puppet voice]
Patrick: It was crazy. But they heard about that one. Even the audience gets a little sassy with us, and that’s cool, that’s great.
Depending on where you’re performing, do the sorts of suggestions greatly vary?
Patrick: Yes. Surprisingly, in Los Angeles, we get a lot of, uh, original and intelligent ideas.
Patrick: I am a native of LA, so I can say that!
Victor: In Edinburgh, it was basically a bunch of drunk people yelling, or cheese suggestions.
Patrick: Oh, yeah there were a lot of cheese suggestions. But there were some smart ones there! Someone shouted out, ‘objectivism!’ And I’m just kind of like, [lowers brow, drops voice into a noncommital tone] Ayn Rand?’
And in Australia they just gave us violent and blood-thirsty suggestions - that were hilarious with puppets.
Victor: Well, they were all originally prisoners, you know.
Any universal suggestions?
Victor: Strip clubs.
Patrick: Oh, yeah. Pole dancing.
Victor: People just think it’s really funny to see puppets be dirty.
Not to compare the two -
Victor: Whoever it is, we’re better.
Patrick: Is this the Avenue Q question? [laughs]
It is. What is it about the combination of puppets and adult humor that keeps audiences absolutely enthralled with these formats?
Victor: People are used to seeing puppets on Sesame Street, but you know, as you get older, you realize that there’s a person under there doing it. So as much as you buy into Elmo and love him as a three year old, you know there’s someone under there making him talk - and that person can make him say whatever they want. And you think, ‘Oh. Elmo can say something naughty?’ It’s safer because it’s not a real three year old saying naughty stuff - which can also be funny - but it’s a like a three-dimensional cartoon. People are just twisted.
Patrick: And thank god for it.
Victor: But to answer your question, we’re way better than Avenue Q [he laughs]
Patrick: Shut up.
Peggy: It’s just two different styles!
Victor: But ours is a good style!
Patrick: You’re going to create a puppet war.
Patrick: No, we’re friends with a lot of the Avenue Q people, and a couple of them guested with us during our New York run.
Victor: The puppet world is so small - we all know each other.
Patrick: None of us would have any friends if it weren’t for each other. The mimes obviously don’t talk to them.
Victor: We’re all friends. Except for the ventriloquists. Nobody talks to them.
What was it like to come into that sort of community, Peggy?
Peggy: I came into the puppet community from the improv side, and someone asked me, ‘Oh, is this your dream?’ And I said, ‘I didn’t even know I could dream this dream, because as of seven years ago, this genre didn’t exist! And I was introduced to a community of people I didn’t even know existed - amazing people, charming people, collaborative people. Except for Victor.
Patrick: Mean people. Large, foreboding people.
Peggy: I’ve loved my experience! People like me!
[Patrick gives her a questioning look]
Peggy: No? They don’t?
Patrick: We don’t let anyone feel too good about themselves.
Peggy: This is just an amazing show.
Patrick: Well, it could suck.
Peggy: No, it can’t! Because we have Victor.
It all comes back to Victor.
Patrick: Yes, generally it does.
Peggy: But really, sometimes I just want to turn to the audience and say, ‘Are you seeing this?! Isn’t it amazing? These people are amazing!’
Patrick: And then I have to shush her.
A lot of the early Jim Henson productions were quite subversive - and then a lot of them moved towards children - do you feel like STUFFED AND UNSTRUNG brings it full circle?
Patrick: There are some recreations of Jim Henson puppets and scenes, and to recapture that in a modern essence, is subversive, and brings it full-circle. And there’s a montage of early Jim Henson creations in the show, that are really violent - and hilariously so.
Victor: Jim Henson never really intended to go into children’s television - Sesame Street just sort of came about, and it’s what the company became known for. But our show, as it is geared towards adults, does bring it back to some of the earlier Jim Henson stuff. It’s not billed as something dirty - but it can go there.
Patrick: Right, we have to say it’s for adults only because the immediate thought is: ‘Oh, bring the kids.’ And that’s just not as fun of an improv show.
Is there anything you’d like to tell the Chicago audiences?
Patrick: Come see the puppets.
Peggy: You’ll never have seen anything like it before. I can guarantee the audience that they’ll laugh. I mean, Victor’s in it!
Victor: That’s the reason right there.
Patrick: I have to say, it’s a fun evening. There have been some people who’ve walked out saying, ‘Well I didn’t care for that.’ But they shouldn’t leave the house anyway.
Peggy: My mother came to see the show in Irvine - and I do not say the ‘F’ word in front of my mother. I just don’t. But she heard it that night. And she said, ‘Oh, Pegger! I loved it. Oh, I want to bring all my friends! Oh, it was wonderful!’ There’s a whimsy to the edginess. Chicagoans, come see the show!
Thanks for chatting with us, guys!
All: Thank you!
STUFFED AND UNSTRUNG plays the Bank of America Theater from June 12-17, with tickets available at www.broadwayinchicago.com. For more information on the show, check out its official website: www.stuffedandunstrung.com.