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 -