Cheryl Henson joined a collection of Sesame Street and Henson puppeteers to talk about Jim Henson at Dragon Con this year. And unlocked her father's vault to explain the importance of puppetry's innovation.
Update: According Center of Puppetry Arts representative Chelsea Bohannon, the exhibit will include 450 objects and opens on November 14, 2015. The article has been updated to reflect the changes.
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Cheryl Henson stopped by Dragon Con this year to offer up tidbits on the 2015 Henson exhibit opening at the Center for Puppetry Arts in Atlanta.
During the panel, Jim’s daughter didn’t just talk about the impact of the Muppets, but the overall legacy of Henson puppetry and the value in changing the game to include a host of different artists into a growing community, something that many fans may not be aware of.
Characters from Sesame Street and The Dark Crystal will be featured at the Center, where a rotating collection of 450 objects, and memorabilia will create a variety of collections throughout the years. With only 75 in rotation at a time, the options are limitless.
Imagine seeing a Skeksis next to a Fraggle Rock Doozer, looking down in surprised horror at an intruder. Or Animal beating drums off Oscar's can lid.
Jim managed to change the wooden head puppetry of the Howdy Doody era, where marionettes and more traditional objects were considered the wisest decision, into a juggernaut most humans with access to media know.
All because he went to Europe and saw what was, didn’t have to be what is. Sesame Street and the Muppets are only two lines of innovation in a careful collection on education.
Educating Sesame Street
For the record, Sesame Street isn’t just in the United States.
It’s across the globe with individual characters based on geographic location. On Germany’s Sesamstraße, Big Bird’s been replaced with a gigantic bear named Samson, along with Tiffy the Bird.
And in Nigeria, there’s the 30-minute Sesame Square, a spin-off of The Adventures of Kami and Big Bird, looking to empower and teach children about national topics—like facts about HIV/AIDS and the importance of female advancement. It includes segments of the American program, but remains culturally tuned in—as with all the Sesame Street media.
Sesame Square’s a recent addition to the Sesame Workshop family, the expansion of which moves across global lines and areas, focusing on educating children and not national borders. Fans of Sesame Street can find shows in Japan, Kosovo, Canada, Mexico, Pakistan, Iran, and Brazil. And that's simply a few of the over 120 locations worldwide.
Henson’s legacy is not just the characters on screen, but the inspiration to innovate change to inspire inclusion.
“For the most part, what my father was interested in doing was helping artists to visualize their own work. And what was happening in the 80s was that so many artists were pressured into doing Muppet style because that's what was selling.”
Now that HBO will be helping to keep one of America's beloved innovations going, the pathway to Sesame Street will include a brand new curve. And maybe enough to bring in a new character or two.
The Dark Crystal
Each of the Henson children focus on a particular theme or idea of puppetry. Carrying on Jim’s legacy by inspiring new creations to engage and entertain audiences. Cheryl, for instance, is deeply tied to cult classic The Dark Crystal.
“It was a world that so important to me as a teenager when my father first started working on this film. And I became obsessed with it. It was very important to me as a teenager to see this film brought to life.”
Taking five years to produce and a lot of personal finance to make the vision move from storyboard to film meant a lot of time away from family. Folding the children into the family business meant time together that may not have otherwise been available.
“My father was fascinated by mythology and the concept of doing a puppet performance that has no humans in it at all, that is a completely fabricated world. He loved the idea of a world that was designed by one designer.”
Her father’s death in 1990 stole creativity from audiences, but The Dark Crystal allows family the chance to see their father in every single cell. “My father put so much of his heart and soul and his persona into this film.”
Since the family owns the rights to the film cells, production and use falls solely on their own distribution deals and exclusive online content. That means if audiences wanted a sequel, the option exists. By owning the rights, it also means the Henson clan are able to grow the concept and film in a way that fits with Jim’s vision. Not just a distant, disconnected CEO’s need for profit.
Family honor through action.
Brian’s most famous unique take on puppetry is Farscape, the quirky sci-fi series set in a far flung region of the universe where puppetry and live action work together to create a cohesive vision. Speaking about the way puppets are usually defined by ‘family,’ Cheryl Henson opened up on the idea of the Creature Workshop, which was inspired by the Fraggle Rock and Storyteller sets.
Scale is everything.
"The Muppets were the first puppets that were made especially for television. They had two main innovations. The first was lip-syncing, having the mouths specifically open and close to match the spoken word.
Previously, puppeteers put no effort into matching the mouths to the words. That was the first change. But there were also the body movements" that had to match up with multiple actors and puppeteers in a scene.
But there’s another element to family that the Hensons never mention. Watch an episode of Farscape and you can’t really see the puppet as a mechanical being. Pilot and Rygel aren’t simply odd looking creatures, but instead are integral to the character family dynamics.
Family isn’t just a classification; it’s a creative ideology that attaches to all parts of a Henson set.
Partnering with the Center of Puppetry Arts means the movable Henson legacy is winding down. The collections are complete. Some are in New York where Sesame Street’s filmed, others in Washington, D.C., where Jim and his wife Jane got their start.
And it’s okay that the attention is shifting from the past to the future. Lisa works on creating TV shows and movies by reinventing unfinished projects for distribution and production. And Heather works on using puppet cranes to motivate a change in global policy and save the wetlands.
Their parents taught them to be strong in personal identity and dedication to projects.
Re-imagining a legacy
“My mother was very instrumental in getting this partnership together with the Center of Puppetry Arts. When my father passed away in 1990, my mother set up a new foundation called the Jim Henson Legacy. And the Jim Henson Legacy is dedicated to getting his original work out for people to see.”
And to affect change through the diversity of global puppetry and the Jim Henson Foundation.
That’s what Henson wanted when he created a celebration to inspire artists to look beyond the Muppets and his vision. And until her death two years ago, Jane Henson helped to teach his legacy through motivating innovation through personal experience.
During the 1990s, the Henson “presented a festival of puppet theater in New York City. It was a project that I worked on together with my father. And unfortunately, he passed away before we were able to press on”.
“Over the course of ten years and five festivals, we were in 13 different theaters across the city and we brought over 130 companies to 13 stages. And that really helped to raise the profile of puppet theater in New York.”
Mister Roger’s puppets are just as relevant as the Muppets because it’s what people do with the craft that matters above all else. And Brian's love of tech and puppetry can still be found on PBS and public access with shows like Dinosaur Train and Sid the Science Kid.
Combined with Lisa's love of the craft, the latest generation makes sure young people around the world discover the artistry of the Jim Henson Company in whole new ways.
Jim Henson may have been a leader, but his children are working to lead the next generation through opportunity and creativity. A fact any father would be proud of.
"And he was always interested of the inside of the brain. Inside of the imagination. How the brain worked, how imagination worked. And how to tap into all that using puppetry." Like the psychedelic colors of the counterculture and the 1970s against the backdrop of scenery.
It’s been 25 years since a beloved innovator died but his work will always live on in some fashion, thanks to millions upon millions' minds and hearts.
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Please visit the Center of Puppetry Arts at their website for more information on the Henson collection, which will open November 14, 2015.