“Adults-Only” Puppet Show
Photos Denise Truscello
Ensemble cast performing in Puppet Up! - Uncensored
Puppets have long been a way for performers to express thoughts and emotions while remaining at a remove from reality. Festivalgoers have been laughing to the politically incorrect and violent antics of Punch and Judy for centuries.
The art form changed, however, as television became more prominent in the ’50s and ’60s. And a young performer named Jim Henson led the charge, eventually helping establish shows such as Sesame Street, where the “Muppets” interacted with live people to help teach several generations of kids about letters and numbers – even good manners.
All of this was great, except there was more to these puppets than animated felt versions of elementary school primers. The world came to see that with the introduction of The Muppet Show, a satiric look at the making of a variety show. It starred such now iconic figures as Gonzo the Great, Fozzie Bear, Miss Piggy and, of course, Kermit the Frog. These characters, along with celebrity guest stars, pushed the boundaries each week of what we could expect from puppets. And the audience responded. It turned out they liked seeing these characters tackle deeper themes, delving deeper into the psychology of the human experience. Henson would push these boundaries even further with feature film forays that included Labyrinth and The Dream Child, and the TV series The Storyteller, which recounted and dramatized ancient myths and legends.
Makes you wonder why it took so long, then, for us to finally get Puppet Up!
Puppet Up! is the new adults-only improvisational show at The Venetian, featuring six puppeteers, a genial host, about 45 Henson puppets and more mature language and situations than you can shake an “arm rod” (the mechanism used to control a puppet’s extremities) at.
In this case, that “genial host” is Patrick Bristow, part of the creative process in the show’s development. “The way it started was that (Jim’s son) Brian Henson wanted to see some of the puppeteers that he hired on a more regular basis for TV and film work to kind of loosen up. He remembered his father’s approach when he was with Frank Oz: they were very good at “ad-libbing.” He recognized that improv is a skillset in itself, so he asked his wife Mia Sara (yeah, THE Mia Sara) to find an improv teacher.”
Bristow’s background as a member and teacher at the world famous Groundlings improvisational troupe in Los Angeles made him a prime candidate. He met with Henson in the summer of 2005 and they decided on a trial run. “About six weeks into it, it was going great,” Bristow recalls, “and Brian said, ‘do you want to continue?’ And I said ‘yes.’”
“A couple months later, we did a little demonstration on the Henson lot of this … ‘hey, puppets and improv together; let’s see what happens.’ Standing ovations – there were people there from the Aspen comedy festival who said ‘bring your show to Aspen.’ Brian said, ‘It’s not really a show. It’s a demonstration.’ They said, ‘Well, whatever you did, we loved it, bring it!’
“So we went to Aspen, we did a very basic ‘puppets doing improv’ sort of show, sold out two performances and again … huge response. There were people from the Edinburgh Festival there who said ‘bring your show.’ So it started just organically, turning into a show.”
From there, things snowballed rapidly. Patrick changed the traditional way that improvisation was taught. “I had to make adjustments to the technique because in improv, eye contact is paramount and because of the Henson puppeteering technique, which was developed for television, the puppeteers don’t look at each other. They don’t even look at the puppets except through a monitor attached to the camera. So while they’re performing, they’re making sure the puppets all look good, their eye focus is correct – when they’re supposed to be looking at each other or at the camera. Traditionally, they would practice their blocking for a written scene. Now we throw them into a situation where they have to listen SO acutely, not just to the information that’s being improvised in terms of dialogue, but in terms of what the underlying emotion is. The puppets have limited emotional expressions – they were already at a disadvantage from the word go in terms of improv techniques. So I did a lot of exercises about listening and using the voice to get emotion and intention through.”
Bristow also started bringing in trained improvisers to mix with the veteran puppeteers. “Now we have a company that is half people who started as puppeteers and half people who started as improvisers, and audiences can’t tell the difference,” he says. “Because they’ve all really worked hard on their skillset.”
One of the improvisers who became part of the troupe early on is Peggy Etra. “I first saw the show in Aspen. I guess it’s like watching Olympic gymnastics. It looks so easy. You see the artistry but you’re like, ‘Oh, it looks effortless.’”
When she was asked to come and try out, her first thought was this’ll be interesting. But it was more than that. “The first lab was soul-crushing. It was so humbling. Because 1) with an improv background, the first thing they take away from you is eye contact. How do we improvise without making eye contact? 2) There are all sorts of weights and sizes and balances. You’re holding your hand up over your head, with this weight on it, that you have to make move. And you’re looking into a monitor. And what they don’t tell you is that the monitor image … (is mirror). That’s crazy. For the first year, it’s just trying to figure out who you’re talking to. And you have to at least make sense. It’s the most I have ever used my brain.”
The cast of more than 60 puppets rests between shows in a display case.
Besides brainpower and adult themes, there are a couple of other things that make this show unique, especially if your only knowledge of puppets is what you’ve seen on TV or in the movies. “When you watch puppets on TV — ‘Muppet Show, ‘Sesame Street’ — there doesn’t appear to be anything going on below the waist. Here you get to see if Peggy is trying not to break character or you get to see how someone achieves making a puppet look like they’re on ice skates. What body movements they have to do to do that. Sometimes the puppeteers, if you look at their faces, they’re in character. They’ll be making expressions that go with the puppet’s emotions, and some of them are not that way. The puppet can be absolutely raging and the puppeteer is very calm and collected. It’s fascinating to see these individual artists and how they send that consciousness up their arm into an inanimate object and achieve the illusion of life.”
Or, as Peggy puts it, “It’s completely deconstructed.”
Patrick explains how the idea of letting the audience in on the inner workings came about. “Brian said — when we were doing that first demonstration — ‘Should we put a puppet wall in?’ and I said, ‘No, no, no. It’s fascinating to watch.’ The puppeteers were like ‘really?’
Guys, it’s endlessly fascinating to watch you.’ They just took it for granted. They didn’t think what they were doing below the camera was particularly… of entertainment value. Me, being an outsider… ‘Of course it is.’ And that became a big feature of our show to do it in that deconstructed way.”
But one of the things the puppets don’t do is “break the fourth floor.” They exist in their reality. And with one exception during the opening number (one of the few scripted pieces in the show), the puppets never acknowledge the puppeteers whose hand is up their … well … you know. In fact, that bit of euphemism is another drawing point for the show. “Because we’re an uncensored show in Vegas,” says Patrick, “and we’re billed as such, when audiences come in, they’ve had a couple of drinks and they want to see the dirty puppets. We have to remember that 1) every audience coming has that expectation; 2) they haven’t seen this show; 3) they probably haven’t seen an improv show, so if I just call out for an activity, chances are they’re going to yell out some sort of sex. If I say ‘job,’ they’re going to say ‘proctologist’ or ‘gynecologist.’
“As the MC, I’m trying to work different ways for the audience to just give us different versions of the uncensored suggestions. But sometimes they give us very clean suggestions, and then the puppeteers will not just go smutty, they’ll go dark, which is delightful. You know the uncensored aspect is not just F bombs and poop. It’s violence and darkness and bad parenting. It’s bad behavior. We’re satirizing what people do in public – being addicted to selfies and all that stupidity, and that gets satirized through the puppets.
“We have to explore different ways to deliver the shocking without being gratuitous and without being hacks,” he says. “I’m very blessed that I have a cast, all very intelligent, and they recognize that challenge and they’re up to it.”
As Peggy sees it, “Each performance we get to be creative. And we get to be creative because we’re doing what the audience wants to see. So we now have a different palette to paint with and it keeps us fresh as well.”
For both of them, though, and the rest of the cast, there’s an underlying surreal quality to the whole thing.
“Puppet improv? Who knew?” Peggy says. Or, as Patrick puts it, “We have these moments of checking in to reality and going ‘What the fuck?’”
“In my world,” Peggy says, “with an improv background, I didn’t go out on tour. I didn’t make a lot of money. You didn’t do improv because it spoke to you, because it was a creative thing to do. It was fun. But there wasn’t money in it. So this idea we were touring the world doing improv with puppets. It’s great. It’s the best!”
And the show supports this view. It’s a funny, solid 75 minutes – about an hour of which is pure, audience-driven improvisation. When Patrick calls for improvisers for a particular scene, the chosen cast members run to the “wall of puppets” and grab one they think will work best for the coming scene. “Each puppet speaks to each puppeteer individually,” says Peggy. “There’s a puppet we call ‘Pretty Girl.’ For me to do ‘Pretty Girl’ there’s a voice that I think she sounds like. So more than likely, when I pick up ‘Pretty Girl’ that’s what she’s going to sound like – Peggy doing ‘Pretty Girl.’ But each other person who picks her up has their own connotation of who she is, what her background is and what she sounds like.”
“And yet,” adds Patrick, “I’ve seen Peggy pick up, like the Beaver Puppet, and depending on the needs of the improv she’ll do, with the same puppet, one night she’s a bad ass southern, next night she’s very grand dame, same puppet, same puppeteer. But I’ve seen Peggy do ‘Pretty Girl’ as vapid, I’ve seen her do her smart. I’ve seen her do her glamorous. I’ve seen her do her slutty. I’ve seen her do her drunk.”
All of it underscores the point that each show is different, depending on the audience and who happens to be in the cast that particular night (There are about 25 puppeteers who could be cycled in or out at any given point). The night I was there, I sat next to someone who had seen the show the night before and was just as excited to see it a second time, and eventually judged that incarnation as funny as the first.
So go and see it as many times as you can. But make sure you see it at least once. If you don’t, you’ll regret it on your deathbed!