What I Learned at Beyond the Sock

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Jason Mondine – Texas, the home of cowboy boots, hospitality and terrifying insects. And for one week every year, the home of the most intense, fun and educational workshop any lifelong Muppet fan and puppeteer could hope for.

Beyond the Sock is a five day course on puppet building and performing for film and television at the University of North Texas. The instructors are Noel MacNeal, Peter Linz and Pasha Romanowski.

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A bunch of Muppet fans out there just thought, “Oh, wow! Noel! And Peter Too? Cool! Uh… who’s this Pasha guy?”. Pasha is one of those unsung heroes of puppetry, a master builder. He’s crafted characters for many film and TV productions, including the entire cast of The Moe Show. Half of the workshop is creating an original puppet of Pasha’s own design. Thanks to him and his team, I can now work with foam and fur without gluing my fingers together and coating the entire table with loose fuzz. I also know the secret to making a high quality, professional hand and rod puppet in less than a week: have an entire staff of master builders standing by at your beck and call to advise and assist at any moment.  I think the local craft store sells this in the “in your dreams” aisle.

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The other half of the class is performing. I was rather intimidated. This was Noel MacNeal, the man who made Bear in the Big Blue House come to life, as well as Leon on the Puzzle Place and countless others. And Peter Linz, Walter himself, as well as Ernie, one of the most iconic characters of all time. Still, as a puppeteer with stage experience, I figured I could bring some skill to the table.

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Then I got my character in front of the camera and monitor, and it all fell apart. For those who don’t know, Muppeteers perform while watching a live TV screen showing them the camera’s exact view. It isn’t mirrored like a selfie camera or a… well, mirror. I walked my character in from the right, he showed up on the left.  I tried walking out, he hopped like he was on a pogo stick. Even standing straight was a challenge. I found myself leaning, so I compensated… the wrong way, and watched in horror as my character slowly keeled over. (If a puppet falls on a screen and nobody stops it, does it make a sound? Yes, the sound of the puppeteer saying, “Oh, @!#&!”) Why was I struggling so much? Then it struck me. When performing for video as the Muppets do, the character is no longer an object on my arm. It’s on the screen. The physical puppet is just a tool for making the image come to life. When you watch the Muppets, that isn’t a picture of Kermit. That is Kermit, the same Kermit that Jim Henson saw at the very moment that he worked his immortal magic. To me, it was totally new, a serious blow to my ego, and exactly what I needed. I was being torn down so that Noel and Peter could build me up again.

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The next few sessions went more smoothly, in spite of suddenly needing massive doses of ibuprofen. They recommend exercising before the workshop. Here is the regimen I suggest: Put your right hand above your head. Now, keep it there for five days. When you walk, bob your shoulders up and down double time, then come to a stop and touch your nose to your knee.

Noel and Peter employ a unique educational style called, “tease everybody all the time”. It is gentle and good-natured, but constant. And it works. It taught me to criticize my own work while not taking myself so seriously. After all, puppets should be fun, right? This is the same ribbing and camaraderie on full display in Frank Oz’s documentary, Muppet Guys Talking. It’s comforting to know that the playful work ethic Jim Henson created still lives on.

Me and Mentors

Before the workshop, I knew that Noel and Peter were master puppeteers. What I didn’t know is that they have amazing chemistry. When they were on camera together to demonstrate, the resulting improv had us all in stitches. I was watching one of the great comedy duos up close and personal, and then being invited to join them and learn from them. What a privilege. To all the Muppet writers out there, seriously, give these guys more scenes!

On the fifth day, we put the final touches on our puppets and rehearsed for a showcase that evening. In other words, everybody ran around like Beaker on fire. For the grand finale, all of the new puppets appeared on camera for a song. I always wanted to be in a scene like those big Muppet musical numbers with dozens of characters on screen at once. Squashed in under the frame with all of my new friends, I smiled with childlike glee, my head craned to one side so I could see my character’s movements, one tiny dot in a sea of dancing fur and fleece. It was a dream come true and a moment I will cherish forever.

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I went home with a gorgeous puppet, dozens of new friends and connections, and a bagful of newly acquired skills that I am determined to keep up on and improve.

After 50 years, I finally know how to get to Sesame Street. Practice, practice, practice.

Jason Mondine
Creator and Performer: The Zoo Pack, Ellie and Clyde

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