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Tuesday, November 11, 2014

A Q&A with Brian Henson about his R-Rated Puppet Show: "Puppet Up!"

Posted By on Tue, Nov 11, 2014 at 1:05 PM

The cast of Puppet Up! - CAROL ROSEGG
  • Carol Rosegg
  • The cast of Puppet Up!

Growing up as the son of world-renowned-puppeteer Jim Henson is arguably the best way to create a solid background in all things relating to puppetry. But what happens when the puppet scene starts to feel a little stale? Brian Henson, chairman of the Jim Henson Company, found himself in that predicament and longed for a new kind of development in puppetry. In order to revive the puppet scene he partnered with the talented improv and comedy expert Patrick Bristow, and the duo went about creating a new kind of puppet experience —  this one is not PBS-friendly. In his show, Henson features characters from the Jim Henson Company like audiences have never seen them before, in more, ahem, “adult" roles.

SF Weekly caught up with Henson to discuss this new show: Puppet Up!

How does one come up with an improvised, adult puppet show?

The puppeteers were losing their flair for comedy. I used to train puppeteers for my dad when he was alive. We would teach people to puppeteer and then we had this terrible ratio: for every 20 puppeteers that we trained to be really good puppeteers, we would only really use one of them. And that was because they weren’t great performers, they weren’t great entertainers. We could make them into great puppeteers — [but] we couldn’t make them into great entertainers. And what I found is that the puppeteers were getting stale and not funny. So I got in touch with Patrick Bristow [...] and I said, “I’d like to find a new voice for comedy for puppets, and I’d like to do it with the performers — not with writers. I’d like to do it [using] improv comedy, but I know nothing about it.” Patrick said, “Well, that’s going to be hard because improvisers have to look at each other in the eye. They’re always trying to kind of read each others minds, that’s how improv comedians work.” Initially he didn’t think it would work. So we started doing some workshops with some of the other puppeteers [...] and it worked extremely well!

So the purpose of the workshop was to find a new voice in comedy. What we found was that when we do improv comedy with the audience making suggestions, that it was really, really funny! And particularly funny if we didn’t censor the show. That’s how it became an R-rated show. And it is quite R-Rated! Usually. It all depends on the audience.\

click to enlarge Brian Henson in Puppet Up! - CAROL ROSEGG
  • Carol Rosegg
  • Brian Henson in Puppet Up!
So then what is the premise of Puppet Up!?

It’s a sketch comedy and improv puppet show, basically. We also have other specialty pieces in it; musical pieces and some re-enactments that were developed by my father 50 years ago. But it’s a great opportunity for the audience to be able to see how our puppeteers work. Because our whole technique is a puppetry technique for camera only — we don’t really have a live theater technique. So, what we do is we put a camera center stage and the puppeteers work in front of the camera. And then there are two large screens over the stage so the audience can see what the camera is doing. It’s a really cool, two-shows-in-one, where you can watch the screen, you can watch the puppet show, or you can watch center stage and watch the ways our puppeteers work, which is really fascinating for people because they don’t often get a chance to see the difference of technique in different puppetry exposed like that.

How interactive is the show in regards to the audience? How much do you really play off of people?

What we’re trying to do is trying to get the performers to perform very spontaneously. And the way we do that is; we kind of have a loose structure, but then the audience makes specific suggestions. [Suggestions like] where is this being taken? Who are these characters? And then we immediately start the scene. It’s really fun!

It’s a type of comedy that when it’s good, it’s really very good. And what we find is that our puppeteers improvising is a wonderfully high standard of comedy. So, it’s like, when you say to people, “It’s an improv puppet show for adults,” their initial response is, “Oh! That really sounds awful!” All I can say is, I would have said the same thing many years ago. But here’s the thing; when it’s good it’s very, very good. And our show is very, very good.

How much training goes into being able to be “very, very good” with puppets?

It really usually takes about four years of working on it before you can be on camera with a line speaking role. And it takes a couple years before you can be on camera at all. In this show I guess we had a couple of performers train up in less than three years and have gotten on stage - but not often. And the way it works; we train people who are either very high level improv comedians, and then we train them as puppeteers, or they’re very, very good puppeteers and we train them to be improv comedians. And this is now the main training for the Jim Henson Company. So this show, Puppet Up!, is the show that showcases basically the entire bench of the Henson Company puppeteers.

Hear and watch the Jim Henson Company's new R-Rated voice in "Puppet Up!" November 13-23 at the Marines’ Memorial Theatre (609 Sutter St.). Tickets are $40; call (888) 746-1799 or visit 
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Laura Jaye Cramer

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