On Friday at 11:30AM, Kevin Clash, Aymee Garcia, and Noel MacNeal—with moderator Raymond Carr—joined Dragon Con virtually to dish all things puppetry as a person of color then, now, and into the future.
The puppeteers started by discussing their earliest professional experiences. MacNeal, who attended the Pratt Institute, traveled to Paris to do a series of commercials with an instructor who had built Big Bird before going on to work on such shows as Bear in the Big Blue House, The Puzzle Place, Sesame Street, and even Last Week Tonight with John Oliver.
Garcia worked with a friend on a travelling puppet show for pre-school kids before getting a gig in Miami on a show called Jelly Bean Jungle that featured alligator puppets, all leading up to her big break on the Tony-winning musical Avenue Q.
Clash, best known for his work on Sesame Street as Elmo but who also worked on Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance, was discovered at a city fair in his hometown of Baltimore and landed on Captain Kangaroo before heading to Sesame Street, which he said that Bob Keeshan, who played Captain Kangaroo, thought was too fast paced. He didn’t like the concept or the structure.
The group talked about the important of The Puzzle Place in the world of children’s television and puppetry, as it showcases puppets of different nationalities. MacNeal said it was also challenging because they wanted the puppeteers to match to the nationalities of the puppets.
Carr agreed on its importance, saying that it meant a lot for him to see puppets of color with matching voices.
The panelist talked about the first time they saw puppets of color on screen, noting that Roosevelt Franklin on Sesame Street and ventriloquist Will Tyler and Lester, who appeared on Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, were some of the first.
Garcia also brought the talk back to The Puzzle Place, saying that “I was blown away by the rainbows of colors.”
They all talked about characters they wish they had played differently, fought to play differently, or refused to play at all. For Garcia, it was as simple as not using a heavy Hispanic accent on the show Splash and Bubbles while playing the seahorse Ripple, who gave birth to many babies, and perpetuating the idea that all Latinos have many kids.
MacNeal was brought into to speak with producers on the Nick Jr. show LazyTown, which is made in Iceland, for a character named Pixel. Funnily enough, Carr had been auditioning for the role and was told he wasn’t “black enough.” When MacNeal heard what the producers wanted, and disagreed with their vision, he turned down the role.
But, these experiences have been balanced by incredibly positive, life changing ones.
For Clash, it was travelling to Johannesburg and Cape Town, South Africa shortly after Apartheid and developing a co-production for Sesame Street and auditioning South African puppeteers. MacNeal also participated, helping to develop Kami—the young HIV+ puppet introduced to eliminate stigma around the disease.
As Carr brought up, in South Africa “You can be put on trial for magic,” which seems silly to us, but is something very serious there. Developing co-productions that are culturally aware, sensitive, and tailored is paramount when working abroad, so going to South Africa right after Apartheid and developing a show and HIV+ puppet, and getting it right, was not just important but getting it wrong could have profound consequences.
As for the future, both mentoring young puppeteers of color and ensuring representation, the panelist were enthusiastic and optimistic.
Clash said that it’s “wonderful to give them the opportunity” about nurturing up and coming puppeteers. “It’s always fun to give back what you’ve learned.”
Garcia likened puppetry to a fun magic trick that you get to pass on or a club that you are excited to invite others into.
MacNeal encouraged aspiring puppeteers to get involved by finding a local theatre troupe or even just taking advantage of YouTube to learn the craft, something that both Garcia and Clash echoed—noting that with all the social media platforms now is also the time to put yourself out there as “they” are watching, especially during this pandemic (since there is, you know, nothing else to do).
Clash talked about how when he was starting out the giants of puppetry—Jim Henson and Frank Oz—were wonderful and fun to work with, so he infuses his own teaching and training with the same energy. He wants the next generation to feel like they are a part of a family while being silly, having a great time, and learning.
As for continuing to push for representation, the panelist said to talk to producers about your ideas, introduce them to other writers, performers, etc. of color. Continue to showcase yourself on social media to get noticed. Also, remember that what is happening in the U.S. right now is a movement, not a moment, and that empowerment is about true diversity, not tokenism. And, true diversity only occurs when people of color fill the roles of writer, producer, director, lead actor, etc…
“Children’s television is the most progressive in the world,” Carr said at one point. And, that’s what so great about it. Puppetry is a vital part of what makes it work.