Master of Puppets

I get a fair amount of questions sent to me online but, by far, this year the most common question I’ve gotten is “what are you doing with the Jim Henson Company and how did you get in with them??” So here’s the answer…

 

On May 14th I got an email from my friend Ami in Salt Lake City. Ami isn’t a friend of mine that’s in show business or anything. Just a friend with internet access. The email had an attachment of a flyer online posted by the Jim Henson Company seeking to diversify their puppeteers. The email said they were looking for African American, Latino, Asian American/Pacific Islander, and Native American men or women of any ethnicity. No mention of Middle Eastern people but I guess we can’t ask them to go nuts with the diversity. The only other stipulation mentioned in the email was that the puppeteers needed to be between 5’6” and 6’3” in height.  The email also mentioned that no puppeteering experience was required.

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I was hesitant to submit myself…

 

But I figured it doesn’t cost anything to send an email with a photo and resume so I figured, why not? This was a world I knew nothing about and, even though they didn’t say they were looking for Middle Eastern men specifically, I knew that I fell into the diversity category. I sent my email with no expectations and forgot about it.

 

On June 3rd, I received a letter from the Jim Henson Company asking me to come and audition.

 

I had almost forgotten I’d submitted for this and now I was feeling a lot of anxiety realizing that I didn’t know the first thing about puppeteering and I was scared to go to an audition where I didn’t really know if I would want the job even if I got it. I’d spent my entire adult life pursuing comedy and acting; puppeteering was a whole world away from what I was familiar with. i didn’t even know how to approach it. Nonetheless, here I was, invited to go to the Jim Henson Studios on a Saturday for 2 hours for an audition. 2 hours? For an audition?

 

What were they going to ask of me???

 

I had some serious reservations. I thought about just not going but I’ve never not gone to an audition in my life. An opportunity is an opportunity, no matter how wrong you think they are for giving it to you.  I scan the page looking for the time of the audition hoping it wasn’t early (aka before noon) and see it’s at 10 am. Well shit. Now I’m really starting to talk myself out of it but when Saturday finally comes, I set my alarm and reluctantly wake up at the crack of 9:36 AM. I roll out of bed and take the world’s fastest and least effective shower before running out the door. I check the address on the audition and see it’s just up the street. It’s like I’m doing all I can to subconsciously miss this audition and everything just kinda keeps working itself out.

 

Oh well…I guess I’ll go hang out on the Jim Henson lot for a couple hours.

 

I start driving and it’s a beautiful day outside. Sun is shining but it’s not too bright thanks to Bob Ross’ happy clouds in the sky. There’s a perfect breeze blowing and I’ve got the windows down and the music up. I’m actually happy I woke up today. Maybe this will be fun? Who knows? Who cares if this isn’t my element? This is going to be a fun experience and I should keep my expectations of myself low. This mindset is probably the greatest gift any actor can give themselves when going into an audition. Some actors think that the best plan is to not care. That’s detrimental to work. You can’t do a good job if you don’t care. However being nervous and putting too much importance on something works against you as well.  You need to find that sweet spot of keeping expectations low but the desire to have fun and enjoy the experience high.

 

I pull up to the gate and the guard asks for my ID and why i’m there.

 

I tell him I’m there for the puppeteer audition and he gives me a placard for my car. I look at it with the Jim Henson logo and my name on it with “puppeteer” written underneath and I think “if nothing else, this is worth the drive.” I park my car and grab my headshot, resume and a bottle of water. I start walking down this path that leads into the studio while taking in my surroundings. This place is not at all like any of the other studios I’ve been too. Paramount, Warner Bros, Universal, Sony…they all have a very businesslike feel to them. Like you’re visiting your dad at work and you shouldn’t bother anyone while you’re there.

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This place was different. It had this very joyous energy to it.

 

Like everyone here was playing and you were welcome to join. As I walk down this concrete path into the  cottage village they call the Henson Studios, I am greeted with the smiling face of a bright blue dinosaur. I immediately recognize it but realize I’m too out of touch with my childhood to remember what movie it was from. It still warms my heart and I realize that I am in Narnia. I am in this special place that only exists within these gates. I walk down another path and end up at some picnic tables with umbrellas over them. I see a few guys that look like they’re there to fill a diversity requirement and ask if we are all there for the same thing. They reply yes so I sit down and say hi.

 

I start mentioning how cool the studio is and one of the guys starts telling me all about it.

 

He mentions this is the old Charlie Chaplin Studios and that we were actually sitting on top of his foot steps in the concrete. I look down and sure enough there are some small ducked out footprints walking up the walkway we were sitting on. He points out that Kermit standing atop the roof facing La Brea is dressed as Charlie Chaplin and is tipping his hat to the old comedian. He explains how the expansion of La Brea Ave caused the studio to have to shrink to a smaller size and things were torn down as a consequence. He gave me a 10 minute cliff’s notes on the place and suddenly I wondered if he worked there. I ask and he tells me he’s just a fan. He’s been to these auditions before, he says, and he’s been a puppeteer all his life. He’s flown in from NYC. He tells me he works on Broadway as a puppeteer and he’s tried multiple times to get into this program. The other guys share similar stories. Mentioning that they’re in from all over the continent as well. They ask me where I’m from and I reply “just down the street on Fairfax. I feel bad for coming late now.”

 

I tell them I’ve never held a puppet before and they kind of give each other a look and we change topics.

 

I’m starting to wonder what I’m doing there again when a tall, slender man with wild gray hair comes outside and asks us to follow him. I guess the audition is starting. We enter this big sound stage with a grid of cameras set up and a couple long collapsable tables set up with about 50 puppets on each one. Across the room are some tall mirrors that run the length of the wall like a dance studio.

 

We’re directed to grab a puppet and go stand in front of the mirror in “puppet neutral position.”

 

Those words all have meaning to me separately but together I have no idea what they mean. I grab what I think to be a cool puppet. It’s a dude with long spindly arms holding a cigarette. I make sure I’m not the first to do anything since I’m the tourist here and just follow everyone’s lead. The guys all line up in a row and raise their arms up over their head and turn to the side as if they are snowboarding and the puppet arm is making a hookshot in a basketball game. That paints a weird picture but just go with me. They then have us go down the row and describe our puppeteering experience by having the puppet lip sync our words for us. Everyone lists off their amazing credits and when it comes to me I reply “this is my first time with my hand in an animal’s ass. First day on the job.” Everyone laughs and this guy named Drew walks over and asks if he can spend some one on one time with me to get me up to speed with what will be expected of me in the audition.

 

The first thing he tells me to do is to get rid of the puppet I picked…

 

…since I basically picked a puppet that requires a good puppeteer. He said long spindly arms and a prop will be too difficult for me. We find a little gopher with a small mouth and short arms. He shows me how to hold the puppet so the eyes are looking in the direction you want them to look. It’s a technique referred to as “eye focus.” He then works with me on syncing the lips to my voice. We play around a little bit and he reminds me that they know I have no puppeteering experience. He tells me to just have fun and let my humor come through because that will be what will impress them. He also tells me not to be too G rated with my humor since they are looking for more adult humor to bring into the puppets. After an hour of playing around we are told to go line up outside the screening room so that we can go in for the actual audition. I thank Drew for all his help and can’t help but notice how much he looks like Mark Hamill. I wanted to make an Obi Wan joke but held my tongue.

 

The group walks outside and lines up on the porch leading to the screening room.

 

Everyone is nervous. Guys are pacing. Some are jumping and stretching to get their energy out. I’m just wandering around and looking at cool sculptures and memorabilia around the place. In my mind, I have just sort of wandered off the tour and somehow ended up in Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory and they will soon discover me and send me home so I was trying to soak up as much as I could. When the guys came out of their audition they found their way back to the picnic tables we were originally waiting at and began to talk.

 

I was then called in for my audition.

 

I walk in cheerfully and see a beautiful girl with easily the biggest boobs I’ve ever seen in my life. She asks me for my headshot and I give it to her making some dumb joke about how I always keep a flattering photo and a list of my credits on me. I can’t remember if I’m auditioning or flirting with this woman. The rest of the room is tall skinny white men and a black guy. I can see why they’re looking for diversity. In this room I look around and see a table of puppets just like in the other room and a camera and mirror set up similar to the other room as well. I quickly look for my gopher and find him. He’s going to be my best friend for the next few minutes. As soon as I find him one of the guys asks me if I brought him from home or if he was one of theirs because they didn’t recognize him. I tell them that he is indeed one of theirs and thought how silly it was if I brought a puppet to the studio. That’s like taking sand to the beach.

 

We begin by improvising a scene with me and one of the tall skinny white guys.

 

I try to keep in mind the advice that Drew gave me. Make sure the eyes are looking where you want them to look and make sure the mouth is open when you talk. It’s better to have the mouth open and nothing come out that than the other way around. All of it is surprisingly harder than it sounds while trying to improvise a comedy scene, but it goes really well and gets some big laughs from everyone in the room. I don’t remember all the details but I remember I played the gopher as a low status, weak, Jewy character since the other guy started the scene with this really high status alpha male character. The contrast worked really well and I labeled him my life coach or personal trainer or something to that effect. The scene ended with me asking him to rub my shoulders and then I told him not to stop because I was “almost there.” The room busted up laughing and I did too, suddenly incredibly embarrassed that I just made a sex joke with a puppet.

 

I apologized and they immediately forgave me.

 

“What? NO! It was great! Don’t worry about being clean! Have you seen our show??” I suddenly realized, no, I haven’t seen your show and know nothing about it. God I’m an idiot. I probably should’ve spent a few minutes googling this so I knew what I was here for in the first place. While everyone is laughing and bantering I take the gopher off my hand and start looking at other puppets. They ask me if I have any other characters and I reply “sure, but what did you have in mind? I tend to just improvise my characters.” They ask me to do one that’s a high status character who is ranting about facial hair. So I grab a puppet that looks the most like a frat boy with no facial hair and then go on a rant about how guys with facial hair are just show offs and are rubbing it in the faces (pun intended) of guys who can’t grow facial hair. The character gets a good response and now they’re excitedly asking me a bunch of questions at once. “Do you speak any other languages? Can you do accents? Where is Farsi from? What does it sound like?”

 

So I just grab another puppet and start doing a Farsi accent with him.

 

Immediately the tall skinny guy jumps in with his puppet and now we’re doing a scene about buying a Persian carpet. At one point during the scene he stepped in front of me and blocked my view of the monitor and the mirror so I couldn’t see our puppets anymore. He then started asking me to point at the carpet I thought would be best for him to buy. I assumed he didn’t mean to do this at first so I just blindly started telling him to grab the carpet “over there.” When he started asking me to point to a specific carpet, I knew he was fucking with me. He is blocking the monitor so I can’t see and now he’s asking me to point at something. This is a very common practice in improv to “mess” with your scene partner in a way that’s fun for the audience.

 

So I showed him I could think on my feet by just adjusting my body underneath his tall lanky body and kept the puppet in the same position.

 

Now I could see and point to the carpet in the scene and the scene ended with a lot of laughs and applause. They went back to bantering with each other. i stood there for a minute and asked if they wanted to see anything else and they said that it was great and that they’d seen enough. I took the last puppet off my sweaty hand and walk out the door feeling pretty good. It’s impossible to tell how you did at an audition by what you experienced in the room but I will say that it was the most fun I’d had in an audition in years. I walk outside feeling this overwhelming positive energy that the studio gives off. I have never felt so comfortable or welcome at a Hollywood studio in my life. I really liked it here and was grateful I was invited and that I came.

 

I walk down the porch steps and see the other puppeteers nervously gossiping about their experience in a circle by where we first met.

 

I walk over and tell everyone it was great to meet them and they start asking me about what was going on during my audition. “What was going on in there?? We heard them laughing so loud from beginning to end! Can you believe Kevin Clash was in there???”

I reply, “Who is Kevin Clash? Like from the band?”

“Who is Kevin Clash??? He’s Elmo dude!”

“Oh cool. He was the black guy right? It was so funny cause, during my audition, the skinny, tall, white guy Brian was messing with me by standing in front of the monitor. Did he do that to you guys too?”

Stunned silence.

“The tall, skinny, white guy Brian??? BRIAN HENSON was messing with you during your audition???”

 

I started to feel like they were all getting annoyed and pissed at this guy that just Forrest Gumped his way into the audition and now won the favor of all their heroes without breaking a sweat or even knowing the first thing about their life’s greatest passion.

 

I figured it was a good time to leave. I walked back down the path I came in through and said bye to the dinosaur as I left. I knew that might be the last time I got to see him or this place so I tried to soak it in as I left. I feel that way after every audition. I wonder if I’ll ever be invited back again. I leave feeling pretty good and sit down in my car and stare at the parking placard that says puppeteer on it and smile to myself. How funny if I became a puppeteer after this. The world is such a strange place and life has such a strange way of happening to us. I begin to drive out and wave goodbye to the guard.

 

A few days later I get my letter from the Jim Henson Company asking me to be a part of their diversity puppeteer program.

 

The letter says that workshops will begin on June 22nd on Mondays and Tuesdays. We are welcome to come at 6:30 for a family dinner and then workshops will go from 7 to 10 pm. The first two weeks were for everyone who passed the auditions and then after an evaluation the class would be cut in half. I generally work at my restaurant job on Tuesdays so I requested 2 weeks off assuming I was going to be among the first cut once they realized I had no idea what I was doing and just faked it through the audition. I later found out that the other class was Wednesdays and Thursdays which could’ve meant me not having to take any days off but oh well, it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity, take two days off work.

 

I arrive on the first day and pull up to the gate and the guard waves me in like I’ve been working there for years.  Be still my heart.

 

I pass by my dinosaur friend and meet everyone at dinner. It’s a really fun group. A mixed bag of puppeteers and a few comedians like me with no experience. We mingle and eat a delicious dinner provided by the chef at the studio before being asked to gather our things and head into the big sound stage where we first met before the audition. There are about 30 chairs set up for us and a bunch of big trunks across the room.

 

Our instructor I recognize as one of the skinny white guys from the audition that wasn’t Brian Henson.

 

His name is Patrick Bristow and he’s a brilliant improvisor that is an alumni of The Groundlings where I studied. I also recognize him as the Virtucon tour guide in Austin Powers which is one of my favorite movies of all time but I keep that to myself for a while. The first class is going over basic improv drills but now having to do it with puppets. It really adds a level of difficulty not being able to use your facial expressions and body to convey emotions while you struggle to bring a piece of felt to life. It’s like learning improv all over again but so much more fun because…puppets. We open up the trunks and dozens of puppets are sleeping in plastic bags just waiting for us to bring them to life. The 3 hours goes by like the blink of an eye. We say goodbye and I already feel like this is going to be such a magical experience.

 

I’m so glad I tried out for this even though it felt like it was so far outside my wheelhouse.

 

The next day i show up and meet everyone for dinner. We go back into the sound stage where the chairs and the puppets are waiting in the trunks for us. Now we are greeted with the other tall skinny white guy from the audition, Allan Trautman. He’s joined by Kevin Clash, whom I now recognize since the guys shamed me for not knowing, and Grant Baciocco who is another amazing puppeteer. I knew there was a documentary out about Kevin but I chose not to watch it since it seemed my aloofness was my key to my success so far in this program. So, it seemed that Mondays are improv days and Tuesdays were puppeteering days. The focus was less on characters and voices and more on puppeteering techniques.

 

The puppets stayed in the trunks tonight.

 

We had to learn the basics of puppetry using our bare hands. To see our fundamental flaws they wanted to see our hands without hiding them behind the puppets. I have goofy small fingers so I immediately got self conscious. The next wrench in my spokes was the monitor system. In the audition they set up a mirror to make the process more gentle on our untrained minds but he way the Henson Company does puppeteering involves using cameras and monitors which make everything look backwards. It’s like if I ask you to face me and raise your left hand, it will look like you raised your right hand to me. And that’s what the camera sees. So holding your arm straight up and down gets really hard when left is right and right is left.

 

My brain immediately started hurting.

 

I’m usually very coordinated and quick to learn things but this started making me very uncomfortable. I left after this class realizing I really was a fraud and shouldn’t be there. I would certainly be cut after the 2nd class. The next week came around and Monday was as much fun as I’d ever had and Tuesday was another humbling torture session. I left feeling relief that at least it was over…until I got an email saying they needed us to attend one more week of classes before making cuts.

 

I started dreading Tuesday but I knew it would be my last one….

 

I got an email from the Jim Henson Company telling me they would like me to stay in the program except my only class would be on Wednesday. My jaw was on the floor. Seriously? Well at least I didn’t have to miss more work… Then i got another email from Patrick asking me if I was available to attend Mondays as well since there was one spot available. I said that I would love to and that those improv classes were my favorite part of the program.

 

A few days later I got a phone call that I haven’t told many people about.

 

It was Kevin Clash. Well it was a blocked number but Kevin was on the other end. I was confused. “What’s up, Kevin?” I asked. Kevin went on to tell me about how the program originally wanted to cut down to a Monday and Tuesday class but thanks to me and a few of the other comedians that had no puppeteering experience they couldn’t cut us so they added a whole new class for us. He said we shocked them in a good way. They tried and tried to cut us but couldn’t do it so instead they were going to be building us puppets to practice with at home and hope that we (the new Wednesday class) could catch up with the puppeteering of the Tuesday class.

 

I suddenly felt a lot of pressure.

 

This was a lot of fun but I honestly didn’t think I was great at the puppeteering stuff. I got told by a few people that I was a natural at it (including Drew before the audition) but i sure as hell didn’t feel like it. I felt like this monitor stuff was really messing with me. I felt I was doing great puppeteering when we were doing improv because I wasn’t thinking about it but as soon as we got into puppeteering class I couldn’t hold my hand straight up. It was frustrating. Now they’re saying they want me to be as good as someone who has been doing this for half his life in 5 weeks? I don’t know. I was flattered but self doubt started sinking in.

 

The next few weeks basically took the first few weeks and magnified them.

 

Mondays were more and more fun when Wednesday’s got even more dreaded. I mentioned at one point at one of my rehearsals with my other improv troupe TheatreSports (LATS.com) that I was working with Henson and one of my instructors mentioned that he had done Puppet Up with them which was Henson’s Live Improv Puppet Show. I couldn’t believe it. He and I talked for hours and he told me about how if I could get my puppeteering up to par that they would throw me work and how much fun it was to play with puppets. He said they let him do some small things with the new Muppet show on ABC and that he would get called to do Puppet Up live shows from time to time.

 

So now I see a light at the end of the tunnel but I still don’t know how I’m going to get good at puppeteering overnight.

 

I start practicing an hour a night once I have my puppet but the progress seemed slow. It became a fun activity though. I would have my camera and monitor set up in the living room which was an interesting conversation starter which led to me getting the puppet (mine was a deep purple guy named Zac) and doing a little demonstration. I even dated a girl for a while and we would make cocktails and drink and do hours of puppet practice until I was tired or too drunk to stand. It was a lot of fun.

 

I don’t know if I defeated myself or if they gave up on me but I felt towards the end that the twinkle in Kevin’s eyes seemed to disappear when he talked to me and some of the others in class.

 

It felt like he had so much hope for me and that hope now felt like it turned to disappointment. In turn, i started practicing less. I broke up with the girl too. I spent less and less time thinking about Zac and more time looking forward to when my Mondays and Wednesdays would be free to do stand up again. I knew this wouldn’t go anywhere. That feeling is an awful feeling but it also made me realize where this all started. I still didn’t belong there but I somehow managed to stay there for the full 8 weeks. I knew this wasn’t my world but I got to be a tourist for a while. I got 16 free dinners and made some incredible lifelong friends that I still meet with regularly and have puppet parties. I even got my own puppet out of it. Originally they said they were loaners, then they said we could buy them but then at our big closing night party, Kevin got drunk and said we could keep them. So here I am, a Persian comic with goofy little fingers and too much body hair. I somehow walked into the greatest puppeteering studio in the world, got a world class training in puppeteering from some of the best, and now I have a story to share for the rest of my life. Who knows what tomorrow will bring? I better go check my email and see if I have any auditions.

 

“Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened.”  Dr. Seuss

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