by Kyle Moore
For most performers, you’d think that getting a chance to act up as a rabbit, a dog or a giant talking Tiki idol would be quite enough of a kick. Not so for the mad puppeteers of the “Puppet Up! Uncensored” ensemble, who decided that adding improv to their skill set would be a fun challenge. The results: Well, you’ve probably never seen a dewy-eyed pug dog turn around and say “What the f***?!” when encountering a talking crocodile, but that’s exactly the sort of thing you’re likely to see at a “Puppet Up!” show.
“Puppet Up! Uncensored” began in May of 2005 when Brian Henson (Jim Henson’s son and the CEO of the company that his father began with the Muppets) asked Patrick Bristow to teach an improv class to some of his puppeteers. Bristow, a Groundlings alumnus who had continued to work and direct with the Groundlings, had become something of an improv consultant around town, and he was happy to work with Henson’s people.
It was a blend of performers who eventually comprised the class – some were skilled improv artists who took up puppeteering, and others were puppeteers who expanded their creativity with improv. Company member Ted Michaels was a working actor and a fellow Groundlings alum, but he turned out to be such a puppet prodigy that he was soon fielding auditions from the Henson company. The more seasoned puppeteeers quickly got improv into their blood, too. “They all pretty much got addicted to it,” says Bristow.
“It’s an amazingly difficult skill set to master, though. In improv, non-verbal visual and physical communication between the actors is crucial, but with puppets, those cues can be non-existent. That’s why in puppet improv, the performer’s listening skills have to be razor sharp.”
In addition, the Puppet Up! improvvers had to learn to keep an eye on a monitor which shows them a mirror image of their puppet’s movements. “Left becomes right, right becomes left,” said Bristow. “Between manipulating the puppets and doing improv at the same time, I’m pretty sure that in our performers there are some neural pathways that have been formed that don’t exist anywhere else on the planet.”
After about 4 or 5 classes, they thought it might be fun to perform in front of a live audience. Henson gave the group a production-worthy stage, and the ensemble performed for their colleagues and got a great response. Also in the audience were representatives from the Aspen Comedy Festival, and the following year the group was invited to perform there. Soon after they went to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and they’ve since performed at the Big Laugh Festival in Sydney, Australia. These days the group tours sporadically in between classes to keep their skills sharp. Currently, the troupe has two more appearances in Hollywood slated at the Avalon in January and February.
It’s a unique experience, and almost two shows for the price of one. The performers are clearly visible onstage with their puppets above them (One wonders who is really the master of who in this situation), but with large video screens posted all around the theatre, you can watch the show sans humans, just as if you were seeing it on TV. Bristow fields suggestions from the audience for places, times, titles and situations to create the sketches and songs, but the real genius is in finding a way to make it work when their characters are, for example, a man and his armadillo describing their honeymoon vacation slides. And at all times the performers have to keep their eyes on the monitor to keep their characters in frame. They use the device ingeniously in a send-up of a James Bond movie title sequence, as puppets seem to float and dissolve in and out of frame while a theme song is made up on the spot.
“For every limitation as a puppet, there’s 15 gifts.” Said Bristow. “Obviously, we can only see the puppets from the waist up, so you can’t do leg humor, but we can float up the side of the frame, and we can ice skate really, really smoothly.”