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Q&A with Heather Henson (Progeny of the One-and-Only Jim)

Heather Henson

The IMA welcomes Heather Henson, President and Artistic Director of IBEX Puppetry and a crew of kite makers for aperformance in 100 Acres this weekend to mark the Spring EquinoxHeather and her comrades perform a puppet show in the sky – the story of a young crane.

IMA’s Facebook friends had a few questions for Heather.  Here is the interview, conducted yesterday while the kite makers practiced in the unseasonably hot sun.

Is there a theme or story behind your kite performance? And if so, how do you decide on the concepts?

This show [called Celebration of Flight] is about a young whooping crane learning to fly with a flock.  The whopping crane’s life cycle makes a good archetypal story. The show is about how birds fly with the season. Our concept was to find the dance in nature and represent that flow. You know, we’re at that point in time halfway between winter and summer, with a perfect balance between day and night. We’re in the middle of the country and the birds are flying back north. It’s a moment of crossing over.

Cranes mean a lot to me — I’m a board member for the International Crane Foundation.  Cranes are still endangered, but the numbers are back on the rise.  Humans have really stepped in to help the cranes.

Rehearsing for this weekend's performance.

What is your favorite performance that you have ever done?

We once did a show in a cathedral.  It’s great to work in scared spaces.  Though landscapes are also sacred for me.

Do you have a favorite puppet?

Whichever one I’m working on at the moment – unless I’m mad at it.  Right now it’s the adolescent crane puppet.

Do you prefer stage, cinema or gallery puppetry?  Why?

I prefer stage because that’s where the most magic can happen.  The perfection required for cinema is a challenge, and in a gallery you can see the craftsmanship of the puppetry up close.

Is it common for puppeteers to also do character voices?

Yes…but I don’t!  My dad loved to sing and I’m not a singer.  But most puppeteers certainly use their voices.

What is your favorite memory of your father, Jim Henson?

I remember that he’d be working so hard, and one of the first things he’d do when he got home was take me for a walk in the woods. We lived in Bedford, New York, which was near a wildlife refuge.  His love of nature was often reflected on The Muppet Show.  I remember the show where Linda Rondstadt guest-starred and sang Blue Bayou with a chorus of frog puppets.  My dad was born in Mississippi and he loved that style of music and the countryside.

What was it like growing up and watching your father’s creations at the height of their popularity?

It was busy!  I have four siblings and I’m the youngest.  I was born in 1970, a year after Sesame Street was created, so I am a Sesame Street kid – like many people, I grew up watching it!

At what age did you decide that puppetry was your calling?

It wasn’t until after college [Heather attended the Rhode Island School of Design].  I studied animation but I realized that the tangibility and immediacy of puppetry was key for me.  Puppetry is a great combination of design and performance.

Why do you love it?

I love the collaboration, and the people I am working with for our show here in Indianapolis!  I love the teamwork that makes a show happen.  I’m the one puppeteer among these expert kitemakers of Guildworks.  This show includes live music, kites, puppets, and a great story – I love combining all of that together.

Were you involved in the creation of the latest Muppet movie?

I was not, but I am supportive of the film that Disney has done.  I did visit the set of the film, and I think it’s great that the film won Best Song at this year’s Academy Awards.

What’s the most complicated Henson puppet? How many puppeteers does it take to perform with it?

My brother Brian does a lot of complicated puppetry using the HDPS (Henson Digital Performance System).  The use of digital resources eliminates the need for multiple puppeteers for the same puppet.  On The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth, it would have taken eight people to operate one complex creature.  It used to require one person alone just to operate the eyelids of one Dark Crystal character!  A French studio called Royal de Luxe creates huge creatures requiring 20 or more operators.

 Last question: Why do you think Kermit and Miss Piggy’s relationship has outlasted so many failed Hollywood relationships? 

Well, I don’t that it’s really a requited relationship. Has Kermit ever really committed?  In the new movie, Kermit and Piggy have very serious conversations about their imperfect relationship. It may be that we project ourselves onto puppets – they are such a great mirror for us.

Meet Heather, make your own kite, and be part of the performance this weekend at the IMA.

Filed under: Art and Nature Park, Public Programs

5 Responses to “Q&A with Heather Henson (Progeny of the One-and-Only Jim)”

  • avatar

    Blogsite: cat chat on art

    I love the detached ungroundedness of Heather’s puppets, a contrast to SESAME STREET characters which I grew up with and love. We are so fortunate to have the Henson family of artists.

  • avatar
    Irene Trent Says:

    I had the fun of being at the IMA for the preforance. My 3 year old grandson loved it as well. My family used to work with puppets at church. We still have friends that do. You made my day so much britter to see you work. Thank you for showing us your talents.

  • avatar

    Interesting reflection on grounded Muppets vs the airbourne kite puppets! I never thought about that, I have thought that I enjoyed seeing the puppeteer from my own upbringing in seeing how the puppeteered image came together from behind the camra Thanks IMA for letting us come perform in your rolling green grounds and sunny skies. The links you imbedded in this article are really interesting, if anyone is interested in doing the more research

  • avatar
    Frank Stankovich Says:

    I was at the IBEX puppetry show on March 18, 2012 when at the end of the show a pair of bald EAGLES flew over as to check the show. I took pictures of some of the show and of the Eagles. Enjoyed the show very much.

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