Doing Good Work: Visiting the O’Neill Puppetry Conference

A bunch of puppeteers hanging out in the woods: That’s basically all I know about the annual Eugene O’Neill puppetry conference before I visit, but that’s enough for me, especially with Muppet performer Pam Arciero as its Artistic Director. I trust that I’ll find what I think of as a Jim Henson-inspired work environment: playful, respectful, collaborative, creative – and mind-bogglingly productive. And I trust that even the briefest visit will be good for my own work.

When I started writing the biography of Muppet performer Richard Hunt nearly a decade ago, I didn’t know much about puppetry. I knew that I loved the Muppet sensibility of “affectionate anarchy” (Frank Oz’s term); the Muppets were screamingly absurd and anything could happen, yet they shared a kindness, a basic sense of integrity. I soon found out that the performers were much the same behind the scenes. Henson assembled a troupe that added up to far more than the sum of its parts, with Richard Hunt as one of its “Original Four” performers (as Hunt put it, the other three being Henson, Oz and Jerry Nelson), collectively finding success beyond their wildest dreams with Sesame Street and The Muppet Show. The 1980s found the “old guard” Muppet performers passing on the craft to a whole new generation, including Arciero – and just in time, too. Jane Henson founded the O’Neill puppetry conference in 1991, right in between the untimely deaths of her husband Jim Henson and her dear friend Richard Hunt. The Muppet lineage lives on at the O’Neill, a dream environment that fosters genuine creativity, as wacky and hard-working as any Henson production.

This sensibility is evident in spades at the “circle pitch” the first evening of the conference. Nearly everyone is gathered in the workshop, sitting in two concentric circles – Arciero and her associate Artistic Director Jean Marie Keevins, the teachers/guest artists, their 50 pupils/collaborators, the three emerging artists, various associates and interested observers like myself – with little sense of hierarchy as people describe their various projects and try to coordinate their efforts. I’m impressed by how directly people ask for what they need: musicians, puppeteers, actors, set builders, videographers, whatever. The public nature of the event provides an external accountability, witnesses to the promises being made. The marionettes hanging on the walls watch too, seemingly alive, as the meeting moves along with efficiency and focus, punctuated by bouts of laughter.

The Eugene O’Neill Theater Center feels like it’s at the edge of the world, a cluster of homey Victorians encircled by lawns and trees, and beyond that nothing but the wide sweep of Long Island Sound, the clean air smelling like the ocean. The thoughtful staff in the Company Management (“CoMa”) office have got hospitality down to a science, honed through hosting about a half-dozen such events throughout the year; the friendly cafeteria workers provide three meals a day, accomodating a variety of eaters. My room in the “Ruthie” dorm has a high twin bed and a comfortable desk overlooking the woods. Away from regular society, with one’s needs taken care of, there’s nothing left to do but work, and gladly.

Even at breakfast, most everyone is already on the job: reading scripts, discussing logistics, exchanging ideas. A stuffed animal of Bear from the Jim Henson Company show Bear in the Big Blue House sits in his own seat in front of a jar of Marmite. In this crowd, Bear is just another half-awake participant getting his morning meal. At least three people greet him as they pass: “Hi Bear.” “Mornin’, Bear.” “Hey buddy.” In this crowd, the character is just another genial conference participant.

From the time they bus their breakfast trays til well after the sun goes down, everyone is essentially hard at work – making for long days in high June just before the solstice, even with meal breaks. The guest artists produce new material in collaboration with their students, who get to learn on the job. Yael Rasooly’s students sing together in the gazebo; Ronnie Burkett’s group cooperates impressively as they work out how to manipulate a huge, 13-person marionette, one string apiece; and Martin Kettling and his writers hole up in the cozy library with their laptops.

I knock tentatively on the side door of the White House (actually more of a pale yellow), where emerging artist Lyon Hill, with two student assistants/collaborators, is developing his puppet production of Poe’s “Tell-Tale Heart”. The emerging artists have a sweet deal: creators on the verge of a breakthrough, they apply specifically for the position, and the conference gives them particular support. “A day at the O’Neill is the equivalent of two to three weeks at home,” Hill tells me. “You just get so much done.” He’s got a full-sized humanoid old man marionette laid out on the bed, with a shock of grey hair, clouded blue eye, and detachable limbs for its eventual dismemberment. I am bowled over by his lazy Susan of intricate paper figures, which he plans to use as background in a live video feed.

But my favorite place is the workshop, which everyone just calls the “shop”: a crafter’s heaven in the basement of the barn, where master puppeteers Jim and Judy Rose hold tea parties each afternoon at 3. The circles of chairs from the initial pitch meeting have made way for long wooden tables, stacks of fabric, boxes of tools, anything you could need. The marionettes have been taken off the walls and put into action. Students are trying to walk them around the room, plucking tentatively at their strings: characters such as Cher, Liza Minelli and a vaudeville dandy lurch jerkily forward, arms and legs flailing. “It’s hard not to make them seem like they’re drunk!” one girl says with a laugh. Though teacher Phillip Huber guides his pupils, he largely leaves them alone to practice, offering advice only when called over, as befits a Henson-type work environment, which helps the learner become independent, rather than just following directions. As it turns out, Huber worked with Hunt on John Denver and The Muppets: A Christmas Together. “Richard befriended me right away,” he says. He remembers Henson and Oz ad-libbing, sending Denver into fits of giggles.

Two students talk about how manipulating a marionette gets easier when you become it, rather than thinking of yourself as separate. “That’s where the magic happens,” Huber says. Georgia Rose demonstrates a marionette getting up from sitting on the floor; rather than just lifting up the whole doll all at once, a novice’s instinct, her marionette leans on one knee and arm and gets up from there, the way people actually do. Rose is building a gorgeous little “steampunk pilot” marionette modeled after Amelia Earhart, with a tiny bomber jacket, leather-strap hat and even teeny flyer’s goggles. Rose hails all the way from Australia; other people come to this pretty spit of Connecticut from as far as Thailand, Israel, Venezuela, and west coast Canada, as well as all across the US, with a sizeable midwestern turnout (including two guys named Zach from different towns in Wisconsin) and a cool black-clad New York City contingent.

I pick up a big purple Muppety hand puppet which has only eyes and a mouth. “I don’t have a nose,” I have the puppet say nasally to yet another Zach, this one from Georgia. “Then how do you smell?” he replies. “I don’t know, how?” I ask. He grins. “Terrible!”

I like it here.

On top of all this, various artists offer master classes, a chance to hear some ideas or try something different, such as practice improv with kindly puppet veteran Tyler Bunch; jam with resident musicians Melissa and Matt Dunphy; or learn how to photograph puppets from longtime Sesame photographer (and former conference artistic director) Richard Termine – a low-stakes way to grow in a new creative direction.

Though work officially knocks off for the day at 10 pm, most everyone piles into Blue Gene’s Pub for more mingling and schmoozing well into the night. It’s a luxury to hang out with such knowledgeable puppeteers, to not have to explain who Hunt is or why his story matters. The puppeteers express a similar validation, not having to justify their seemingly obscure passion. Multiple participants tell me how nice it is to be among others who don’t assume that puppets are for kids, as well as to be part of the larger lineage of the field, passing on the craft. Even Hunt took a few years to recognize his own work, successful as he was, not fully proud of his skill until younger puppeteers like Arciero came along and looked up to him. I particularly appreciate how everyone comes together at the O’Neill, respecting that they are each in different places. Arciero’s office displays a mantle of elders, a prominent row of photos of those who have come before, those who are invoked as the current puppeteers do their work.

Over the course of my visit, I realize that the Muppets are just the tip of the puppet iceberg. At an early guest artists’ performance, James Godwin visibly manipulates a full-body tabletop puppet; Tim Lagasse does shadow puppet presidential impressions, using just his hands behind a screen; and Huber’s marionettes seem truly human as they lip-sync, swing on a trapeze, even exhale actual vapor from drags on an e-cig. I’m especially intrigued to learn about “non-verbal puppetry”, which makes me think of everyone in the outside world who asks me if Hunt “did the voices” for his characters, as if there is nothing else to it. I can’t wait to tell them there are puppets that don’t even talk. And I already can’t wait to come back to the O’Neill next year, to a place that so congenially feels like home.

“Affectionate anarchy”: Frank Oz, various sources.
“Original Four”: Richard Hunt Archival Interview, 1991, Jim Henson Company Archives.

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One Response to Doing Good Work: Visiting the O’Neill Puppetry Conference

  1. Kelly says:

    What a cool read! Thank you for sharing that experience with us! I’ve always been intrigued by the history of the O’Neill!

    I honestly couldn’t be more excited for the book to come out. I’ve been waiting so many years for someone to write a book about one of my all-time favorite artists and you are the perfect person to do it. Thank you for all you’ve shared so far, it sounds amazing!
    Is there a release date set?


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