Andy Clinton - Last Friday, my wife and I had a rare opportunity to see one of our oldest friends in the flesh. Or, in this case, in the felt. Kermit the Frog and his good friend Steve Whitmire were the special guest performers at the 2011 National Puppetry Festival at Georgia Tech in Atlanta. We’d met Steve before at an event he did at the Center for Puppetry Arts, also in Atlanta. He’d given a series of talks and puppetry workshops, which were thoroughly enjoyable and enlightening. But this time, Kermit was coming with him; we leaped at the chance to be there.
Steve and Kermit were the second of two scheduled main-stage performances for Friday night. The first was a short adaptation of a classic story: Goldilocks and the Three Sharks, performed as an underwater mermaid black-light puppet extravaganza. A clever show, very entertaining, performed by the talented Puppet Art Theater Company. As much as we all enjoyed it, though, everyone knew that Kermit was the main event. Even the Papa Shark acknowledged it, saying, "I wanna see Kermit!"
Finally, after a short intermission following the first performance, the lights went down, and it was time to get things started.
Steve came out by himself, to great applause, and took a seat on a chair in the middle of the stage. I couldn’t help noticing the black bag under his seat. We all knew what was in the bag, but I did my best to refrain from using my x-ray vision and ruining the "surprise."
From the start of his talk, Steve came across as humble, gracious, and charming. He started talking about his work with the Muppets, acknowledging that if not for the Muppets, he might still be giving a speech in public today, but it would be more like "Welcome to Walmart," or "Did you just want the burger, or did you want the meal?"
Steve noted that this year would mark Jim Henson’s 75th birthday, and that on the same day, Steve himself would turn 54, the age that Jim was when he passed away. He then began to talk about Kermit, and how his job since Jim died has been "to extensively analyze this one part of Jim," which he referred to as "the best part of Jim, rather than an alter ego."
Kermit, Steve said, has always evolved since his earliest performances. And so he has continued to under Steve’s care, with Steve basing his performances on everything that Jim brought to the character, while still inhabiting Kermit and finding new aspects that he brings out in Kermit himself. Really, Steve said, he sees the puppeteer’s job not simply as giving movement to a character, but as giving that character a sense of consciousness. He felt as if that were at the heart of everything that the Muppets do—that illusion of a sentient, thinking, feeling consciousness inside of these tools being manipulated by the puppeteers.
He went on to show a fascinating montage of Kermit clips, which he narrated over, to demonstrate how Kermit has changed both in design and performance over the years. This included clips from Sam and Friends, Sesame Street, The Frog Prince, The Muppet Show, The Muppet Movie, and Muppet Treasure Island. As the clips went on, Steve noted how the puppetry has gone from being very broad and over-the-top to being very subtle, realistic, and human. This is something that Jim worked toward, and something that Steve has continued. In fact, Steve said, Jim often didn’t like to look back at older material or show it to people, because he was always looking ahead toward how he could do things better in the future. The video montage ended with a side-by-side comparison of Kermit in the 2009 "I Believe" music video with Tiffany Thornton and the early Sam and Friends clips that started the montage. The difference in Kermit’s subtlety and nuance was startling!
Steve then showed one more clip—the recent appearance of Kermit on the "black carpet" of Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, interviewing celebrities. Quietly, while the audience was watching the piratey goodness above, Steve turned his back to the crowd, leaned down in the dark, and reached for the black bag under his chair. And then, when the lights came back up, magic happened.
Steve turned back around in his chair. Only it wasn’t just Steve. Perched next to Steve on the arm of the chair was the one, the only, Kermit the Frog. The crowd went wild! I’ve heard many times that when people see Muppets being performed in person, they completely disregard the fact that the puppeteer is sitting right there performing, because the presence of the character is so complete. Even though I’d heard that, I don’t think I was really prepared for it. Yes, Steve was sitting there speaking Kermit’s lines with him and holding him up, but that barely registered in my mind. Kermit the Frog was onstage saying hi and waving to us all, and that’s as real as it gets!
From the moment Kermit came out, there were really two people onstage. Steve played around with this a bit. Since he was speaking before an audience of mostly puppeteers, Steve started off by saying that he wasn’t going to split himself and pretend that Kermit was actually here. Kermit lowered his head in sadness at this news, which got a big laugh. Steve then referred to Kermit as being a puppet rather than an actual person; Kermit just stared at Steve with that irritated "squishy face" look that gets me every time. Kermit also introduced Steve as his puppet, which drew a big laugh from the audience. So, despite a common understanding of the art and skill of puppetry, Kermit was a real live person for everyone in the room, which is a tremendous testament to the "consciousness" of the character that Steve spoke about earlier.
Kermit spent a little time apologizing for looking so weird, as though he’d just come out of a bag, and then made an offhand remark about being without Miss Piggy for the weekend and how nice it was to be a "frog about town." Then he and Steve settled in for a lengthy Q&A that took up the remainder of the evening. Among the highlights of the discussion:
- Kermit was asked to reflect on what it has been like to evolve. He did so. Silently. Then he questioned the questioner: "You want me to comment, or just reflect?"
- Kermit was asked about his relationship with Disney: "I am a wholly owned subsidiary, and I am proud of it."
- Kermit was asked about why people talk to the puppet instead of the puppeteer: "I’m much more interesting. That’s why the puppet is up here (gestures high) and the puppeteer is down there (gestures to Steve). But, you can’t live without ’em."
- When asked about his relationship with the audience, Steve said that most of the work he does is on camera and not with a live audience. His biggest chance to engage with an audience and find out what they like is by reading Muppet fan sites.
- Steve talked about the Muppets, and Kermit in particular, as a lineage. He spoke of Kermit not just as a character he performs, but as something that he inherited from Jim. When asked what he thinks about any future incarnation of the character, he said that he hopes that Kermit could be passed on in a similar way, through a sense of inheritance and linear tradition.
- Steve mentioned channeling a bit of Patrick Stewart from Star Trek: The Next Generation for Kermit’s performance as Captain Smollett in Muppet Treasure Island.
- Kermit and Steve were asked about their fondest memories. Kermit talked about his home life, back in the swamp, as the oldest of four or five thousand siblings. When the questioner turned the question over to Steve, Kermit said "Sure, just cut me off, right in the middle of reminiscing. I’m just a frog..." This drew enormous sympathy "awws" from the audience.
- Steve answered the "fondest memory" question by recounting his first phone conversation with Jim Henson, after having met Caroll Spinney at a puppetry festival. Caroll had told Steve to audition for the Muppets, and he had submitted some recorded performances. Jim called him to offer him "some kind of job" with the Muppets, though he wasn’t sure if he would offer him a job performing or building puppets. Steve then shared with us that he was going through old possessions at his parents’ house recently, and he discovered a cassette tape where his father had actually recorded that first phone conversation with Jim!
- When asked what he thinks of the new Muppet movie, Steve said that he hasn’t seen it all put together yet, so he doesn’t know what he thinks, but he hopes it’s very good!
All in all, the question and answer session with Steve and Kermit was entertaining, enlightening, and just delightful. It was amazing to be a fly-on-the-wall for a conversation with Kermit the Frog without getting eaten. But the highlight for us really came at the very end of the night. The last question of the evening came from a woman who—bless her—just asked Kermit if we could all sing along with him for a moment. He very kindly obliged. And so a whole auditorium full of (mostly) adults got a chance to get a little misty-eyed singing “The Rainbow Connection” with Kermit the Frog. That’s the kind of thing that leaves a permanent smile on your soul.
And after that, there really was nothing more to say. A quick bow for Kermit and Steve, a big standing ovation from the audience, and it was done. I would have loved to meet Kermit backstage, as would all of us, surely, but it was not to be. I did get a chance to send a little present back with one of the organizers of the event, a little poem that I wrote for Kermit earlier that day, which you can read here: http://andyspoemplanet.blogspot.com/2011/07/poem-for-kermit.html I hope that Kermit read it, and I hope he liked it. As for me, the chance to spend an evening with two such classy guys as Steve Whitmire and Kermit the Frog was a lifelong dream come true, and something I will never forget. Thanks for hopping by, and I hope I haven’t made any of you too green with envy.
The Muppet Mindset by Ryan Dosier, firstname.lastname@example.org