Mistress of Puppets

Heather Henson hones the family craft to a fine art

"Puppetry, in a lot of ways, it kind of dies when it's captured on film," says Heit. "Part of the magic of puppetry is the fact that you can see the puppeteer bringing the object to actual life. So when you don't see that happening live, I think puppetry can be very boring in film. So it's a trick to do well. I sort of set that challenge for myself when I did the Mary Anning film. . . . There's actual rain throughout the film. I thought that if I added this thing that we know can't be animated frame by frame, that it would put that live element back in."

Meredith, who pointedly doesn't consider himself a puppeteer at all, makes another key point about live puppetry. "Most puppet things that hit the mainstream, they're not very interesting cinematically. They're shot like a sitcom; they're written like a sitcom. And when you're doing theater, you have a lot more patience 'cause you're kind of in the same room as the artists. . . . [Sometimes] it goes slow because, working a certain marionette, things don't go in real time. It goes half-time or three-quarter-time, where it takes a lot longer for a guy to go across the room or pick up the paper or pass the bottle. So marionettes and hand puppets can be a little difficult to get across in a film that's not just straight-up comedy or something like that."

Henson herself isn't likely to start making films of her own right away. "Right now, it's the live experience because I love the magic of the inanimate object coming to life before me. To me, that's magical, the alternate space in full immersion. I feel like this magical stuff happens before you. Magic on TV doesn't do it for me as much as magic on the live stage. The awe of something coming to life in front of you and getting wrapped up with it, and that whole thing of being with an audience, too—I think it's more exciting. But there are wonderful things about film; the specificity you can get with film is great." She's hoping the gallery show in Santa Ana will be the first of many and is looking for a possible TV deal for Handmade Puppet Dreams.

And she has little doubt the audience will be there because "puppetry is hardwired into our humanity. Kids will animate things automatically. Kids do love playing with action figures, and before that, they're playing with their stuffed animals. I think it works so well for kids because kids have a great imagination and can take that leap of faith. That's why kids are an amazing audience for it. But I don't think they need to be the only audience for it."

"HEATHER HENSON PRESENTS HANDMADE PUPPET DREAMS" AT GRAND CENTRAL ART CENTER, 125 N. BROADWAY, SANTA ANA, (714) 567-7233. CALL FOR HOURS. THROUGH MAY 20.

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