Q&A: Cheryl Henson

Cheryl Henson, Henson’s daughter and a muppet designer, spoke with Smithsonian’s Jennifer Drapkin

The Muppets are 50. The American History Museum will exhibit Jim Henson's first puppets and such classics as Kermit the Frog. Last year, Cheryl Henson, Henson's daughter and a Muppet designer, compiled It's Not Easy Being Green, a book of quotations by Jim Henson, his friends and his characters. Cheryl Henson is also president of the Jim Henson Foundation, which promotes the art of puppetry. She spoke with Smithsonian's Jennifer Drapkin.

Do you remember the first time you fell in love with a puppet?

It was Robin, Kermit's nephew in "The Frog Prince." I was 10 years old, and my dad had been Kermit for quite some time. Robin was such a tiny frog, and the idea of a child-size version of Kermit pulled on my heartstrings. "The Frog Prince" is particularly sweet, and it was the first of my dad's shows I really related to. His early work was more for adults until he started doing Muppet versions of fairy tales.

Did you grow up making puppets?

Oh, yes. I made my first puppets for the first season of "The Muppet Show." They were singing fruits and vegetables—an artichoke, a bunch of asparagus and a grapefruit—for the fruit and vegetable stand that sang, "Yes, we have no bananas." My older sister, Lisa, made a tomato. My father worked with his kids a lot, throwing around ideas for stories and characters. I had a wonderful exposure to his creative life.

Do you ever feel that puppeteers are misunderstood?

There is a tendency for people to look at puppetry as a metaphor for manipulation, for taking away someone's will or autonomy. The idea of a puppeteer as a devil character, sapping energy. That's a literary metaphor, but what happens in puppetry is that the puppet has no life and the puppeteer gives it to him. It is a fundamentally generous act. I believe most puppeteers are fundamentally generous people. They put a living soul into an inanimate object. There is a great love between the puppeteer and the puppet. It's not romantic love, but there's a real affinity.

What inspired you to produce It's Not Easy Being Green?

I loved working on that book, but the inspiration was quite pragmatic. We had moved our archives from basements and broom closets to a nice space where you could see everything, and I wanted to use the material. I thought it would be nice to pull together a book of quotes. At first, [the publisher] only wanted to quote my father, but Dad rarely talked about himself. His philosophy really came through in his characters and his collaborative work with other people. He believed bringing people together and sharing his dreams.

You helped produce the first International Festival of Puppet Theater in New York, shortly after you father's death. It was his vision, correct?

Yes. My father was very active with the international community of puppeteers. In the United States, people aren't aware very aware of the world of puppetry. There are so many different styles, and puppetry has roots in almost every culture. We did five festivals, the first one was in 1992 and the last one was in 2000, and we continue to give artist grants.

In the last ten there has been an enormous increase in the amount of adult puppet theater.

And a lot of that we fund. We have found that a lot of the younger artists working now were audience members in the earlier festivals. There has been a nice evolution of people seeing work and then creating work of there own. My dad wanted to nurture other artists. He wanted to help other people realize their own creative visions.

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