“When we arrived at Disneyworld for our week of training…some Disney puppeteer…was in charge of the Muppeteer training. This, I thought was a very odd choice indeed! I looked around and thought; “Where are Steve, Eric, Bill or Dave?“…comment by Gabriel Velez on July 30, 2017 to my post “High Noon”.
Gabe and I worked together in the early 80’s, “Muppets Take Manhattan”, if memory serves. It’s great to hear from someone who was at those understudy auditions back in 2006. You’re right that the four of us were not there.
An understudy is defined as a performer who learns the role of another in order to serve as a replacement if necessary. It is common practice in live theatre where it is imperative that ‘the show must go on’.
But, imagine that you’re binge watching one of your favorite NetFlix series, say, “House of Cards” as an example. After a couple of episodes when you’re really into it, show three opens with Robin Wright addressing camera as “Claire Underwood”. She delivers her lines and at the end says to her off camera husband, “How was that, Frank?”. They cut to ‘Frank‘ for his reply, but instead of being Kevin Spacey, it’s his understudy…or maybe even Currie Graham…
The point is that the actors in your favorite film or television show don’t have understudies. That’s because just like in real life, it makes no sense to try and pass off an established individual as being another individual. The Muppets are individuals behind that fuzzy exterior, not a role, so substitutes never work.
To my knowledge, at no time did Jim hire or train a single puppeteer for the purpose of them being a second Kermit, or Miss Piggy, or Fozzie Bear, or any of the rest. As with Gabriel, he would bring in new performers to work with us when he could and would encourage them to develop their own characters, but new talent was never brought in for the purpose of finding/training understudies. If they had been, there would not have been such concern about the Muppets going forward after Jim died because an understudy would have stepped right in.
On the rare occasion during Muppet production when a replacement is necessary because an established performer was unavailable to perform their character, we use a “stand-in”. This was a big part of what I did when I first joined the Muppets. The stand-in manipulates the puppet, usually with some specific instructions from the established performer, and the voice would either be pre-recorded by the established performer ahead of time if possible making it a simple lip-sync job, or dubbed after the fact. In no case have we simply had someone else fully perform a character, voice and puppetry, along with character interpretation, with the intention of that performance being final.
Back in 2004 when Disney bought the characters, within moments of first meeting the key executive of what was then called “The Muppets Holding Company”, he enthusiastically announced his intention to have six to twelve puppeteers perform each character so that they could be all over the world at the same time…
I…WE were stunned. Characters with all the history and depth of each of the Muppets would be reduced to a list of traits that a dozen different puppeteers would be trained to execute, like little Muppet clones who never step out of line and never grow.
By the way, training understudies is an entirely different issue than training theme park puppeteers to manipulate the Muppets for the parks. Both are training, but for different purposes. For the record, the Muppet Performers have been to DisneyWorld numerous times to work with the theme park puppeteers in connection with two parades and most recently in September 2016 for the “The Muppets Present…Great Moments In American History”.
My goal has always been that a visitor to a Disney theme park isn‘t thinking of Kermit or Piggy as the ‘theme park versions’. The experience should leave them believing that they just viewed the actual one and only Kermit and Miss Piggy. In other words, the characters in those theme park shows need to appear as though they were being performed by Steve and Eric, etc.
So highly skilled puppeteers are replicating our movements which they learn at these training sessions and lip-syncing to pre-recorded tracks, meaning the character performance is set by the Muppet Performers and remains faithful to the Muppets, themselves instead of having three different interpretations of the characters during a day at the theme park as the shift changes. This is the best solution to integrate the business needs of a character presence in the parks while remaining faithful to the individuality of the Muppets since it would never be practical for the Muppet Performers to be available for daily theme park shows. But, I digress…
Again, Jim never had understudies and it remained that way until the characters were sold to Disney. The word ‘understudy’ only crept into the dialogue in response to a term I began using called ‘multicasting’. Multicasting refers to having multiple puppeteers perform a character simultaneously in the world, a direction the core performers were adamantly against because anytime any of the Muppets are divided into multiple versions they grow in different directions and it reduces their depth. I compared it to making a copy of an analog video tape for those of you old enough to remember VHS. With every subsequent copy the image becomes more difficult to recognize.
The four of us agreed we could not follow this course in good conscience so we did not advocate for or support the ‘understudy initiative’. We knew that the puppeteers who were being offered what seemingly sounded like the opportunity of a lifetime, were in fact going to end up being a part of an effort to mass market the Muppets at the expense of who they are. Big mistake, in my opinion.
None of the Muppet Performers, including me, has ever to my knowledge turned down any appearance of any size. I have consistently advocated that it is imperative in marketing a franchise of puppets in today‘s world for every Muppet character to always show up fully intact with no exceptions at every type of appearance. That means it must be the singular established performer for ribbon cuttings, feature films and everything in between. Nothing can take the place of the genuine article.
Thankfully, after fans speaking out and a change of executives, the multicasting idea was sidelined as they saw the merit of a singular performer, singular Muppet. So none of us trained understudies because it was a corporate concept that was foreign to the standard working practice of the Muppets and was, in my opinion, being implemented to service multicasting. If this is part of my unacceptable business conduct, then I guess Eric, Bill and Dave have marks beside their names as well.
Take a look at Nicholas Napoli’s post of the Understudy Training. This video was never shown to the four core performers at that time, and this is the first time I have become aware of its existence. It is too ‘produced’ to simply be someone’s home video. What is shown here brings into question the judgement of executives when they move forward with corporate initiatives that do not take into account what is best for the Muppets