Performers’ Notes: Puppetry

As the Muppets return to primetime TV, we talked to puppeteer Chase Woolner, about what it takes to work alongside Miss Piggy and the gang.

Interview by Ben Falk 

I’m an additional Muppet performer. That means I lend a hand to whoever needs it at the time, both literally and figuratively.

What’s really nice about puppetry is that it touches on all the different crafts – acting, singing, there’s improv and then craft-wise there’s sewing and sculpting.

I started performing professionally as a puppeteer when I was five-years-old in Chicago. Puppetry is such an intrinsic part of childhood play; you’re playing with dolls, with a teddy bear and you’re creating a character for them, a reality for them. I started playing with dolls and just kept going!

Growing up, at my high school in Michigan, I wasn’t bullied or teased about doing puppetry. In my freshman year I started a puppetry club; we had 60 members every year, doing performances and community outreach. We built and designed our own puppets and scripted the shows. I had my own mini-troupe.

In the States, we have an organisation called the Puppeteers of America and at the time, my club was the only high school one. It was the beginning of social media and we were all over that, getting a lot of headlines within the puppet community. I got accepted to university at the California Institute for the Arts pretty much on the spot at a puppetry festival because of my club and how it was known.

If it’s your passion, you just need to start doing it. Perform in your community, put it out on YouTube. Practise building puppets and train your eye. Ask yourself how the shapes are created, how is it stitched, why did they choose that material? Once you start doing it, you’ll meet other people who like doing it. Dave Goelz who plays Gonzo says it takes 5 years to do it really well.

You need crazy passion because for each character you’re performing, you’re infusing it with a soul. Often your character is a chicken or a chair, so you need to think, ‘what is that object’s view on life?’ You need whimsicality and the ability to be open-minded to craziness, but there are also technical skills that need to be honed.

Every step of the way you’re learning something new and being open and excited to that is something you need. Because I got a gig with the Muppets, I thought, ‘I’m really good!’ But then after a couple of takes with the core performers, I was like, ‘wow, I’m good technically but I really know nothing.’ That’s humbling. I know now what I need to improve on.

We’ve seen the Muppets do a lot of amazing things – riding bicycles, picking a banjo…what are we going to see next? It’s about pushing the craft of puppetry – there’s a whole world out there, with different styles and techniques.

Ultimately, you’re giving a soul to an inanimate object. That’s the difference between practical effects like puppetry and CGI. No matter how real CG looks, it’ll always be fake and no matter how fake puppetry looks it’ll always be real because it exists in real space and time.

The Muppets is on Sky1 from 19 October. Chase Woolner