Heather Henson’s puppet film collection comes to Minneapolis


Heather Henson, daughter of Jim Henson, hasn’t fallen far from the tree—she’s dedicated her life to creating and supporting puppetry of all kinds. Among her many projects is collecting short films featuring puppetry; selections from that collection will be screening this weekend at In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre, with a live performance by puppet miniaturist Laura Heit. Henson is based in Orlando, where she heads IBEX Puppetry; she spoke by phone about the short films, her father, and the Minneapolis-St. Paul puppetry scene.

Handmade Puppet Dreams, a film screening and live performance presented at In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre, 1500 E. Lake St., Minneapolis. A selection of short films will be presented on November 14 at 8 p.m.; admission $15. A family-friendly show will be presented on November 15 at 10 a.m.; requested donation $3. Laura Heit will perform at both shows and, on November 15 at 1 p.m., will present a workshop on projection and puppetry. For tickets and information, see hobt.org.

Muppet Wiki calls you “the consummate puppet advocate.” Why do puppets need advocates?
Because it’s an underground art form. Puppets are not mainstream. They take so many forms that they need someone out there cheerleading them on. I think it’s an amazing art form. I’m always personally amazed at how creative puppetry can be. It seems to have no borders. The more I see, the more I’m astounded at the variety of work that can fall under this loose definition of “puppetry.” It needs an advocate because it’s not an art form that people think of immediately. They think of dance, they think of music…puppetry is low on the totem pole.

Tell me about this collection of short films coming to Minneapolis.
I’m intrigued with puppet films and the diversity that’s possible. I’ve been keeping my eye open for puppet films that bring the art form to a new level—not just documenting a puppet show, but taking it to a new level. I’ve always appreciated that underground scene. What’s showing at In the Heart of the Beast is a collection of the highlights, and a collection of kid films. Laura Heit, the star of the evening, performs in one of the films and will be hosting. She was born and bred in Minneapolis and currently lives in Los Angeles. She’s performing little matchbox shows: Each matchbox has been made into a puppet theater. She puts a camera on the matchbox so it’s displayed on the big screen. Between the live show and the films, it makes for a fun evening.

“Graveyard Jamboree” by Screen Novelties is among the films featured in Handmade Puppet Dreams.

What’s your impression of the Minnesota puppetry scene?
I love it. You guys are so lucky to have Sandy Spieler there with In the Heart of the Beast. I’ve seen their May Day parade, and I’ve seen a number of shows that they’ve done—they’re absolutely magical. The way they approach the community is so beautiful, the way that they work with the community and local artists. Michael Sommers I hear wonderful things about. Then there’s the Bedlam Theatre and their Full Moon Cabaret. I’ve seen Dan Polnau’s stuff, and that’s amazing too. You guys have a great scene.

What other projects are you currently working on?
We just finished a big puppet festival that we do each year for the City of Orlando, featuring puppetry artists from Florida and from across the country. Then there’s The Fantastic World of Jim Henson, a touring exhibit that will be coming to Orlando. I’ve also been working on a show about the migration of whooping cranes from Wisconsin to Florida, with puppets and dancers. I’d love to perform it in Minneapolis—it’s actually similar to a style of puppet dance I used when I performed with David Moore’s Three Legged Race in 2000 at the Minneapolis Theatre Garage.

You’re a graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design. Do you think puppetry is accepted among the design and fine arts communities?
It depends on which design and fine art community! At RISD? That’s a tricky question. We brought in Erminio Pinque, who now teaches puppetry there. Puppetry people have come out of the drawing department, the film department, the sculpture department…RISD does support puppetry, but it’s hard to know what category it falls into. There are a few universities that have whole puppetry departments, but puppetry is so many things. It’s acting, it’s directing, it’s sculpture—it’s hard to know what niche it falls into.

Is there anything you wish the public understood better about your father?
My father’s work was on TV, and it was considered pop culture, but I believe he was a fine artist. These films we’re showing lie on that border area between fine art and entertainment—I think my father’s work straddled that line between fine art and pop culture.

Do you have a favorite memory of your father?
All my memories of him are wonderful, but my favorite memory is probably just walking in the park with him. He really liked to walk in parks—Central Park in New York, parks in London—walk in the woods, walk in nature. Just walking with him was always a joy. He had really long legs, and you’d almost have to run to keep up with him.

Jay Gabler is the Daily Planet’s arts editor.