Wednesday, March 7, 2007

An Interview with Julianne Buescher

Julianne Buescher performed her first Henson character on the television series Dinosaurs. Since then, she's become a Henson regular, performing hundreds of characters in such shows as "Sesame Street", "Muppets Tonight", "Muppet Classic Theater", "Mr. Willowby's Christmas Tree", "The Muppets' Wizard of Oz", and in several Creature Shop projects including "The Country Bears" and "George of the Jungle". Julianne is one of the few digital puppeteers within the company ranks, and has worked on several upcoming projects using the ground breaking real-time animation system for The Jim Henson Company's "Frances" and "The Skrumps" television series.

In 2005, Julianne became a founding member of The Jim Henson Company's Puppet Up! Puppet Improv troupe, in which she performs countless characters - including the charming Piddles the Pug. Julianne is much more than just puppeteer. With a wide range of independent movies and a large list of voiceover work, including voice matching some of Hollywood’s biggest female stars. Julianne does it all, and we asked her if she would share a glimpse into her work with the fans. She was very glad to take time out to answer our questions, so without any further delay let’s begin.

When did you first get interested in acting and performing?
There was always a performance or production of some sort happening at home, and I was in my first play at age 3. So it’s sort of an integral eating! I just have to! But it was all very much for the love of it...especially the singing, which most of my family does. I’m the first since my great grandfather (an opera singer in Europe) to decide to make acting a career.

When you decided to go to college, did you know right off that you were going to study acting?
There was a lot of pressure in private school to focus on academics, and I was being steered toward specific universities with my GPA and high IQ, but I wanted nothing to do with that world. I loved to draw and dance and discovered that artistic children were considered purposefully non-conformist! Which made me all the more rebellious. I turned down honors courses in favor of art, creative writing, and drama to the horror of my guidance councilor (among others). Then when the drama club took a trip to New York City, I saw my first Broadway musical. That was it. I was officially hooked. Following my own path was tough, but it has always been worth it!

Where you always a Muppet fan? If so, which productions and/or characters really reached out and grabbed you?
I was always a fan of fantasy and ingenuity…and humor that didn’t talk down to kids. Being misunderstood in school and knowing I had to follow my dream was alienating and difficult...but seeing "The Muppet Movie" completely validated everything I was experiencing. I knew I’d find a pack of creative misfits someday to call "family", but I had no clue it would actually turn out to be the Muppets!

In 1989, you graduated DePaul University with a B.F.A in acting, were you wondering what you were going to do next?
Luckily, a few months before graduation, I’d booked my first TV movie and a national Equity tour, which ended in Los I just decided to stay. What I love about this career is that I never know what’s next!

At what point did you get interested in puppets? How did you go from acting to puppetry?
I’d been in LA for a few weeks and saw some folks in Kermit jackets at a cafe. I said hello to them and thanked them for the amazing work they do, and they invited me over to meet Jim and hang out. At home, I did the "I’m not worthy" thing for a month or so...until the day I heard that Jim had passed away. That’s when I decided to go for every opportunity matter how scary it seemed. Then I saw an ad in the paper that Brian placed, looking for improv actors willing to be trained as puppeteers for a new TV series called "Dinosaurs". I walked right in there having never worked a puppet before, and had so much fun! Brian believed in me and gave me a chance, and I’ve been a Henson performer ever since.

In 1991, "Dinosaurs" aired on ABC. When and how did you become a part of that show?
After the audition with Brian, I booked the TV series "Riders in the Sky" first (same team that did "Pee-Wee’s Playhouse") but it only ran one season. I was then asked to join the Dinosaur cast as "Monica" and remained for the rest of the run.

You help bring to life was Monica DeVertabre, an independent woman dinosaur, which brought up some woman issues such as working out of the home. Aside from just mastering the technical controls to bring the character to life, what type of character traits or qualities did try to work into your performance?
I was totally type-cast, so that was a breeze! The tough part was having to learn the HDPS system (the puppeteer controls for the animatronic face). I recall just having to master it as we shot! Monica was also much more difficult of a character to bring to life as there was not a single suit performer to gel with. There were 4 performers on separate pulleys that operated the neck, and a fifth on a fulcrum (usually Kevin Clash) who kept the team together. Monica was considered a "film" creature because of her level of difficulty and expense. That was my first Henson puppet. Baptism of fire!

MonicaHow much did Suzie Plakson's vocal performance for Monica drive your performance or work?
We had never heard the other voices or even met any of the voice actors. I don’t know why they didn’t visit us on set. Our (the puppeteers) voices were recorded on the shoot, and it was the puppeteers/suit performers who worked with the directors to create the characters and performances. The voice actors later dubbed over the puppeteers in ADR. I think that created a slightly disjointed performance overall in the end. It is always better to use the voice of your puppeteer so that the emotional life matches the precise movement. It’s tough enough to mind-meld with your suit performer! The voice actors were great, don’t get me wrong! But you know how weird it can be to see a dubbed foreign language film, something is just a little off, and it effects how you absorb the story.

Dinosaurs was a project Jim Henson had developed but never got to see come to fruition due to his death. Do you think that the cast and crew worked even harder to make it the best that Jim would have wanted?
I know that we felt the project was a once in a lifetime experience. There would never be anything like it again...and not just because of the enormous cost of each episode! Everyone worked very hard and we had so much fun everyday...but every once in a while, there was a sense from the team of "Oh, I wish he were here...if he could see this." It really hit home when Kermit puppets were shipped to the set to be fitted for Steve Whitmire. That was intense. And shooting the last episode was horribly heart-breaking.

In 1991, you started doing additional Muppets on "Sesame Street", what was the atmosphere like in the studio?
The atmosphere seemed still sort of glum after losing Jim. But Kevin Clash was such a great mentor, he brought me to the Street and helped me so much! He let me work so many different characters, and sing so many styles. I had a great time! And I love Jerry Nelson for his kindness and incredible talent! Marty Robinson thought it was pretty funny that I was scared of Snuffy...he's huge! The thing that was truly frightening was seeing this lifeless elephant sized body hanging from the stage rafters (the only viable storage space). But it was also quite an emotional surreal experience to meet these characters that I’d grown up with, that taught me to read! I was 5 years old again giggling at Grover as he pulled my hair. Unreal!

Do you have a favorite scene, or song, that you worked on at Sesame Street?
I loved Sherry Netherland...her scenes were a little bit of "The Muppet Show" dropped onto the Street. The scene with Benny and Stinky where she was allergic to stinkweed and sneezing constantly was a fun challenge...trying to come up with 30 different sneeze sounds! I also liked my little girl grouch named Blecka who loved sardine and ice cream shakes, and a chef who sang "Most Important Meal". But my favorite was a scene with Marty doing the Yip Yip aliens. That was quite an honor!

Did you meet any celebrities while on Sesame Street?
Mike Myers was the nicest...he had his own freaky moment when Big Bird and Telly started singing "Wayne’s World". He said it was so bizarre to see these icons that he grew up with wearing Wayne costumes and doing air guitar! He also had a lot of great advice about improv and character acting (we’re both Second City alums). It is amazing to watch these people drop all of their walls and talk to a puppet.

In 1994, you performed on "Muppet Classic Theater". What was it like working with the classic Muppet characters for the first time?
That was a crazy good time! It’s always extra magical when the guys get together again with the classic puppets! It’s the time for all the new "dollie-wagglers" to listen, watch, and learn. They love the work so much...everyone was goofing off. I can’t believe they got anything on was great! And having the actual Muppets talk to you directly never gets old! Getting a hug from Fozzie is monumental!

In "Muppet Classic Theater", your performed along side some of the great Muppeteers, including Frank Oz? How did Frank, and the other Muppeteers, respond to your work?
They’re just having so much fun, you gotta dive in and play along! The best feeling in the world is to hear them laugh at one of your bits...but even better is when one of them tussles your hair and says "Good job!" And believe me, as a female puppeteer at that time, that was doubly special!

You worked on "Mr. Willowby's Christmas Tree" around that time. What characters did you perform in this special?
I was Beverly Mouse (and also had a cameo as a Ballroom Dancer!). The highlight of that was working with Leslie Nealson! He’s the funniest, nicest man packed with stories and advice…I learned so much about the film business in that short time!

You've also performed with the Muppets in several home video titles, commercials, guest spots and at some special events. Are there any performances or on-set moments with the Muppets that stand out in your mind?
"New Baby In My House" meant a lot to me because I got to sing with Jerry Nelson. And also because Kevin Clash cast me even though I was still relatively new to hand puppets (I learned HDPS first). Of course the best times on any project are the out-takes!

Many of the animatronic characters, such as those in "The Country Bears", are brought to life though the team effort of multiple performers, including a suit performer and another performer (or two) helming the facial controls. Does this type of collaborative performing make performing more difficult? What types of challenges are there in getting a single performance out of a group of people?
The challenge is always that each performer is an artist/actor in their own right, and has a specific take on the characters inner life and how to express it. The silent compromise between suit performer and face puppeteer is very much like dance in that we agree to move together without anyone leading. The balance is typically struggle-free. I can’t explain how we’re able to clue into each other so precisely. And when the director speaks to us, we’re addressed by the character name ("Tennessee, you’re happier on this line") and all the performers involved respond as one. We’ve all worked together for many years and have become familiar with each other, so the "melding" has become inherent.

Aside from puppeteering, you've also done a large host of voice over work for animation and video games. What are some of the differences in doing voices and puppeteering?
I can perform for hours without having to rest my arm! Actually, they are identical in terms of looking at the physical character (a drawing or a puppet) to determine where the voice choice will lead, and also in the way that physical movements are vocalized. The difference is in animation you have to wait to see how someone draws your performance but of course with puppets your full performance is immediate.

Julianne works the HDPS controlsYou are also one of few digital puppeteers within the Henson ranks. What kind of advantages do you have to when bringing digital characters to life that you may not have with traditional puppets or animatronics?
The fun is that I’m immediately performing AND voicing an animated of both worlds! And it's the greatest toy on the planet! I’d say the main advantage to being able to operate a digital puppet is purely one of technological edge. It isn’t a "better" form of puppetry, just one geared and ready for what will be in demand in an increasingly digital world. HDPS is my first love and now that the characters are digital rather than animatronic, my programming of the emotions and precise facial muscle movement is even more detailed and expressive. I also enjoy the fun add-ons like wings, antenna, tail and ear movement!

What obstacles or challenges does performing a digital character present that you may not have when working with a physical animatronic rig or puppet?
The challenges exist in the fact that the team is creating the technology and problem solving as we go. The same was true with the animatronics...and the same excitement of knowing you’re doing ground-breaking work is still what drives the company. That’s the good kind of challenge that makes it "play" instead of "work"!

Julianne and 'Pretty Girl' perform in Puppet Up!Aside from performing characters for Henson you've also designed and built several puppets for various projects. What are some of your favorite personal creations?
My favorite puppet designs/builds are the ones I created, built, and are used by Puppet Up! There’s a long list of them but "Pretty Girl" is extra special!

Since 2005, you've been a part of The Jim Henson Company's Puppet Up! improv troupe. What are some of the difficulties that puppetry brings to doing improv?
Improv is an incredibly difficult form of comedy on it’s own. Being able to do song improv with an improvising pianist is extra crazy. Then add your random puppet, 7 other puppeteers, a camera and monitor set up for the audience to see,not knowing which game is next or which puppet to pick... and oh yeah, all while wearing heels! (wait, the heels are just me.)

Julianne and Victor Yerrid perform in Puppet Up!As puppeteers, how have the Puppet Up! performers adapted or adjusted to performing in full view of the audience?
It was the perfect blend for me...everything that I love to do is rolled up in one show! It’s more of an adjustment for the audience...having to decide whether to watch the screen, or us operating the puppets! Our only real major adjustment was making sure we didn’t fall off the stage while staring at the monitors!

Who are some of your comic inspirations to do inprov?
Carol Burnett, Steve Martin and Mike Myers. I also went to college with Brad Sherwood and ended up studying with him at Second City, with Ryan Stiles.

How has Puppet Up! and its performers grown, evolved or changed since its inception?
The magic of any troupe is how well they know each other and can immediately play off of each other in any given performance situation. It was obvious on the Muppet Show that the group was solid and loved each other and what they were doing. This most recent Henson gang is now in that place, and the bond will definitely feed any upcoming project. That was the original goal.

Of the many characters you've performed, in the many projects you've been a part of, which ones are your favorites?
The one I always think of first is Tennessee...that bear had a beautifully built head (by John Criswell) and his emotional range was a challenge. It was also incredible to watch him sing his ballad (which was cut short in the film), and his "rocker snarl" was sweet! I do tend to bond with my puppet characters, which is one thing I miss in the digital puppetry (not having the tangible character for audience members to engage with).

There sounds to be a lot of exciting things in the works at Henson. Are there any upcoming projects that you're involved in, excited for and would want to give a little plug for?
There is so much going on, it’s really exciting and a great time for the company! I am so thrilled and feel so lucky to be a part of this’s going to be an incredible next few years!

Julianne and PiddlesWhat type of message would you want to send to aspiring performers who want to start acting/puppeteering?
Follow your heart no matter what! Jump on every little opportunity, bound through every open door, and fear nothing!

Is there anything else you'd like to say to the fans out there?
A message from Piddles: "Ummm...hello! I would like to say...thank you very much for the fuzzy bunny slippers and very kind words. I am very glad that you like the show and I would like to say to Jimmy... yes, Jimmy, my diaper is clean at the top of each show. But not for long. Okay. Bye!"

We'd like to extend a giant "thank you" to Julianne for taking the time to answer our questions and share a bit of insight on her work. And we'd also like to thank Piddles for the warm wishes to all the fans out there.