Alex Casey talks to Nic Marshall, director of the Jim Henson Retrospectacle, about her decade-long mission to bring The Muppets down under.
If you thought it wasn’t easy being green, you should try organising a single festival for over 10 years like Nic Marshall, director of the Jim Henson Retrospectacle. A celebration of the Muppet creator’s legacy, what began a decade ago as a contained children’s film festival has evolved into an extravaganza including talks with some of Henson’s closest colleagues and a live concert tribute with the NZSO, Bret McKenzie and ACTUAL Henson characters, here in the flesh.
The founder of Square Eyes Film Foundation, a charitable trust dedicated to showcasing children’s content from around the world, Marshall has been a Henson admirer for as long as she can remember. She has fond memories of curling up after a bath and a toasted sandwich as a kid to watch The Muppets in primetime on TV2, and loved Rolwf and Dr. Teeth because she fancied herself a bit of a piano player. Now, decades later, she’s hosting many of the same characters on her own turf, for the first time in Henson history. We chatted last week about bringing her mad vision to life.
So, 10 years ago you have this vision for a simple children’s film festival… what happened?
The growth of the project came out of a very remarkable connection with the Jim Henson legacy – a special group of people who came together after he died to keep his work alive in the world. I wrote to their email address and got a reply from Arthur Novell, who was the director at the time. He was open and warm, curious about New Zealand, there was clearly this group of people who had meant a lot to Jim and had similar sensibilities. It just sort of grew from there.
I remember Arthur said in an email ‘this would be easier to talk about in person, what are you doing for lunch on August 12?’ Next thing you know I’m in New York and meeting members of the legacy about the idea of bringing the films to New Zealand. I told them how much The Muppets meant to New Zealanders, that it had been on our imaginatively-named channel two, which at the time was one of two. I also told them how sad we had all been when Jim died, and that we had a moment of silence at our assembly at school.
Is there a bit of a spiritual connection between Wellington and the Henson world?
I just kept having a feeling that something about Jim in this corner of the world would be embraced. I didn’t really know why. I know that Richard Taylor openly credits Jim Henson’s Creature Shop model as inspiration for Weta, and that there are so many artists out in Miramar who grew up adoring The Muppets and Jim’s puppeteering. Jim was also very into utilising new technologies like television, in the same way that we are building new technologies and techniques within the creative community. There’s definitely an industry connection there.
How has your own relationship with Jim Henson’s work changed since returning to his greatest hits?
When you’re a kid, you don’t understand somebody’s creative capacity, you just engage with the characters. I suppose I chose a pretty creative path, and you look at this amazing creator and his collaborators and you realise just how rare that really is. It’s the beautiful combination of making extraordinary work, being a remarkable human, and having a collective of people making work and having a terrific time. They’ve made so many people happy for so long, the fact it still stands up and continues to deliver now is amazing to me.
The Muppet legacy is an incredible thing to have achieved creatively, right? To have your vision continue beyond your lifetime and not get fucked up?
It’s so rare to have so much momentum behind your creations that they have to continue on without you. Because these characters are so real for so many people, so nuanced and so human. When I was a kid, I loved a one-liner and a slapstick moment, but I also loved that The Muppets went everywhere else. There was melancholy, there was the feeling of being an outsider, there was this community of theatremakers putting on a show and coming together every week.
So many people have told me that the model of community in The Muppets was what they later became a part of as adults, as artists, as writers. Jim Henson represented tolerance and inclusion, but he also liked anarchy and never taking yourself too seriously. There’s a great Frank Oz quote that any time a character got too serious, there was always someone waiting in the wings to blow them up.
I really need to ask you this: how do the Muppets travel across international waters?
I can’t tell you a whole lot about that, so let’s say they just magically… arrive. We’re so lucky to have the rare honour to allow these characters to share a stage. That doesn’t happen very often – to have characters from Fraggle Rock, The Muppets and Sesame Street together. They inhabit their own worlds and they’re not familiar with each other. Some are from the street, some are from the theatre, some are from the Rock.
Our human friends who embody them are arriving this week, which I’m hugely excited about. I still can’t believe they’ve said yes, that they’re all coming together to celebrate the music with help from Bret McKenzie and the NZSO.
What are the most vivid Muppet songs for you personally?
For me, so much of my Muppet memories are tied to those songs. Obviously, songs like ‘Rainbow Connection’ always invoke emotion, but Gonzo’s ‘Wishing Song’ is really melancholy and beautiful, about wishing you were something else and finally realising that you are enough. There’s another song called ‘Just One Person’, that really meant something to be.
Those songs aren’t in the show though, full disclosure. There will be the classics that are etched in our memories like ‘Being Green’, which just became such a great anthem for being a strong individual. Of course we’ll have ‘Rainbow Connection’. You can’t help but get a little teary on the key change.
I read an amazing thing about ‘Rainbow Connection’, that Jim Henson was puppeteering Kermit from a little underwater pod?
Yeah, you never really stop to consider those really innovative and groundbreaking techniques. You just think ‘well, Kermit’s in a pond, of course he is’. You’re not thinking the person allowing Kermit to be in a pond is underwater. Do you remember the bike scene in The Muppet Movie?
As a kid, you’re just thinking ‘there are those friends of mine riding bikes’ but as an adult you’re thinking ‘how did they physically undertake the technique to have that many performers’. It is mind-blowing. I love the film stuff especially, I am very jazzed that we get those films on the big screen in the beautiful Embassy Theatre and we get to watch them collectively. It makes me really happy.
How stressful is it to incorporate all those same logistical nightmares into a live show?
The real focus of the show will be on the music. It’s a concert, so while we have our characters there and they’re performing live, there’ll be no cycling. They’re there to sing with Bret. We have a full group of core performers, but it’s really a focus on the music, the songs and those characters being there to present that with Bret.
There are challenges, though. It’s hugely physical work for the performers. They’re used to working in a TV and film context where you shoot for a bit and have a break because it’s really heavy. We’ve had to be really careful about how to make that work because a live performance is a very different skill and it’s really physically taxing.
At what point did Bret get involved in the Retrospectacle? Did you know each other already?
It’s a classic Wellington thing. Bret and I have been friends since we were kids, for probably 35 years. While I was having the wonderful interaction with the legacy, Bret was doing his work with Disney and writing these amazing songs for this new generation of Muppets on screen. He got the Oscar and became a part of the Henson family and legacy in that way.
I’d been trying to figure out how to celebrate Jim here in New Zealand and was so focused on this film presentation and thought it would be terrific to do a concert of songs. At that stage it wasn’t with the characters, we’d just do a concert with the NZSO and all the Muppets and Sesame Street songs we all love. That’s about five years ago when we started thinking about the possibility of the show element. These things take a little time to bring together. A lot of time.
What are you going to do when it’s all over?
I’m going to have a cup of tea and a bit of a lie down.
The Jim Henson Retrospectacle is on now in Wellington, click here for more information
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