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Arts & Activities Magazine Interview June 2000

Puppet Revolutionary
An Interview with John E. Kennedy

by Harriet Gamble

John E. Kennedy is one of those rare people who found his creative voice at a remarkably young age and from that day on knew exactly what he wanted to do and why. He began designing and creating puppets when he was 7 years old and there are no indications that he plans to stop any time soon. Although he is a young artist, John has already had a remarkable career.

At the age of 22, John was hired to work as a Henson character in a live stage show at Disney World. His association with The Jim Henson Company grew and has included working for them on television shows and in the movies.

John currently teaches foam sculpture workshops in Orlando, Fla., owns his own company that produces puppet kits and organizes puppet seminars, and, of course, makes puppets.

In this interview, we learn how John discovered puppet making and how he translated his childhood passion into an exciting career. He also shares ideas for making puppets and some thoughts on creativity.

H.G.(Harriet Gamble) How young were you when you began showing this amazing creativity?
J.E.K.(John E. Kennedy) When I was three, I asked my mom if she would build a monster costume for me. She told me that she didn't know how, so I decided that I would just do it myself. With the help of her fabric basket, I used materials to make a character that I stapled together. By the time I was seven, I was making a lot of characters and experimenting with a lot of new materials. One material I really liked was foam rubber, because I could carve any character out of it. In fact, the workshop that I give now comes from the same design I made when I was 7.

H.G. Often, children with unusual talents are not recognized until they get older. Did you get any encouragement?
J.E.K. I was very lucky because I got a lot of encouragement from both my elementary art teacher and music teacher. In fact, the music teacher let me put together presentations with my characters during some of the assemblies. From these presentations, I even developed a show that I could perform at birthday parties and special events. When I was 13 years old, I went to the Indiana State University Summer Arts Institute for the Gifted and Talented. During that two-week program, I learned a lot about drawing and painting, how to silk-screen, and even took some music classes. As a result of that summer program, I knew I would continue in the arts. By the time I was a senior in high school, I was performing regularly at Indianapolis Union Station as a singing, dancing, banjo-playing puppeteer.

H.G. You said the "arts". It is obvious that you were as talented in the performing arts as in the visual arts. What direction did you decided to take?
J.E.K. As high school was coming to an end, I had to decide whether to study music or continue with my puppet career. I'd been offered some scholarships in music. I decided to attend Indiana University Purdue University in Indianapolis (IUPUI) to study children's theater with Dr. Dorothy Webb, who headed that department. While a student in this program, I also learned stage construction, costuming, make-up and acting. I toured with the school's children's theater group building puppets and performing at Indiana schools.

I also studied puppet building under the great Verna Finly, the famous ventriloquist figure builder, who taught me many of the techniques in puppet building that I use now. I attended many Henson workshops for performing before finally having the good fortune to work with Jim Henson in 1990.

H.G. How did you get to work with Jim Henson and what did you do?
J.E.K. I had a short stint on "Time for Timothy", a local Indianapolis show about a mouse. It really made me interested in television puppetry, an area in which I had not yet had any experience. In 1990, I heard that Disney and Henson might be merging and realized that I should go to Orlando, Fla. Fortunately, they were having auditions in Indianapolis for the "Here Come the Muppets" show, a live stage show featuring the Henson characters to be shown daily in the Disney parks. Because of my dance background, I got the job that day. This job changed my life, because before I knew it, I was working on a commercial with Jim Henson himself. This was just a few weeks before he died. Then, I found myself on the set of "Dinosaurs", the prime-time sit-com for ABC featuring "Dinosaur" characters built by the Jim Henson Creature Shop.

H.G. What did you do on this show?
J.E.K. I performed the facial expressions of the little baby dinosaur, Baby Sinclair. The show lasted for three years. It was an incredible honor to be associated with such amazing talent and an amazing experience for someone as young as I was.

H.G. Have you continued to work with The Jim Henson Company?
J.E.K. Since then, I've worked on "Sesame Street", "Muppets Tonight" and "The Wubbulous World of Dr. Seuss" on which I performed Horton the Elephant, Sam I Am and Norville the Fish to name a few. Lately, you may have seen me in "Muppets from Space" where I'm actually a "loony" at the end of the movie and have a line as myself. I think I say "I'm cold. come on, guys, let's go."

H.G. What teaching experience did you have before developing your current workshop?
J.E.K. Before I moved to Florida, I did some artist-in-residence work in elementary schools near my home in central Indiana. I would come in twice a week after school for six weeks, and by the end of the program, the children would have a show prepared for their parents.

While atttending classes at IUPUI, I was asked to perform my standard kids' party show for one of the early childhood education classes. The emphasis was not on the show, but on the puppet techniques I was using for character development. As I remember, I had a puppet named Skelly who had a big mouth. He was a hand puppet that would sing songs. Then Stringbean, who had long, stringy legs, would come out and dance. I also had a cuddly bunny that like to give hugs. I was able to show that the exagerated feature of a puppet defines its character and personality. It helps if that feature is movement-based -- just as Stringbean's stringy legs helped him dance.

I tell my students that when they design their own puppet, they must emphasize the features that describe who the character is. As an interesting footnote, the classes that I attended at The Jim Henson Company early in my career I now occasionally teach.

H.G. Tell us about Character Lab 2000.
J.E.K. I'm very excited about all the positive attention and publicity this workshop has received, but I'm more excited about the response from the kids who have attended. I explain at the beginning of the workshop that there are no boundaries to imagination, and I let the kids decide what they want to make. The kids are usually timid about cutting the foam at first, which makes for slow beginnings. However, once they start to visualize a completed character, they work very quickly, inspired by their own creativity.

What's even more amazing is that every kid begins with the same kit of materials, and each one makes something different -- each one's puppet is unique. Some of their characters have three eyes or scales or crooked teeth. They take the basic concept and make it their own. Without instruction or a signal, the kids immediately break into improvisational skits after which I lead them in a puppet-aerobic session. I teach them isolation exercises that help their puppeteering skills.

H.G. Your workshop students use a kit of materials that you have created. What is in this kits and why is it necessary?
J.E.K. When I was a kid and wanted to make my own puppets, I never knew where to get all the raw materials and "parts" I needed. I always wished that there was a way to get the simple basic materials to make good, fun, creative puppets. Now, I'm tring to make such a kit of materials available for beginning puppet makers in my workshop, in schools and at home.

The great thing about this kit is that it is totally experimental, but contains all the necessary materials. It was designed to make characters quickly and freely. The puppet mouth is already there, so you're not experimenting mechanically, but purely in the imagination and creation of personality traits. I like coming up with ideas that help challenge creativity. Since the materials are easily available and inexpensive, teachers can put together similar kits so their students can make puppets using this technique.

H.G. How do you make a puppet using these materials?
J.E.K. You start by drawing the facial features on the foam block with a permanent marker. Then, you clip in on the line and cut away one side. The side you don't cut away raises above the rest and gives depth to the feature (like a nose).

This same technique can be used on all the features until your basic face is roughed in. You can then begin experimenting with eyes and hair, attaching them to the foam with glue. After those are attached, you keep clipping the foam. Everywhere there is a raised ridge, clip it away, making smaller ridges. Keep clipping those ridges, and the face becomes smoother and smoother. Then you can attach the teeth and other things to define the character of your puppet. I supply the body with the workshop kit, and participants can draw whatever they wish on it with a permanent maker (buttons, vest, tie, etc.).

H.G. Your workshops have been very successful. Why?
J.E.K. The process is so simple, and I believe that the simpler the better. Everyone has a completed puppet at the end of the workshop and that is very rewarding. Our workshops last generally, from three to four hours. Since the students not only make a puppet, but also learn performance techniques, we needed a design that lends itself well to building quick and very usable puppets and gets kids right into experimenting with their performance skills.

H.G. Why do you feel that puppetry is so enriching?
J.E.K. I think puppetry is the perfect outlet for me and others who enjoy making things, as well as performing. With one puppet, you can touch upon so many different art forms. You get to use techniques in the visual arts like sculpture and drawing, and also acting and movement from the performing arts. Puppetry is a multi-dimensional creative endeavor that also happens to be very economical.

H.G. What about your puppets? Where do you make them and how do you get your ideas?
J.E.K. I have a studio that is more like a manufacturing plant filled with hands, heads, eyes, and bodies all laying about. The ideas for my own puppets come from wherever I am when the spark of a new character is lit and I've been known to make them anywhere -- on a plane, in my home or in the "Seasame Street" greenroom.

H.G. Why do you think that puppetry has been such an incredibly important part of your life?
J.E.K. I consider myself a puppet revolutionary. I believe that puppetry is a great means of expression and everyone, young and old, can reap the rewards from this ancient art form. It also provides a mental and physical challenge to the senses and allows the human soul to be able to express itself creatively. But most important, puppets are fun -- fun to make, fun to perform, and fun to watch.

Reprinted with permission from the June•Summer 2000 issue of Arts & Activities Magazine, 591 Camino de la Reina, Suite 200, San Diego, CA 92108, (619) 297-8032, Photos by Harvey Smith.