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Q&A with Sesame Street's Fran Brill

Courtesy of The Arizona Republic
December 27, 2007

Fran Brill hadn't even played with a puppet when she was hired by Sesame Street in 1970.

"It was absolutely out of the blue," said Brill, creator of the Muppets' Prairie Dawn and Zoe, who had established a career as an actress and a voice-over performer.

Until then, only male characters were on Sesame Street, with the likes of Bert, Ernie, Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch. cavorting about. But feminism was gaining ground. The "street" lacked a female voice.

Enter Brill.

"They had a little pink puppet, they put on a blond wig, a party dress and asked me to create a character - a very feminine, girly-girl in the '70s," Brill recalled. "I came up with an innocent, pretty sound. I developed the character by working with her."

Thus was born Prairie Dawn, the hot-pink, levelheaded little girl with journalistic aspirations and a penchant for writing school pageants. In 1993 came Zoe, an orange female monster who first demonstrated a boyish outlook but evolved into a ballet-obsessed Muppet in a tutu.
Brill, an Emmy Award winner based in New York City, will be in Phoenix next week for presentations on her life as a puppeteer on Sesame Street. Brill will be at libraries in Anthem, Surprise and Gilbert and at the Mesa Arts Center on invitation from the Maricopa County Library District and in association with the "Jim Henson's Fantastic World" exhibit at the Arizona Museum for Youth in Mesa.

Question: How did it start?

Answer: Sesame Street had just started on air, and I read in a newspaper that Jim Henson was looking to train puppeteers for a Christmas special. I was hoping he'd hire me just to do voices for the show, but puppeteers do their own voices. I ended up doing a two-week workshop to learn the basics of puppetry. He asked a group of us to do the Ed Sullivan Christmas special. He asked did I want to be on Sesame Street?

Q.: Did acting help your puppetry?

A.: Puppetry is like trying to make my hand do what I would do with my own body. It's still acting and an art form. The better an actor you are, the better a puppeteer you are.

Q.: Are you a teacher at heart?

A.: I think of myself as an entertainer.

Q.: How did Zoe come on the scene?

A.: Prairie Dawn was very feminine, and they decided they wanted a female character who went against stereotypes. They wanted someone spunky and fearless, who's rarely seen with a doll. (Later,) she went to dance class and now wears a tutu. . . . I've always felt all of these characters should be well rounded.

Q.: How much of yourself is in Prairie Dawn and Zoe?

A.: Naturally, all the puppeteers' personalities are part of the personality of the puppets. It's just like an actor playing a part. You can see Hamlet 10 times and the title role will always be played differently because there is a different actor playing the part. No human being is just one-dimensional, nor is a puppet character. Hopefully, the puppet has as much complexity and contradictions in its personality as a real person.

Q.: Is the script written for you or do you have input for your characters?

A.: I'll have meetings with the writers and come in with a bunch of ideas that I have for Zoe. And the writers are always open to my ideas. Everything on Sesame Street is a collaborative project. . . . Nobody is really the boss of anybody.

Q.: What do you remember most about working with Jim Henson?

A.: He was an extraordinary human being . . . a born leader and a wonderful mentor. He was very shy naturally, but with a puppet on his hand, he became outgoing and very funny. He created a loving, supportive atmosphere, so you felt you could be as silly as you wanted to be, and that's a good thing.

Q.: What do you like most about your job?

A.: It's great that when people find out what I do, their faces light up. When they tell me that their child loves Zoe on Sesame Street, that's incredibly rewarding. . . . I'm actually helping generations of people. It's a nice job to have.

Q.: How do children react to you when they find out you're a "real" Muppet?

A.: If I have the puppet on . . . they end up talking to the puppet. There's that magical thing that happens with a puppet. Even an adult will stop talking to me, Fran, but continue talking to Zoe.

Q.: How long are you going to do this?

A.: As long as they keep on writing good scripts for Zoe, I'll just keep on doing it.

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