Tuesday, August 28, 2007


“And now, I’d like to introduce a special guest,” announced Fran Brill to the group gathered around the conference table. She seemed to be concluding a presentation about her career in television so I was surprised that someone else would be appearing on the agenda. I waited, expecting Fran to beckon one of us at the table to come forward. Instead, she reached downward, below the table. When her arm came up, she was joined by long-time Sesame Street muppet Prairie Dawn. Using a high-pitched voice, Fran infused the Sesame character with life. Prairie Dawn fielded questions from the audience. “Who is your favorite friend on Sesame Street?” I asked Prairie. “Oh,” she said, “I like Grover and Cookie Monster but I don’t have favorites. I like everybody!”

Fran Brill, the first female muppeteer hired by Jim Henson, has been on the set of Sesame Street nearly all of its 38 years. Here’s the big surprise: Fran didn’t play with puppets as a child. Her primary passion and training was in theatre, starting from when she stole the show in a play that her Brownie troupe performed. In her teens, Fran performed in summer stock and also interned at the Bucks County Playhouse. As a young adult, she chose to attend Boston University College of Fine Arts for its strong theatre department. There, Fran received classical theatre training and also participated in regional theatre.

Fran’s first big acting job was in a theater in Atlanta, where she performed in an original show called Red, White and Maddox. Red was a musical satire of a Georgia governor who wouldn’t serve people of color in his famous restaurant, the Pickrick Cafeteria. In 1969, the show moved to Broadway. Like all Broadway shows, it came to an end and Fran found herself looking for work in The Big Apple. By day, she’d make rounds to the agents with eight- by -ten photos in hand. In the late afternoon, she’d arrive home exhausted and in need of cheering up. Watching Sesame Street and Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood seemed to do the trick.

“Watching those shows, I’d think ‘I could do those voices,’” shared Fran. She had already done radio commercials and voiceover work. In 1970, one of Fran’s agents pointed to an ad in Backstage, which announced Jim Henson’s search for muppeteers for a Christmas television special. Fran called Jim. “I can do the voices,” she said. Jim let her know he didn’t work that way: muppeteers did the voices for their own characters. Interested in her theatre background, Jim invited Fran to come for a workshop in the East Village. Under the tutelage of Jim, Jerry Nelson, and Frank Oz, Fran underwent intense training in the skills of muppeteering. In the end, she made the cut, and was asked to muppeteer in the Christmas special.

From the Christmas special, Fran and Richard Hunt were asked to be in the core group of muppeteers. Fran agreed, with the condition that she could continue to act in plays, musicals, and commercials. Jim agreed, and Fran was on her way to Sesame Street.

Fran remembers well the sparks that ignited Sesame Street. The initial collaborators included “The Four Js”: television producer Joan Ganz Cooney, writer Jon Stone, composer Joe Raposo, and, of course, Jim Henson. With the Head Start Initiative newly underway, the ground was ripe for a show that would educate children about numbers, letters, and other early childhood concepts. The show utilized the format of both magazines and commercials by featuring a combination of live action footage, animation, and muppet inserts. Fran describes the formative years of Sesame as “a rarefied experience in a rarefied atmosphere” and “the perfect storm.” “They invented the wheel as they went along,” she shared. “Nobody thought that the show would be a juggernaut.”

In terms of her own role on the show, Fran started out as Ernie’s right hand – literally. A muppet generally needs two people, one person to operate the head, left hand, and voice and another person to operate the right hand. Eventually, Fran helped create and inhabit a new character - Prairie Dawn. Twenty years down the road, when the show’s producers wanted a female equivalent of Elmo, theyworked with Fran to fashion the character of Zoe. The characters, Fran says, represent different facets of her personality. Her job, as the muppeteer, is to channel "the spirit and personality that lives inside of the puppet."

True to the spirit of Sesame Street, Fran views her role as muppeteer as an ongoing process of growth and education. “I’m constantly learning, trying to be better, trying to please myself.” Fran shares that she strives to be as truthful as possible in her roles – not an easy task since she’s got just her hand and her voice to make the essence of a character shine through. Fran also reflects on the larger experience of being part of Sesame Street. “We’re inheritors, or seeds of Jim Henson,” she relays. She explains how the warmth, compassion, and empathy of the crew, cast, and content of Sesame are reflective of Jim. He was, Fran relays, a man who never raised his voice, never lost his temper, just worked off of praise and respect. “He brought out the best in you as a human and as a performer.” The gentleness, humanity, cross-generational appeal, humor, love, and global concern in Sesame Street was, according to Fran, “Jim Henson’s way of changing the world.”

While Jim firmly remains a legend in the mind of Fran and countless others, Fran herself has clearly won the esteem, love and respect of her audiences. On Fran’s birthday, folks logged onto Muppet Central Forum to share these sentiments with her:

“Happy Birthday Fran Brill, and thanks for all the wonderful characters you’ve given us over the years!”

“Eeeeeeey!! Franny!! You go, girl!”

As well as continued success with the muppets, I hope to see you performing in tv and movies. You’ve contributed a lot to the entertainment world.”

“Yay! Happy Birthday, Fran!” Hope you’re as blessed as you’ve made us all feel over the years! Thanks.”

“Frog bless you for all the fun and magic you’ve brought into our lives.”

Meeting Fran in person, watching her interact with her fans, and seeing her in action as a muppeteer, I got a clear picture of why she has won the affection of so many people. She is incredibly hard-working, loyal, funny, intelligent, cultured, and down-to-earth. Her lack of pretense is notable: she exhibits a complete willingness to share the events of her professional history without sparing any of the less-than-glamorous details. She does not see herself as separate from or better than her audience. In the end, it comes as no surprise that Prairie Dawn (a/k/a Fran) likes and gets along with all her friends on Sesame Street. She’s a living legend, and a lovable one at that.

Monday, August 13, 2007


I had walked by Spoke the Hub’s Re:Creation Center on Union Street a million times on my way to the Park Slope Food Coop. I often looked at flyers Spoke posted outside their center to publicize various dance classes, performances, and collaborative art exhibitions, thinking “What a cool place.” Last summer, I looked up Spoke on the web and found out that they have also have a performance/rehearsal space in The Gowanus Arts Building on Douglass Street. A couple of times, I went over there with some CDs and danced. On one of those days, I brought my then ten year-old friend Lizzy over and we choreographed a dance to the Mariah Carey /Snoop Dogg song Say Something.

Elise Long, founder and director of Spoke the Hub, has been a fixture in the neighborhood for thirty years and a key person who has used arts to build community. Here’s a description of the history of Spoke, taken directly from their website:

Based in Brooklyn since 1979, Elise Long and Spoke the Hub Dancing have been hailed by the local press and public as "neighborhood treasures" and "cultural pioneers" creating the Living Room Performance Space on 9th Street (1980 - 84); the Gowanus Arts Exchange on Douglass Street (founded in 1985, relocated and renamed the Brooklyn Arts Exchange/BAX, now active as a separate organization); and the Spoke the Hub Re:Creation Center on Union Street (1995- present).

Elise has an interesting life history. She came from a big family where her parents, both teachers, gave Elise plenty of support around her artistic leanings. Elise started choreographing in high school. As a college student in Vermont, she majored in English with an emphasis on dance and art. In the 1970s, Elise was involved in an “intense International folkdance scene in the 1970s” which was about being social and dancing with people. As a choreographer with her own Spoke dancers, Elise’s sources of inspiration are varied and include everything from Hip Hop to German legend Pina Bausch.

Elise is excited about her plans to expand Spoke to be a “well being center for the arts, with all kinds of art under one roof.” A piece of that vision includes a rooftop garden.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Barbara Ensor : Author, Artiste, Educator

Barbara Ensor’s website is enchanting. The opening image is a wooden file box, tied up round and round with twine with a big red and white nametag sticker that reads: Do Not Open. So, of course, you cannot help but click on the sign to get to the next thing. Once you click, you find yourself inside the file box, looking at three tabs labeled Cinderella, What Else, and Me.

So what’s the Cinderella bit about? Barbara wrote her own version of the classic tale, renaming it Cinderella (As If You Didn’t Already Know the Story). Some cool things about this version: One, Cinderella talks about her life in letters to her deceased biological mother. Two, the story isn’t over once Cinderella and the Prince are married. Barbara dares to show the complexities of married life and how Cinderella negotiates her own independence. Three, the illustrations are Barbara’s blcak shadow silhouette cutouts. The letters from Cinderella to deceased mom function, in part, to show the interior of Cinderella. “If you don’t see that interior,” comments Barbara, "you wonder why she is such a pushover."

Under the website heading Me, there is a little bio of Barbara. Some interesting facts:

She has written for New York Magazine, Entertainment Life, Village Voice.
Her illustrations have appeared in Harper’s, Self, New York Times.
She grew up mostly in England.
Her first job after graduating from Brown U was as a puppeteer.

During our chat at Park Slope’s Union Hall, Barbara let me know that her family traveled a lot when she was little, so she and her siblings found ways to adapt to different surroundings. For example, they played with dolls way past when they were supposed to, age-wise. They also created a puppet theater. “It was all about setting up the story,” shared Barbara.

Here’s something else interesting about Barbara: In 2006, she started The Little School of Moving Pictures and began teaching young people how to make clay animation movies. She even posts her students’ movies on UTube!

What’s coming down the pike from Barbara? Well, there’s her rendition of Thumbelina coming out in June of 2008. Thumbelina will be portrayed as a tiny runaway bride, with all these different animals wanting to marry her. And there will be plenty of Barbara’s magical black silhouettes.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007


One day, I came home from to my desk and on my computer screen was a website called Overlooked New York. “What’s this?” I thought. I soon became immersed in the world of New Yorkers who were doing all kinds of interesting things – raising pigeons on their rooftops, designing costumes for the circus, roller skating in that disco circle in Central Park. “Who is the person behind this site?” I wondered. That person is Zina Saunders, a self-professed “native New Yorker who is passionate about finding and profiling impassioned New Yorkers.”

I met up with Zina in a diner and found out more about her. By trade, she is an illustrator and writer who has contributed to publications such as Time Out New York, The Wall Street Journal, and D Magazine. In 2005, she transferred her focus from general illustration to reportage illustration. The new focus included articles which were an outgrowth of her profiles on Overlooked; one piece was about the Puerto Rican Schwinn Club, the other piece was about Central Park portrait artists.

As someone who grew up on the Upper West Side, Zina often sighted Puerto Rican men riding on biked tricked out with flags, foxtails, and fuzzy dice. Who were these men, she wondered? Where did they hang out? She wanted to talk to them. One day, Zina flagged one of them down in Alphabet City and he told her that he and other bikers hung out along the East River. So Zina went over to the River and started painting the bikers’ portraits. Word got around about her visits, and soon the bikers were traveling from spots as far as the Bronx to have their portraits done by Zina.

The overriding spirit of Zina’s portraits and profiles are the affection and great regard for the people she interviews. She picks individuals who are passionate about a pursuit, who are joyful in some fascinating way they have found of expressing themselves. They are earnest, sincere, and proud -- all the same ways Zina feels about her own work as an illustrator. Zina likes and cares about the people she interviews in a real way; there is nothing ironic about her depiction of them. She keeps in touch with the individuals whom she features on Overlooked. She "loves people and loves creating her vision of their joy."

Tuesday, August 07, 2007


This May marked the second year in a row that I participated in the NYWC Write-a-Thon. More than one hundred writers gathered in The Small Press Center to raise funds for the programs of The New York Writers Coalition. Each of us participants got friends and family to sponsor us to commit to an entire day of writing, going to writing workshops, and listening to other writers read. The funds raised supported creative workshops given throughout NYC by the NYWC staff. The participants of their year-round workshops are generally members of unheard segments of the city’s population – at-risk young people, adult residents of supportive housing, the formerly incarcerated, seniors, and others. This year, the Thon generated nearly $30,000 towards these efforts.

The Write-a-Thon was the brainchild of Aaron Zimmerman, who is also the Founder of the Coalition. He got the idea from a friend who had planned to run miles to raise money for a charity. Aron felt that a write-a-thon was a fundraiser that would match the philosophy of his organization: everyone can write.

Aron, like his staff of workshop facilitators, is adept at getting others to tell their stories through writing. He himself has an interesting tale to tell about his own life path. In high school, Aron liked the writing he did in English classes. He also loved acting. In college, he studied film an ended up taking script-writing classes. For the final project, where most students made a film, Aron wrote a screenplay. It was a way of combining his interest in acting with his passion for constructing story through the use of language.

In graduate school, Aron focused on creative writing and began to lead writing workshops on his own. The Prince George, a supportive housing community for low-income, formerly homeless and special needs populations, asked Aaron to lead a writing workshop for its residents for National Poetry Month. The workshop was such a hit that Aaron stayed on to lead a weekly writing group. As more opportunities rolled in for Aaron to lead such workshops, he developed the idea of starting his own non profit organization. Aaron trained other people to lead workshops like the ones he had been leading at Prince George – gatherings that gave voice to typically unheard-from people in a safe, judgment-free setting.

Aaron describes the work of The Coalition as being three-pronged – to get people writing; to get people to connect to each other as writers, and to connect the writing with the world. One of the ways that the writing is shared with a larger audience is through a NYWC anthology called If These Streets Could Talk. Streets is a compilation of fiction and poetry from the formative years of Coalition workshops.

In terms of sharing one’s writing with a wider audience, Aaron has an interesting perspective: You don’t have to have a big audience to make a big difference. In a celebrity-obsessed society where fame is celebrated unto itself, we forget the power of moving one person with our writing. The person who listened may walk away with a new perspective on some aspect of life.

To keep his own creativity fueled, Aaron immerses himself in the visual arts. He also likes to play poker, hang out with his Beagle, spend time with his girlfriend, travel, and take walks. “Because of my work running the coalition, I have less of a need to be a published writer,” Aaron shares. “I am more focused on writing for myself.”

Monday, August 06, 2007


How does it happen that the Editor-In-Chief of a prominent financial newspaper becomes the author of 16 books about topics like make-believe, imagination, doodles, and daydreams? Read below to find out.

Bill Zimmerman got interested in writing when he was in elementary school. He’s open about the fact that childhood was not an easy time for him. He grew up in a chaotic household with lots of raised voices and "had a terrible time in school.”

When Bill was in first grade, his teacher stayed after school with him for months on a daily basis. She helped him identify letters and their sounds. According to Bill, she was the first adult in his life who provided a safe space for him to be in. And she was his link to the world of reading and writing. Reading, according to Bill, was an activity where he felt transported to another world, a world where no one could put him down. That early experience laid the foundation for the 16 books that Bill would author as adult: each one of those boks is a variation on the theme of creating one’s own world by transcending difficulties or limitations.

As a young adult, Bill loved newspapers and wanted to know what journalism was all about. So he got a spot on the staff of the college paper and worked his way up to being an editor. The newspaper staff, whom Bill describes as “bright, nutty, curious people,” became his surrogate family.

Following college, Bill became the copyeditor of American Banker, a highly-respected daily financial newspaper. With diligence, he worked his way to the positions of Editor-in-Chief and Senior Vice President. After leaving American Banker in 1989, Bill became Senior Editor at Newsday. There, he created the syndicated Student Briefing Page which was twice-nominated for a Pulitzer.
In the middle of his 26 years at American Banker, Bill fell ill. As part of his recuperation, he spent a month at Martha’s Vineyard. In the local library, he discovered a tape cassette which featured children’s interviews with residents of a senior home. The interviews revealed what life had been like for these elders when they were growing up on the Vineyard. Inspired by the cassette, Bill wrote his own book about how family members could become journalists by putting each others’ stories on audiotape. The book, How to Tape Instant Oral Biographies, generated thousands of orders and was written up in The New York Times.

From that first success, Bill wrote A Book of Questions and then Make Beliefs: A Gift for Your Imagination. In both books, Bill invites the reader to write or draw responses to questions. The questions are designed to spark use of the imagination, to see the world differently. Bill’s newest book ties nicely into that self-stated thread of transformation. It’s called Doodles and Daydreams: Your Passport for Becoming an Escape Artist. On page 161, Bill says: “Escape artists build escalators to heaven in their minds.” On the same page, he invites the reader to write about what she hopes heaven on earth would be like. The text is accompanied by the whimsical and joyful doodles of Bill’s collaborator, Tom Bloom.

Since leaving his job at Newsday in 2004, Bill has continued to write and teach. In a typical day, he may also read, create websites, play the recorder, do Tai Chi, swim, walk, or grow plants. Bill has two interactive websites - Bill’z Treasure Chest and Make Beliefs Comics.
Visiting Bill's websites as well as his books is a marvelous way to enter the world of a man who has made the world a sweeter place for his readers through messages of possibility, hope, and creative transformation.

Saturday, August 04, 2007


During the first three years of her son’s life, Tova Ackerman stayed home to parent. Sometime in those three years, she journeyed to the Leah Wallace Studio to participate in a puppet-making workshop. It was there at the workshop that Tova got a glimpse of how puppets helped people tell their stories. When Tova returned to her post as faculty in the Education Department of Brooklyn College, she discovered that she could use puppetry as an effective tool to teach English as a second language. She partnered with one of her students to form a club called Puppetry in Practice. Brooklyn College, always supportive of her work, gave Tova a room from which to operate.

Twenty seven years later, Puppetry in Practice operates on many levels and has far-reaching influence beyond the walls of the Brooklyn College campus. PIP “promotes the use of creative arts to enhance literacy” and accomplishes its mission in the following ways:

· Creates artist-in-school residencies to enhance curriculum
· Facilitates professional development workshops and teacher trainings
· Develops curriculum to brings arts into the classroom
· Performs puppet shows in community spaces
· Teaches English as a second language through the arts
· Offer workshops for parents about promoting literacy via the arts
· Leads family literacy workshops in puppetry and book arts

Tova is particularly excited about PIP's puppet museum which also serves as an outreach center. The museum is a site for workshops and is a place where artists and educators can get together. Tovawelcomes visitors to the museum. It's located in Marine Park, on Nostrand between Quentin and R. For folks who'd like to visit, call the main number at the college, 718-951-4240, and get directions to the museum. It's open by appointment until PIP has the staff to keep the center open all the time.

Tova is clear that the most enjoyable aspect of leading PIP is the people she works with. Tova’s love for people and cooperation is evident in what she does to make PIP special. First, Tova treats the artists she brings on board PIP as members of her extended family, no matter how long or short of a time they stay doing the work. Second, she is constantly setting up collaborations between educators and artists in US and countries all over the world, including Israel, Mexico, Brazil, and Puerto Rico. She personally makes it possible for folks from other countries to share their crafts with school children here in New York.

In reflecting on what has or has not changed in the world of puppetry since she started up PIP more than a quarter of a century ago, Tova has this to say: “What was unique in the early days of PIP was our use of puppetry to teach English as a second language. What has developed over the years is a general acceptance as art as a tool for teaching. More people are aware of the value of the arts and I am happy about that.”

Friday, August 03, 2007


Timothy Young claims that his love for puppets began when he came out of the womb. As a young person, he was fascinated by the tangible, 3-D aspect of these creatures and spent hours singing and dancing with puppets in his room. "It was a thrill to have imaginary friends that were so alive and real," he shared.

Now, as an adult, Timothy appreciates the art of the movement involved in puppetry – “the minute details that make the puppet believable and sincere.” For Timothy, the beauty of puppetry also lies in how it relates to other artistic disciplines, including sculpture, dancing, acting, and singing. As well, puppetry can enhance the learning of particular subject matter ranging “from the solar system to the Civil War.” “Puppetry can inject a plethora of new vocabulary and ideas into a solo or group project,” adds Timothy.

Fortunate for Timothy and for Brooklyn at large, he has built an organization based on his passion. “I wanted an outlet for my art, my characters, and my stories,” he recalls. For the past ten years, as director of The Puppetry Arts Theatre (TPAT) in Brooklyn, Timothy has been offering visual workshops and performances for young people and families in school and community settings. He began, ten years ago, “with a paper bag, two googly eyes, a bottle of glue, and some crayons.” From there, he led puppet-making workshops in schools and at community events. “It wasn’t easy at first,” remembers Timothy. “People were asking ‘Who is this guy?’" Eventually, though, he gained the community’s trust.

Some of the big events that Timothy oversees are an annual Haunted Halloween Carnival and the ongoing production of a fully orchestrated musical (starring puppets, of course) entitled In a Roundabout Way. Mr. Young’s big goal is to secure a building in Brooklyn that would serve as a new home to TPAT’s arts-in-educations programs. It would also provide a space in which to host affordable cultural events. Timothy envisions opening the building's doors for use by other community organizations as well. This visionary wants a real center for puppetry arts – “Like the one in Atlanta, only better.”

Timothy, who spends his days making puppets, doing workshops, and raising funds, relies on the generosity of individuals and businesses for donations of time, money, and supplies. If you’d like to contribute in some way to TPAT, you can email Timothy at info@puppetryarts.org.