Do you know who Martin Robinson is? If not, you should! For the last 30 years, he has been performing some well-loved characters on Sesame Street, including Telly Monster, Snuffleupagus, and Slimey. In addition, Marty teams with his wife and Sesame writer Annie Evans to create the Sesame Family Robinson blog for the Sesame Workshop website. On top of that, Marty hires and trains puppeteers for Sesame Street productions all around the world.
Wait! That’s not all! Check out his website, and you’ll find that the fantastic Mr. Robinson is also a puppet designer and builder for shows like Little Shop of Horrors. Take a look at Martin’s resume, and you’ll see that he “Designed and performed a giant carnivorous plant that rose 22 feet into the air, panned 40 feet, and flew over the fifth row of the Virginia Theatre.” For a Lincoln Center production of Frogs, he “Designed and built a giant frog that ate Nathan Lane.”
The Road to Puppeteering
For Martin, who was a shy kid, there were a couple of pivotal events that led him to his love affair with performing and related forms of artistry. First, there was Halloween. Halloween was performance time, the time where there was permission to look and act differently from everyday life. He designed his costume and thought about the character he would play months in advance of the big day. “It was too much fun to do that kind of thing one day of year,” notes Martin. So theater became a way to extend that opportunity to be something else other than his everyday self.
The other important moment in time came about when Martin’s school held auditions for the school performance of Oliver. Martin’s art teacher saw something in him, believed in him, and actually refused to do the sets for the play unless Martin was offered the part of Fagin. Being Fagin opened up a whole new world for Martin, and from that moment on, he knew that performing was “it” for him.
After high school, Martin left his hometown in Wisconsin to attend acting school at The American Academy of Dramatic Arts. Next, in 1975, Martin toured as a puppeteer with Nicolo Marionettes, now knows as Puppetworks, Inc. In 1977, Martin performed for six months in Busch Gardens, Virginia, with Baird Marionettes, and from there continued working with Bil Baird in New York City.
The experience with Baird allowed Martin to see puppets as “moving sculptures” and view puppetry as a combination of design, sculpture, and acting. As a puppeteer, Martin experienced a kind of freedom in not being limited by his physical body (think about it: actors are often cast based on their appearance); thus, his dream of getting to play “crazy character roles” was realized.
Highlights and Challenges of being a Puppeteer
According to Martin, the blessing of being a puppeteer lies in the many opportunities to have fun, laugh, and clown around. (Having watched Martin behind the scenes, I got to witness first-hand how he capitalizes on those opportunities: the guy has a wicked sense of humor that keeps Sesame cast and crew cracking up!)
Martin is clear that it’s a difficult profession, as well. First, you have to be able to handle a lot of pressure to keep performing at a certain level, to produce results in such an on-demand way. You have to have a particular level of acting abilities to respond to other characters in the moment. (These folks rehearse the same scene over and over and over to match Sesame’s high production standards.) “To perform a character well,” shares Martin, “you have to be outside the character – outside, looking in”. There is also a technical challenge that puppeteers face: while they are performing, they must track their actions by looking into a monitor!
How does Martin meet these challenges? Long time Sesame puppeteer Fran Brill and co-worker to Martin sheds some light on this question:
“Marty Robinson is one of the most positive people I know. I don't think I've ever heard him say ‘No’ (at least on the set of Sesame Street) or complain. If a director asked Marty to puppeteer upside down inside of Snuffy while blowing up a balloon and singing The Star Spangled Banner in Lithuanian, he'd say ‘I'll try.’
Marty is also a very generous performer- everyone loves to work with him because he gives his all, really listens, and makes you look good. He is kind, loving, and tremendous fun to be around because he is really outrageous with Telly. He makes us all laugh and gives 100% of himself when performing.”
Training and Filming and Writing
Martin’s responsibilities with Sesame transcend national borders as well as artistic medium: he is often sent overseas to train puppeteers for Sesame Street in other countries. In this role, Martin teaches puppeteers to collaborate with the camera as well as with the director. “I teach the puppeteers that we are composing the frame with the director,” he explains.
Martin also brings his skills as a filmmaker to the Sesame operation. With his wife, Annie Evans, whom he married on the set of the show, he shares his behind-the-scene experiences as a parent and as a puppeteer through movies and stories on the Sesame Family Robinson blog. As Martin and Annie explain to their readers, “[…] we’ve created this blog to share our journey as parents trying to raise our daughters with love and playfulness, while also being deeply committed to a television show that seeks to educate and empower children all over the world.”
Martin on Going After Your Dreams
According to Martin, we all have dreams as children. It’s important to look at those dreams, figure out what is at the heart of them, and then pursue whatever that essence is. Martin is well aware that he knew from an early age what made his heart sing. And that whenever confronted with a decision about an opportunity that came his way, he would always base his decision on a commitment to follow his bliss.
“We give up on our dreams way too easily,” says Martin. “There is no reason why you can’t really love what you do. There is nobility in almost anything. Don’t wait until retirement to start your life. The key is doing what you love, and loving what you do. Everyone has the ability to guide their life in a way that makes them happy.”