On Tuesday, November 18, the New York City Mayor’s Office of Film, Theatre and Broadcasting presented “Sesame Street: Made in NY” at the Apollo Theater, in collaboration with the Apollo Theater Foundation, Sesame Workshop, and the Center for Communication. Easily over a hundred attendees braved the blistering cold for a chance to learn more about what goes on behind the scenes at Sesame Street. The panel discussion featured writers, directors, and puppeteers speaking of the experiences and challenges they have faced creating television’s longest running television series.
Sesame Street is celebrating its 40th anniversary and is shot at the Kaufman Astoria Studios in New York City. It’s big business in NY, pumping $5 billion dollars into the local economy and employing about 100,000 New Yorkers. It’s won 118 Emmys and is seen in over 110 countries. While animation was not discussed much during the panel, it was interesting to learn more about the development of the series educational curriculum and what’s behind its success. All the points are easily relatable to animation. The panel featured Kevin Clash (the voice of Elmo, Senior Puppet Coordinator and Muppet Captain, and Senior Creative Advisor), Sonia Manzano (Maria), Joey Mazzarino (the voice of Murray Monster, puppeteer and writer), Carol-Lynn Parente (Executive Producer), and Rosemarie Truglio (Vice President of Education and Research). Katherine Oliver, Commissioner of the City of New York Mayor’s Office of Film, Theatre and Broadcasting, moderated it.
Some brief highlights of the night: Sonia spoke of a major change in the amount of women involved with the making of Sesame Street. When she started, there was only one girl puppet (Prairie Dawn) and no female puppeteers. Today, not only are there more women involved both on and off the show but the first Hispanic female puppeteer was hired recently. I can relate that to my own experiences in the world of animation. She joked about how important it is to memorize one’s lines before the shoot, unlike the puppeteers who read from a monitor. Kevin spoke of Elmo’s beginnings as a background character, and an annoying one at that. He was able to come up with a voice for the character and they decided to give him another shot. He later entertained us with an appearance of Elmo, who proceeded to knock over some water and bang on some mikes. Joey told of the challenges faced in making the show funny and entertaining without the children realizing they are being taught. Expanding upon that, Rosemarie spoke of the interdisciplinary curriculum upon which the show is based and how every department works together to enrich the show. Safety is another very big issue and they are always mindful of what the children might imitate. Carol spoke of the cultural and celebrity influence on the show in that it offers the parent and the child a chance to be engaged in watching and enjoying the show together as a family. Many segments are uploaded straight to YouTube and further markets the show. Once at 130 episodes a season, the show has cut back to 26, coincidentally one for each letter of the alphabet. A full research team workshops each show in classrooms, studies recent trends and patterns, and partners with outside evaluators, making it the most researched show in the history of children’s television.
They had some advice for those wishing to break into the industry: From Sonia: The journey is never a straight path. Be willing to take chances. Sometimes you don’t know what you love until you try it. Often times, it’s the behind the scenes jobs that are the most valuable. For puppeteers: lip sync, voice, and humor are important in reels. They focus on how you make the puppet come to life; do you make the character likable? Writers: most important to know structure and humor. Internships: learn and study everything you possibly can.
This was a really fun event and I hope the Mayor’s Office does more. One observation: the event had a huge organizing team behind it and a lot of production obviously went into it. Some sites had a 6pm start time, others said 6:30pm. Attendees were kept outside in the cold for at least half an hour and the event did not fully start until 6:45pm. I think we would have all preferred to wait inside and seated. But other than that, great show!
http://www.nyc.gov/film: Made in NY’ Production Assistant Training Program – a series of free, full-time, month-long training programs developed with Brooklyn Workforce Innovations.
Article written by Dayna Gonzalez.