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Felt + Feathers + Folly = Fantastic Culture

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Felt + Feathers + Folly = Fantastic Culture

Aarin Harper

that kind of work ethic should be shared by people
— Frank Oz

I recently saw an interview on a Saturday morning news show with Frank Oz, you may know him as a major contributor to the creation of the Muppets with Jim Henson. He was speaking about Jim Henson and the “guys” (men and women), the other puppeteers and character-creators part of Jim Henson’s Muppets. He spoke about the team, work ethic, creativity and fun in the workplace.

I watched the Muppet Show as a kid and who doesn’t know about the lovable Muppets on Sesame Street or Fraggle Rock? Oz is a puppeteer, director, and creator of some pretty amazing characters and film projects including contributing to and playing the unforgettable Yoda, of Star Wars. The quality and creativity of the product produced by “the guys” of the Muppets is impressive and I was curious about what he had to say about this team, success, and “guys” he worked with for over a decade.

The take away from the video for me is that Frank Oz believes that a highly successful work culture is, “… supportive, no politics, no back stabbing, only trying to do the best you can do – that kind of work ethic should be shared by people.”

I don’t know if you know how closely these puppeteers work but it’s CLOSE! I saw some of the team from the Muppets in a special exhibit at a museum in St. Catherine’s, Ontario, Canada years ago. I was shocked! All the sets were built so that the puppeteers could stand and raise their character(s) above their heads. Amazing! I never imagined this was how it was done! This was especially amazing to me because at that time I was in a group that presented a program for elementary school kids on the effects of substance abuse on our bodies. Yep, we had “muppet-like” puppets and a set made of plastic tubing and velveteen draping for easy set-up and tear-down. Our skit was set in a court room where the various body organs testified to a “human-hand” judge puppet about the impact of alcohol abuse.

When we presented the program, four of us would cram, sitting or kneeling, behind this little 3 sided screen. I was the smallest so was stationed closest to the front of the screen and the tallest was a guy about 6’2” who folded himself up behind there and reached from behind the person animating the arms (2 people were needed to animate this character-one person’s hand and arm for the head and another person’s arms and hands as the puppets arms and hands thus the name “human-hand puppet”) and then the other two of us animating the other characters. More than once, one of the other puppeteers had to snatch me back (because someone bumped me from behind while I was kneeling, ducking my head so I wasn’t seen, with both arms raised with puppets on each hand above the screen) before I fell off stage or hit the floor face first. All this to say – you are CLOSE!

I was shocked because of the change in perspective. They stood! The actors could freely walk about, no legs falling asleep or hunching over awkwardly so the audience didn’t see you. The proximity was often still close – I read that it took 40 people to animate the plant in Little Shop of Horrors. They had to be close! I wonder if the close physical proximity forced people to be more authentic and genuine? I can’t imagine being creative – having the mental space and energy to produce this type of creative work - in an unsupportive, politically charged, or back-stabbing environment. Frank Oz and the guys said they didn’t have that.

In “Muppet Guys Talking”, a video of an interview with 5 from the team as they reminisce about their projects, muppets, work ethic and Jim Henson’s leadership, you get a sense of how blessed they felt they were to have worked together.

Here are a few comments:

“(Jim Henson)…encouraged people to contribute and valued their contributions...He may not use the idea, he made the ultimate decision, but anyone could approach him.”

            “Everybody has to aim at the target and hit the bullseye.”

“Anyone could offer an idea and as a result everyone was always on board.” (“Anyone” literally was anyone that worked on the project – not just performers and directors.)

            “Everything (idea) was valuable”

            “(Jim Henson) …took a chance on sweetness. That was a risk. You could be laughed at.”

            “He (Jim Henson) worked all the time.”

            “(Jim Henson) If it were easy anyone could do it.”

            “He (Jim Henson) would do anything for the shot.”

Words that are repeated include: Folly (as in fun), kindness, generosity, joyousness, love, joyous competition and fearlessness.

Most of us don’t get to do the creative and entertaining work that the “guys” did but I think many would love – yes, I said it – LOVE to work as part of a team with that drive for excellence, recognition of the value of contribution, and where each person on the team is aiming for and hitting the bullseye. There are more books than a person can read on how leaders can get their team to focus and achieve their goals, create loyalty, and increase engagement - but not many that appear to be as compassionate or fun as those used by Jim Henson and the culture of the Muppets Workshop.

What do you do to get everyone on your team to aim for that bullseye?

Is there a creative change in perspective (or doing the work) that will make hitting the target more achievable?

What would you like to try?

I’d appreciate you sharing any insights that have proven successful in getting your team to hit that red dot.