Jane Henson and I met in 2001 through her youngest daughter, Heather. Over the next few years Jane became aware that I was Catholic and interested in different traditions of sacred puppetry in various world religions (most of which I had been introduced to in Bil Baird’s classic “Art of the Puppet”). Jane had been getting back in touch with her Catholic roots for some time and had explored her love for sacred art at Catholic University, when she had been similarly drawn to the liturgical music at DC’s National Cathedral.
Jane was particularly interested in both written and visual depictions of the birth of Christ, including those three dimensional Nativity scenes whose appearance in medieval Europe is traditionally credited to Francis of Assissi. Her long association with puppetry made the idea of a Christmas crèche whose figures “come to life” attractive to her, and interested me historically as well; puppet Nativities, like puppet Passion Plays, had been popular in Europe and are still important cultural happenings in Eastern European countries like Poland, on whose szopka puppet stages the action plays out in what looks like a toy theater cathedral.
One midnight in early 2008, Heather called to say her mother wanted to chat with me about actually creating as a touring puppet play the animated crèche we’d talked about here-and-there over the years. Then Jane herself got on the phone and asked me to meet and flesh out a plan for the show near her apartment at the Carriage House, the Manhattan studio space where still photography for the Muppets had been done, and which was also used on occasion as an intimate black box theater. Jane actually thought the Carriage House could be a good performance spot, though she also wanted the show to tour churches. “Probably Episcopal churches,” she said, “like Ralph Lee’s work at St John the Divine,” referring to events the Mettawee River Theatre Company presented with puppetry at the famous Episcopal cathedral. “We’ll never get puppets in the Catholic Church,” she said. As Baird had written that medieval priests had eventually put puppets out of the churches of Europe as a distraction from the holy mysteries of the Mass, she seemed right about that.
I boned up on the biblical account of Jesus’ birth and looked up more esoteric aspects of the story, planning to “wow” Jane with my great knowledge, but, in the event, when we met at the Carriage House on 67th Street, Jane was way ahead of me in her familiarity not only with the Bible story, but also with mystical, mythical writings about its significance. Still, this was a collaboration. Jane seemed to really enjoy sharing her own ideas as well as listening to mine, allowing us to spark off each other creatively. First she talked through the story herself, on her feet, with no script, props or setting, but making her own vision clear. It was actually an epic in this first telling, beginning about 15 years before the birth of Christ. All that prologue would eventually be dropped, as would some other bits we discussed, in order to focus on the main event of the Incarnation of God as a vulnerable human infant, but Jane demonstrated a sweeping grasp of the whole story as well as an attention to small but homely details that made what could have seemed an abstract mythology more human and therefore accessible.
Though it was just the two of us working together—truthfully, playing together—that afternoon, throughout the day, people passed through the Carriage House on other business, and at one point Jane asked me to talk through/act out the entire story for them, much as she had done for me, but incorporating additions and certain special emphases we had discovered together. Jane was happy simply to become a member of the audience, wearing an expression of wonder and an excited smile as if she had no idea what might be coming next in the story I was re-telling. One of many lovely things about Jane, who usually eschewed the spotlight for herself, was the support she gave the people and works she valued.
In retrospect, the show really was conceived in its entirety that afternoon, from narrative to set design to puppets, as well as in overall concept. Elements changed stylistically as time went on, and the show became physically grander in scale when it was finally built, but the core of the piece, the through-line for it, has been the same in each “incarnation.”
One element that has thankfully proven stylistically flexible is the music. At that first meeting at the Carriage House, Jane had me sing the ironic Irish folk song, “When Joseph Was an Old Man,” then she herself brought up medieval English Christmas carols, including “The Holly and the Ivy.” Nothing like that ever got into any staged versions of the show, but then neither did the Eurythmics’s “Sweet Dreams Are Made of This.” Because of the word “dreams,” the ‘80s hit reminded Jane of the angel Gabriel, God’s messenger, who appears in dreams to a worried Joseph as he fitfully sleeps under a tree. Jane wanted “The Nativity” to be “Gabriel’s story,” as he appears at almost every turn, advancing God’s plan for all humanity by dealing directly with a small group of individuals.
But Jane also liked the beat! One of my favorite memories from the creation of this spiritual show is of Jane, hands turned slightly up at waist level, shifting weight from one hip to the other, singing in her sweet small Jane voice the decidedly “Nativity”-inappropriate lyrics of that Annie Lennox pop hit, a somewhat naughty twinkle in her eye.
Life intervened and it was some months before we discussed “The Nativity” again. I had relocated to Orlando to re-open Pinocchio’s Marionette Theater. Fortunately, Jane was only a few minutes away that Fall, staying for a time at the Henson family’s house in Windermere, Florida, a charming and woodsy cottage on the shore of a pretty lake. (At one point during a visit at the lake house years ago, one of my cats, uninvited and unknown, liked to curl up in an upstairs room, shedding all over Jane’s bed! Jane did not like that much, but, sometime afterwards, believing my cats might be lonely when I was out, “Mama” Henson would sit and read to them in the guest house.)
We had already decided in New York how the set might be configured, thinking of it as an oversized serpentine diorama behind which the puppeteers could stand and manipulate tabletop puppets placed just below chest height. For examples we had the circular crèche scene that wrapped completely around the base of a giant decorated tree at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan each Christmas as well as, most importantly, the detailed scale model “Little Bethlehem” at Orlando’s Holy Land Experience, a small Christian-oriented theme park where Jane liked to wander on a Sunday, literally down the road from Windermere.
The show’s world was to be divided into levels: a celestial realm, an earthly realm, and a political realm between them, where King Herod’s palace and the Wise Men’s stargazing observatories would be situated. The Virgin’s home would be center stage, as would her character, and therefore baby Jesus, for much of the show, and in this we were trying consciously to echo the altar at Mass, where Catholics believe Christ himself becomes truly present at the consecration of the Eucharist. Directly above Mary in the sky was to be a portal which indicated God’s heaven, but which Jane christened “The Source.” From this aperture a rod puppet Gabriel could flit about on divine missions to earth. As we sipped our tea at the lake house, Jane showed me a sketch she had made in which “The Source” was the “o” in the word “god,” all letters deliberately lowercase and stylized so that if the word was flipped over it would still read “g-o-d.” This was very neat, but we also liked the idea of being a little less explicit about the identity of “The Source.” We wanted to tell what we considered a hopeful and moving story, which we hoped people of any culture would find evocative whether they professed a particular religion or none at all.
As we parted that day, Jane confided that she knew she had only a limited time left; she had a date in mind, in fact, for when she would no longer be here. The thought of death didn’t seem to bother her, but as our Nativity was definitely on her “bucket list,” as she said, she knew we would have to take it to a practical stage of development quickly if she actually wanted to see it through to becoming reality.
Through her own foundation as well as the O’Neill National Puppetry Conference and of course the Jim Henson Organization, both of which she helped found, Jane had sponsored countless new works in the field of puppetry, often from fledgling artists finding their voice. But as far as I know she had not developed a show of her own since leaving regular performance with The Muppets to raise the Henson children. “The Nativity Story” was to be, then, a very special show.
Development at The O’Neill
The natural next step was to develop the piece at the puppetry track of the storied National Puppetry Conference at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in Waterford, Connecticut, where artists help each other workshop original pieces from concept to at least some staged segment within the space of just a few days. Heather was an O’Neill Artist in Residence in 2009, continuing work on her own show “Panther & Crane,” but she encouraged Jane to be something of a secret guest artist that year, though officially as one of the Emerging Artists attending the seminar. I will be forever grateful to Jane for inviting me to experience the O’Neill as well in order to finally write “The Nativity” script.
She asked Stefano Brancato to direct the extract we would mount for a public audience at the end of the week, and he brought arresting ideas and fluid movement to our verbal and visual concepts. Individual scenes were played on discrete units lit with specials. My friend Artie Poore, a self-taught marionettist and New York fireman(!), was drafted to design the set pieces, and Ronald Binion sewed together articulated cloth dolls for the Visitation between a newly pregnant Mary and her hugely pregnant, much older cousin, Elizabeth.
Regarding the script, Jane directed me not to make up modern lines, but to take the dialogue “straight from the Bible.” That was a challenge as the Bible doesn’t have much dialogue, and the Infancy Narratives really aren’t that long. There were prayers, like the Magnificat Mary offers, which are found in the Bible, but not a lot of back-and-forth between characters.
Fortunately, our ancestors had a lot of time to think over their culture’s creation and redemption stories. They had already dealt many centuries ago with the problems of turning biblical verses and sometimes abstruse theology into theater, so their medieval English Mystery Cycles were a terrific starting point for playable scenes.
While Jane and I were usually in agreement about the developing dramaturgy, it was not always so. I remember once having a “eureka” moment, interpreting Mary’s visit with her cousin Elizabeth as a teenage girl being sent to stay with a distant relative as if she had not so much mystically as euphemistically gotten “in trouble.” When I finished explaining my new theory, Jane paused, then responded flatly, “Not in my Bible.” “Mama” Henson had suddenly transformed into Mother Angelica! It was another cause for laughter, but even so, we stuck with Jane’s exegesis!
Jane had a particular love for the meeting between Mary and Elizabeth, at which the yet-to-be-born John the Baptist recognizes Jesus in Mary’s womb and “makes great mirth unto” him and Mary. She thought the idea of two babies communing with each other from within their mothers’ bodies was beautiful, and the puppeteers have always tried to capture the joy of that meeting. The puppet Ronald had made for Elizabeth was meant to be of an older woman far along in her pregnancy, and Jane demonstrated how the gravid Elizabeth would not simply rise from a chair to greet Mary, but would have to struggle, shuffling forward on her chair and finally pushing herself off at the edge in order to stand, supporting her belly with a free hand. That was a concrete example of how Jane not only added realistic and humane details to the puppets’ manipulation, but to the overall show, based on her own eye for observation and sense memory.
Our first few days at The O’Neill were relaxed and informal, as always, as if we were on a creative retreat, with our quickly assembled team of volunteers thinking aloud, sketching, drinking tea (or wine) in Jane’s room, where she often gathered us, or wandering the grounds, or in some teensy-tiny rehearsal space. Jane used the time to work with her hands, too, sketching and sculpting, twisting tin foil into the Star of Bethlehem and working with an intern to decorate The Source with clay angel faces representing the Heavenly Host of angels. Came the day, however, when dreaming and rehearsing were over and we actually had to join the other workshopped pieces and present to our fellows and the public a short segment from “The Nativity,” with basic puppets, minimal sets, our actor puppeteers, theatrical lighting, and even live music. (Very talented musicians improvised a score that played, film-style, throughout the extract.) I think one can safely say that this brief but frantic period, the final build and dress rehearsal leading to “opening night,” was not Jane’s favorite part of the process. Bart Roccoberton runs a tight tech rehearsal. Jane had told me she faced death with equanimity, but cue-to-cue, that was scary!
In the end, though, The O’Neill experiment ended beautifully, not just for Jane and “The Nativity,” but for so many who had invested in their pieces over the week, from the initial pitch by individual artists explaining what they hoped to accomplish and asking for other attendees to help, to the final, finished presentations, which are not actually finished shows, but give enough of a taste of one to push the pieces on to the next level. The concentrated O’Neill process proved to Jane that “The Nativity” could work as a full production.
Premiere in Orlando
Enter IBEX and the Jim Henson Workshop!
Through her own company, IBEX Puppetry, Heather had created the Orlando Puppet Festival to bring artists from around the country, and in some cases from around the world, to showcase their work in Central Florida. This usually took place in Downtown Orlando, in local urban venues like the art Gallery at Avalon Island and Mad Cow Theater. A full “Nativity Story” would be a perfect match for the Fall 2010 festival, if we could get it together in time. (This may not be the first time a puppet festival has booked a show that wasn’t actually complete yet….)
Heather put IBEX at her mom’s disposal for set and puppet design and building, as well as lighting, and I wrote the remaining three fourths of the script and located appropriate musicians. These turned out to be the members of the Olde Noyse Trio, who wore Renaissance period costumes, played woodwinds and strings, and could sing a lovely “Ave Maria.” Their musical offerings shaped the feel of the final product tremendously. Due to the content of the show, and Downtown geography, we asked for permission to premiere the full production at St James Cathedral. Thanks to the diocesan head at the time, Bishop Thomas Wenski, we were able to plan the piece for the cathedral’s social hall, putting us dangerously close, one supposes, to getting puppets into the Catholic Church after all!
A benefit of being Jane Henson was not only having one’s own talent to draw upon as well as the resources of one’s talented children, but the ability to access the skills of the Jim Henson Workshop. While IBEX’s David Jordan made bas relief rod puppets for the manger scene centerpiece, a team at the Jim Henson Workshop in New York created most of the table top puppets, and the Gabriel puppet, after consultation with Jane. The figures resulting from this were truly beautiful, and complemented the text wonderfully, with their large expressive hands and simple features. At The O’Neill, Ronald’s puppets had not had facial features, allowing the audience to imagine changing expressions, but for the performances at the OPF the main characters’ heads definitely exhibited Jane’s personal aesthetic. She had always sculpted, but in preparation for this show had informally taken further lessons with her friend Orlando artist Helaine Schneider.
UCF professor Vandy Wood designed an amazing set which was the three level, serpentine diorama Jane and I had originally imagined writ large, making our attempt to recreate an altar more clear. At one point, a cathedral parishioner mistakenly entered the social hall before dress rehearsal and knelt before the set, crossing herself, believing it to be a side chapel with tabernacle!
As with The O’Neill, the time came to present the world premiere of “The Nativity Story” at St James, and we played to full houses of puppetry fans and parish families. Jane was usually shy and avoided the spotlight, and asked me to make the introduction before our first cathedral performance… if the show went well, she said, she’d join me in introducing the second! The show was well-received, and Jane was so quietly proud that she made the second introduction by herself. What a special treat, not only for the audience, but for Jane, who was able to bask in the success of such a beloved project, a long time in the making.
Through her generosity, the show has continued to tour churches and schools throughout Central Florida, and has played several times at Pinocchio’s Marionette Theater, always to full houses.
“The Nativity Story” was a very personal project for Jane, like a theatrical version of one of the sweet sculptures she made. It was both a pleasure and an honor to have been able to have helped bring it to fruition.
For me, working on that particular show, especially with her, was a high point in life. It was also such a pleasure to simply know Jane, who was an extraordinarily special person and artist, nurturing, loving, and honest. She not only knew what she liked, she knew how to assemble a team, allowing people she respected the freedom to work to the best of their abilities.
I wish she had done more projects like this. But I am so glad that she did at least do this one, which like The Muppets, The Jim Henson Foundation, The O’Neill, and her own family, will continue to live in the world and make it a better place.
Sean Keohane is Director of Pinocchio’s Marionette Theater in Altamonte Springs, Florida (Orlando) • Except as otherwise credited, photographs for this article are by Benjamin Thompson