Snuffleupagus Speaks! It's Master Puppeteer Martin P. Robinson

Sean Smithson, Contributor
You know Martin P. Robinson. While his name might not be instantly familiar, chances are you've seen his work. For the last 30 years he has been part of The Jim Henson Company, where he began when he took over the role of Snuffleupagus on a little show called Sesame Street. Other characters on the venerable kids show he has embodied through his puppetry include Telly Monster, Slimey, and Buster the Horse.

Outside of that well known neighborhood populated by the Muppets we all know and love, Robinson was also the man behind designing, constructing, and operating Audrey, the man-eating plant in the original Off-Broadway adaption of The Little Shop Of Horrors. He landed on Broadway itself, when he helped design and build sets for Stephen Sondheim's The Frogs.

This Friday (Nov. 18, 2011) at the BAMcinematek, as part of their Puppets On Film series, Robinson will be on-hand to introduce his work in a screening of the original 1990 film version of The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, in which he helped give expression and life to the character of Leonardo, through animatronic puppetry.

The man behind so many beloved characters, who usually remains hidden from view as he works his magic, was kind enough to step into the spotlight for Thom Carnell and I, to discuss how he got into his lovable line of work, as well as talk a bit about life on Sesame Street, and working with turtles with attitude (and formidable martial arts skills). When reading this, imagine lots of laughter throughout, and a boyish enthusiasm that is absolutely befitting of a man who makes his living spreading joy.



TWITCH - So, what were you like as a kid?

ROBINSON - (laughs) Wow goodness. Kind of shy, kind of withdrawn, the youngest of three brothers, so I kind of had to watch myself.

TWITCH - Did you get into puppetry early on?

ROBINSON - No actually. I was a performer, and kind of jumped into performing through Halloween. It was the one day a year it was ok not to be me, and I got to jump around and scream and howl, running through the neighborhood like a mad child. I though "Wow this is great, but one day a year? I've got to figure out a way of extending this somehow". So, I got into make-up special effects when I was little, and that kind of led to acting. Then I did all the school musicals and plays and stuff, ended up going to acting school in New York, then puppetry was kind of an off-shoot of that.
I got hired for a puppet company. I was qualified because I had a drivers' license, it was a touring company and they were willing to train me. I learned marionettes at first, then worked into most other styles.


TWITCH - Did you get into things like the Thai shadow puppetry as well, or was it more westernized stuff?

ROBINSON - Actually, one of the cool things about puppetry is it's always something different. When you're freelancing, it depends on who you work for, they have a whole set of rules, their artistic way of doing things. You learn that way, they say "This is it, it's gotta be this way!" and everything else sucks, so you listen politely and take it for what it's worth. Then you go to work for the next company, and they say "Nope! This is the way, and everything else sucks!" hahaha.
But, then, you know, sometimes you get those wonderful teachers, like when I worked for the puppeteer Bill Baird who just embraced everything. You know, marionettes, shadows, black lights, costume characters, rod puppets, hand puppets, every show he did involved almost every aspect of world puppetry. That's when I really really fell in love with the form, and realized that wow, it's just boundless. I still think it's boundless.

TWICH - How did you become involved in Sesame Street?

ROBINSON - Well, I auditioned. I sent in my bio and my picture, which is gosh, probably a horribly antiquated thing these days, but I stapled this picture to a list of the things I had done, sent it into their casting people and (laughing) about two years later I got a call. They were having a general audition, and I got called in with everyone else who sent their little pictures and resumes in, and the company was kind of doing a look-see to get an idea of who was out there, and it turned out to be a workshop. I think it was about 300 people whop started, and you got invited back day by day, you know, as you go. Pretty soon there were only 20 of us, then Jim Henson came in and started to work with us personally, formed teams and stuff, and then it came down to three of us. And there was only one job. Everyone got a lot out of it, and some people were called back eventually, but yeah. So I was hired for the role of Snuffleupugas, which was being recast at the time. And you know, there were specific requirements for that. You had to be tall, young, fit, and fairly stupid, to strap that thing on (laughs). But I hope to do it for another twenty years, I've been doing it for thirty and I think I have another twenty left in me!

TWITCH - can you take us through that first day, stepping onto Sesame Street and kind of going "We aren't in Kansas anymore".

ROBINSON - I wish I could remember it! (laughs) I just remember being very focused, on what I needed to do. What's really lovely now is, you know being there 30 years, is I look at the faces of the people who do come through the doors for the first. Whether they're kids or whether they're stars, and you just see the amazement and the light in their eyes, and the smiles on their face break out. I imagine I must have done something like that too.

TWITCH - In an era of CGI and amazingly huge budgets, what do you think puppetry brings to the modern landscape of fantastical storytelling?

ROBINSON - There is something wonderfully intimate, and immediate about a puppet. We work in this symbolic range, the range that speaks more deeply to your inner-self, is the way I think about it. We don't try to recreate reality. CGI tries to recreate reality and you don't really know. That is not puppetry's long-suit at all. The more you try for that the more you fail, because we know exactly how nature is, and puppets are something else. Puppets are both something more and something less. What I hope this new Muppets movie brings, and I haven't seen it yet, is the immediacy of having people taking Jason Siegel and Amy Adams talking and dealing with puppets and accepting it as natural, I think it allows the actor to go different places too. As far as storytelling goes, well, you know you are in a strange and wonderful place. You know, where we just take a pig and a frog walking down the street together as normal.

TWITCH - Let's talk about the film you are introducing this Friday (Nov. 15, 2011) at the BAMcinematek's Puppets On Film series, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and your contribution as remote puppeteer to the character Leonardo.

ROBINSON - Ah Leonardo, with the blue mask. The leader of the Turtles, yes. Well, the animitronics on that were one of the first versions of what became known as the Henson Control System. Which is cervo's, but before, and during that time, servo's had been a problem. There was always a bit of a time lag? You would engage a reaction, and it reacts a second later. But these things (on TMNT) were so good, and so fast, that it was what I termed at the time as a "wet performance" instead of a dry performance, where it felt like you were right in there. it was programmed through a computer but it was all performed live. Every blink, every smirk, it was all something that was performed live at that immediate moment. But what we needed was a computer system to load some of the moves. In essence the system was twenty-four servo's and twenty-four switches, which were all ergonomically design to fit around a puppeteer's hand and way of thinking, almost like a telemetry suit would be these days? Then we linked up our twenty-four switches to the twenty-four responses. if I could draw you a picture it would make a lot ore sense.

TWITCH - Is this a solo job? Or is there a team operating the face with you?

ROBINSON - Nope. One head, one guy. That's where the computer comes in to assist you. For instance there's one switch for left mouth up, right mouth up. Then there was a big joystick. I programmed my joystick where forward was smile, back was sad, right was shock, and left was introspection. Then I gained up every little motor so when I pushed forward for "joy", every little servo would act together to make that expression. SO when I had it to the left, which was serene, I could roll it forward, and it would incrementally become "joy". So the expression would smoothly change, thanks to the computer. All live and immediate.

TWITCH - Does each puppeteer have their own set of commands for their controller? Is it customized?

ROBINSON - Absolutely, you have sussed it totally out. You can assign them anyway you want. I assigned them what made sense to me, when I looked at somebody else's program, which finger they used to blink and I'd say :How can you possibly blink with your middle finger? I have to use my index." but that worked for him. We had one guy who was missing part of his thumb, and we had a four way actuator on the thumb, and he had to build a little piece so he could reach the thing. But yes, we each had our own program. We could download each others programs into ours, but yeah we each all pretty much stayed with our own commands, customized to us.

(**This is all pretty incredible when you consider we are talking the year 1990. Think about it.**)

TWITCH - You also were the guy behind Audrey 2, from the musical play version of The Little SHop Of Horrors. Did any of those techniques figure in?

ROBINSON - Audrey 2 was voiced live, as it was performed. That was another thing, and a wonderful example of when that really works. of course I would have loved to have voiced the character when I did the original production back in '82, because you know, I'm a control freak (laughs) I want to do everything! So i auditioned for the voice, and they said if the voice was casting Nosferatu I'd be fine, but they needed someone with a solid background in the blues (music). Plus, it was much too strenuous performing in it really, to come up with something much more than huffin' and puffin'.

TWITCH - One wonders what Audrey 2 would have been like had it been you. interesting.

ROBINSON - I've seen it performed hundreds of different ways. they always find a new way to do it. You know the voice is usually done separate, because however you decide to do the plant it's still strenuous. Audrey has to be smooth, and slick, and in control, and not breathing heavy at any point, so as not to belay what's going on inside the costume.

TWICH - Right. Nobody likes an asthmatic pant.

(laughter)

TWITCH cont - So, working with Mr. Henson for so long, what would you say his legacy is both artistically and, I guess emotionally? His impact on children, and people is immeasurable.

ROBINSON - It is. And because it is immeasurable it's a difficult thing to calculate and put into words, to quantify. There was a study where they were going to compare kids who had seen sesame Street and kids who hadn't. They couldn't find anybody who hadn't seen sesame Street, so there was no control group. Jim's legacy to the world? (**Robinson ponders for a moment**) He has some incredible things he wrote about being kind, forgiving people. Anyone who worked with him felt this, he was such a gentle man. Even when he wasn't happy, he never made anyone feel small. His legacy to the world...it's hard for me to go into, and to say. i think it's kind of obvious. He just wanted the best for everybody, for humanity.

TWITCH - On that wonderful note, thank you so much. This has been an honor and an extreme pleasure. have a great screening tonight at the Puppets On Film festival at the BAMcinematek. Thanks you also for such wonderful work over the years. Cheers, and happy holidays.

ROBINSON - Thanks to you guys too. Happy holidays!

Again, readers in the NYC area, please make it down to the fest if you are a fan of The teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, the work of The Henson Company, or just plain old love a great time at the movies.

You can buy tickets to the screenings HERE.

Visit Mr. Robinson's website HERE as well and learn more about the man who has worked his magic, primarily unseen, for generations of us. Click below the break for a reel of what this mad and wonderful genius has done over the years.

Lastly, keep your eyes (and ears) peeled for an unabridged version of this interview, which has lots more smile inducing anecdotes, coming soon as part of The Night Crew's new upcoming Extended Sessions series of one-off's with some of the coolest personalities in cinematic entertainment.
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