Pulling Strings

An unlikely production company called 3 Legged Race delves into the forsaken realm of puppetry, circus acts, and performance art


The thirtysomething Henson has been puppeteering for just three years, but has an ease with the vocabulary of the medium that betrays much deeper roots. For example, in conversation she will casually refer to actor-driven performances as "meat theater," a phrase coined by Margo Rose, the matriarch of American marionette performance and one of the creators of The Howdy Doody Show. Henson, it turns out, is the daughter of Muppet creator Jim Henson, and, as her biographical statement explains, "when not attending school, much of her spare time was spent on the sets and recording studios of the various Muppet productions. Sometimes, Heather was pressed into service to build puppets in the Muppet Workshop."

"I was very inspired by [these experiences]," Henson says today, describing her childhood. "It was a wonderful way to grow up. But it probably turned me away from puppeteering. The work that my father and his company did was so fabulous and so inspiring. I didn't want to work with puppets until I could find my own voice."

The love child of Kermit and Miss Piggy: Puppeteer Lisa Henson, a headliner of Hand Driven II
The love child of Kermit and Miss Piggy: Puppeteer Lisa Henson, a headliner of Hand Driven II

Drawing from a background in visual arts, Heather Henson created a style of object theater in which everyday items, manipulated by dancers, suddenly become uncanny representations of forest creatures or natural phenomena. In a recent piece titled "Flow," one central character is a crane built out of found objects such as shells and driftwood. These objects are attached to two dancers, who mimic the movement of the crane as it steps through reeds and marsh grasses.

"I'm fascinated with harmonies that occur in nature," Henson says. "I am just personally inspired by walking in the woods."

Henson's piece for Hand Driven II, titled "Echo Trace," will include three local dancers. But beyond those vague details Henson is unwilling to describe this work, stating that her pieces change dramatically in the rehearsal process. "It may use three screens. I have no idea what it will look like. I'm bringing out light-up eggs, flowers. I'm coming out with lots of fun stuff." She laughs. "Like what? Everything!"

Henson's work, involving as it does both dance and puppetry, represents a fusion of Moore's creative interests. (Now if Henson could only get a sword swallower, five clowns, and a pack of obedient poodles into her act...) While puppetry and circus arts remain fringe endeavors to some extent, Moore discusses with excitement the Twin Cities' growing dance scene, suggesting that it is where "theater was 20 years ago. It's got this incredible artistic vision and dedication, but there is a lack of infrastructure and resources....If theater looks like a palace next to dance nowadays, then dance looks like a palace next to puppeteering."

The support of 3 Legged Race, along with mainstays such as Walker Art Center and Patrick's Cabaret, have boosted the number of works that can be seen on local stages. Yet it must be noted that the art of puppetry has thrived by remaining outside the mainstream, maintaining a distinct aesthetic in the process. Even an artistically redoubtable 25-year-old company like In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre mounts shows that often have the feel of something assembled as a skit at summer camp. And it is exactly this quality that allows the theater to continue to produce their ambitious, politically charged productions. They remain steadfastly community oriented and unwaveringly grassroots.

While 3 Legged Race, under Moore's stewardship, may hope to bring puppeteering up from the underground, it retains a commitment to the integrity of the work--demonstrated not just by the fact that the production company allocates the largest portion of its budget to paying the performer, but also by its surprisingly hands-off approach to production. According to Van Loon, she and her dance partner eventually made a list of performers they wanted to work with, and handed the list to Moore. "He pretty much just let us do what we wanted," she says.

"Moore has strong gut reactions to performers," Van Loon says. "That is a very appealing thing." She sighs. "His enthusiasm still wins me over."

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