5 Questions with “Sesame Street” Puppeteer, Tau Bennett

Tau Bennett is a wonderfully creative, humble kid.  He also happens to be a professional puppeteer.  While this blog was partly created to give be a reason to engage with people other than puppeteers that I was curious about, this week is different.  With Caroll Spinney’sdeparture from “Sesame Street” taking place just yesterday, it is unmistakeable for those of us in this industry to take notice of another shift in the tide.  It is bitter sweet.  The sweet part isn’t simply because the community was blessed enough to be abel to shower Carroll with the love that he himself shed on the world as both Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch.  That is a huge part of it of course!  But, it is also sweet because the youngest generation of budding professional puppeteers include kind souls like to Tau to give us hope.  Here’s 5 Questions with Tau Bennett.

JMK:  This week the unspeakably beautiful soul, Caroll Spinney, Big Bird himself, is retiring.Would you please share a bit about how Caroll has effected you?

TB: Caroll has always been a huge inspiration to me in many ways. First of all, he’s proven that you can do just about anything if you’re willing. Inside that giant, somewhat cumbersome Big Bird costume, he’s ridden roller skates, unicycles, horses, he’s even jumped from one moving vehicle onto another. He’s a real daredevil of a puppeteer and I respect that greatly. Whatever effect was supposed to be achieved, he did it and it looked amazing. He’s also shown me how sweet and compassionate a person could be. Even before meeting him, I’d see him as Big Bird and I knew he was a genuinely lovely person. 

JMK: You’ve been involved in puppetry as professional since you were very young.  You still are very young!  What would you like to share with kids who know what they want to be at a young age?

TB: If you know what you want to do with your life, do it. Nothing should stop you from doing what you want with your life, because it’s your life. Do what makes you happy.

JMK:  Topics of racial and gender equality are ones that sadden me deeply to the core.  That said, I have used this rage and concern as a point of activation in my art and political endeavors.  What are some of your ideas for overcoming or eliminating the racial barriers that plague this nation?

TB: I think artists have the power to send whatever social or political message they need to, for example, by holding up a mirror to the world; showing the world the problems that are plaguing it, either through symbolism or satire or whatever. That seems to be a primary method of choice for artists, I think because it’s probably the most accessible and effective. Bringing about awareness of the issues is the first step to correcting them.

JMK:  Tau, you’re a quiet but seriously fun person.  Would you please tell us what you do for fun?

TB: Some things I like to do for fun are draw, which I’d say I probably do the most, I listen to a lot of music, collect records, watch movies and TV shows.

JMK:   It is not unusual for puppeteers to also be visual artists and this is certainly true in your case.  Who is your favorite artist and what have you garnered from experiencing their work?

TB:  One of my favorite artists include Bob Ross, from whom I’ve learned that it doesn’t really take much to make a painting look good. He can make the most realistic-looking paintings with the simplest of brush strokes. I’m also a fan of Ralph Steadman, who has a similar interest for the simple approach to art. He would fling one good splatter of ink or paint onto a piece of paper and from there, he could see a shape of some creature and build on that. I think my favorite artist is Ralph Bakshi, a cartoonist whose movies have inspired many of my recent puppet designs. I also find it kind of cool that he graduated from the same high school as me, the High School of Art and Design. His work has this sort of ratty, grungy look that I really love.

Bio:  I was born in Brooklyn, New York on December 11, 1999. I was exposed to the Muppets at a very young age and immediately fell in love with the art of puppetry, partially through sheer curiosity of how the puppets were built and how they worked, and partially from a performance perspective- wanting to have fun with all those other puppeteers on TV and wanting to play funny, outlandish characters alongside them. After meeting Leslie Carrara-Rudolph at the age of ten, she got me in touch with Kevin Clash, who was working on his documentary, “Being Elmo” at the time. After getting to be in the doc with him, he continued to train me as a puppeteer and treated me like a son. After all that controversy in 2012, Kevin disappeared for a while and I kinda lost contact with the rest of the Muppeteers,  but I was determined to find my way back in that circle. So while I was away, I started acting in theater shows, so I could build confidence as a performer. I started getting more serious about building and performing puppet characters of my own. I also started taking improv classes and formed a sketch comedy group. I did all these things and more, to hone my skills, in hopes of working up to the ranks of my heroes. So when I was 16, and could legally to start working, I sent Matt Vogel a message, asking if there were any workshops or auditions happening. There just happened to be a workshop that fall. He invited me to that, I got through it and I’ve been working on Sesame Street ever since. I still continue to do sketch comedy, stand-up, and I’m always working on new stuff with my characters who I call The Rumble Ensemble. 

Instagram: @rumble.ensemble 

Facebook: Tau Bennett

YouTube: The Rumble Ensemble

The Party of Regal Krusaders (P.O.R.K.)

Published by Jean Marie Keevins

Jean Marie Keevins is the owner of Little Shadow Productions. She is a NYC-based producer, writer, puppet artist, designer and professional coach. She has executive produced multiple works for Heather Henson’s Ibex Puppetry, including Crane: on earth, in sky, featuring Ty DeFoe (Straight White Men) and directed by Maija Garcia (Spike Lee’s "She’s Gotta Have It"). Keevins is currently executive producing The Riddle of the Trilobites (directed by Lee Sunday Evans), which is on course for a 2020 NYC premier at The New Victory Theater. Under the umbrella of her production company, Little Shadow Productions, Jean Marie has created a self-produced short film, and co-produced many others. Little Shadow was proudly commissioned to create and perform the puppets for Wyatt Cenac’s (“The Daily Show” and “Problem Area’s”) Netflix special “Wyatt Cenac’s Brooklyn”. Most recently, Little Shadow created original puppets for Andy Sandberg’s “The Lonely Island's” live event at Clusterfest. Jean Marie is honored to serve as the lead producer for downtown theater icon, James Godwin (recipient of the Jim Henson Award for Innovation and a Doris Duke Fellowship). Godwin’s The Flatiron Hex was a New Times Critic’s Pic and his Lunatic Cunning was lauded with many awards including an UNIMA Citation of Excellence. As the long-time VP of Business Development at Puppet Heap, Jean Marie served as a knowledgeable liaison between clients (The Muppets, Mother, Diet Coke, Disney Theatricals, and more) and the Puppet Heap workshop throughout the entire design/build/production process. She has built puppets for Avenue Q, Disney on Ice’s Finding Nemo, Baby Einstein, “The Muppets”, "Johnny and the Sprites" as well as various Broadway shows. Keevins has co-authored the plays Zwerge with Deb Hertzberg and Spencer Lott ("Sesame Street") and Elephant in the Room with Sahr Ngauaja (Fela, Moulin Rouge!). She has received grant support from the Jim Henson Foundation Grants and Puffin Foundation. Similarly, Jean Marie has received prestigious writing residencies from Space on Ryder Farm, ArtPark, The Orchard Project, The National Puppetry Conference, NISDA and Dixon Place to name a few. A reoccurring Guest Lecturer at New York University, Jean Marie holds a BA in Theater Studies with a concentration in the Puppet Arts from the University of Connecticut. Honing her training at the National Puppetry Conference, one of Jean Marie’s proudest accomplishments came when she joined the conference as staff. She now serves as the Associate Artistic Director of Conference as well as the Director of Participant Projects where she leads a mentoring program to create new short works of theatre. Jean Marie is a frequent moderator of interviews and panels featuring world renown artists. Ms. Keevins is a former board member of the international puppetry organization UNIMA-USA.

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