HomePuppetMuppet Gals Speaking: Kathleen Kim

Muppet Gals Speaking: Kathleen Kim

Muppet Gals Speaking is a brand new sequence of interviews and spotlights on female-identifying puppeteers, puppet builders, and different creatives who’ve labored with Jim Henson and the Muppets. This sequence is researched, written, and expertly produced by journalist Drake Lucas.

Picture courtesy Sesame Workshop / Photographer: Zach Hyman

The character of Ji-Younger, a puppet of a Korean-American woman, was created to assist others really feel a way of belonging, a lesson that puppeteer Kathleen Kim nonetheless grapples with.

“Up till this 12 months, I simply figured I’m right here accidentally. I wished to play it protected and maintain my head out of the shot,” she mentioned. “I’ve solely began to come back into my very own this 12 months, I really feel like.”

Kathleen references herself as fortunate and undeserving to be a puppeteer, one thing she says she fell into in her mid-30’s when others had labored their complete life for the alternatives she has had.

However as a toddler Kathleen knew when Sesame Road got here on earlier than she might even inform time, and, like many puppet fans, she watched it for longer than many different youngsters her age. Her dad and mom have been immigrants from Korea and so they largely spoke Korean at house, however Kathleen spoke excellent English when she went to pre-Okay and he or she credit Sesame Road partially.

It was on Sesame Road that she noticed the primary Asian character she will do not forget that wasn’t enjoying some typical trope like a humorous greatest buddy with an accent. Within the section with the track “Two Little Ladies in a Dollhouse” the place – because the identify may counsel – two little women play with a dollhouse, one is blond and white and one is Asian. She didn’t assume Asian youngsters might simply be on TV doing regular issues, so she simply assumed the woman was white and one way or the other simply regarded Asian as a result of, she thought, “they don’t put folks like me on TV.”

Picture credit score: Kathleen Kim

Kathleen mentioned her dad and mom weren’t sentimental. They didn’t spend afternoons studying to her or enjoying along with her. For her, exhibits like Sesame Road and Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood offered a protected and nurturing area.

“It was the one place that felt like me as a child being honored. The exhibits catered to my intelligence and creativity,” she mentioned. “I felt seen and validated. They defined the world to me in a method that was enjoyable and sensible and had respect for kids.”

She determined to pursue a profession in youngsters’s tv, so she might assist give that to different youngsters.

Her dad and mom wouldn’t let her exit for the drama/theater membership in highschool, which they didn’t contemplate critical sufficient. She admits even tv manufacturing was a little bit of a insurrection, however she might take lessons in it, which ultimately led to a profession at Nickelodeon and Discovery Children. Now, along with being a puppeteer, she is a contract producer for actuality tv, together with meals, journey, and life-style exhibits on networks such because the Journey Channel and TLC.

Sesame Road “got here in by a facet door.” Her husband was doing improv theater and located a category that was puppetry and improv, so he signed them up regardless of her lack of expertise in both artwork. She loved the category and joined a puppet improv group. She was additionally invited by the category’s teacher, David Fino, to assist help on some exhibits he was engaged on, together with The Fuzz, an impartial movie involving puppets. She mentioned they wished the puppets to be gritty, so shoots have been in locations like roach-infested lodge rooms with cigarette burns on the beds. Most individuals there didn’t perceive puppets, so that they have been asking the puppeteers if they might “get decrease” even once they have been already on the bottom. She mentioned it was a little bit of a nightmare. “However even nonetheless, it was so enjoyable.”

She was in her 30’s and considering of getting youngsters, so she didn’t really feel like she might go away the profession she had constructed to be a ravenous artist. And he or she didn’t consider herself as an actor or performer. Puppetry remained a passion.

Picture courtesy Sesame Workshop / Photographer: Zach Hyman

In 2014, Sesame Road introduced a puppetry workshop. Since everybody else from the puppet improv class was submitting a tape, she determined she could as nicely attempt. To her shock, she was accepted.

“I believed it was simply these three days,” she mentioned. “I used to be like, I had enjoyable, I received to the touch a Muppet, I’ll treasure this week perpetually.”

However in 2015, a number of the folks from the workshop have been referred to as again for 3 days. She was pregnant along with her daughter, however didn’t inform anybody till the ultimate day, admitting, “I didn’t need them to assume they couldn’t shove me below a desk.”

Her first day on set, puppeteer Peter Linz picked up a small yellow feather that had fallen off Huge Hen and gave it to her as a memento. Kathleen ran to place it into her pockets within the Inexperienced Room the place Caroll Spinney and his spouse, Deb, occurred to be. Though Caroll was not performing Huge Hen, he was nonetheless doing the voice. He informed her the feather was “just a bit one.” Flustered and never realizing what to say, she mumbled one thing and ran again to the set.

Solely to really feel a faucet on her shoulder as she was below a desk aiding Leslie Carrara-Rudolph on Abby Cadabby. She circled to see Caroll bending down handy her a big Huge Hen feather, which she now has framed and hanging in her home.

Picture credit score: Kathleen Kim

She stored being referred to as in for a couple of days to work on set. Then in 2017, she was recognized with breast most cancers. She was nonetheless breastfeeding her daughter and her life centered on being a mother, so the analysis put all that in jeopardy. She didn’t need to go away her daughter.  She felt responsible about perhaps not having the ability to give her daughter a sibling and about not being as current as a mother throughout her remedies.

Following her mastectomy and in a chaotic evening wherein she was attending a Solange Knowles live performance and fielding texts from her mother about her daughter’s misplaced stuffie, she acquired an e mail from puppeteer Matt Vogel. Grateful that it meant she would get one other few days on Sesame Road, she opened it as much as learn an invite to be one among 4 puppeteers in a brand new mentorship program. Regardless of the troublesome timing, she additionally referred to as this chance “the best reward.”

“You notice in some unspecified time in the future that you just simply received a peek into mortality. However the reality is folks die on a regular basis and also you don’t know when,” she mentioned. “Life is brief and our time right here and with one another is so treasured. Why wouldn’t you do what offers you essentially the most pleasure?”

The puppeteers on Sesame Road have been at all times saying to “fail large,” to attempt one thing enjoyable and new with out ruining the shot, if potential. Kathleen wasn’t prepared.

Picture credit score: Kathleen Kim

She was employed to carry out an enormous stroll round character on Awkwafina is Nora from Queens. It was her first puppetry job with out anybody else she knew and he or she was the one puppeteer on the set. The puppet, Toeknee, was large and ugly, a childhood imaginary buddy of Awkwafina that returns as a result of her character’s dad begins courting somebody. The puppet’s mouth didn’t open, so that they didn’t intend to make use of Kathleen’s voice.

The job was on the identical day {that a} man shot six Asian girls after concentrating on three spas on a killing rampage he described as an try to restrict “temptation.” Kathleen was crying in her trailer over the information, scared and offended. Then she placed on the purple, hideous puppet.

“I used to be like, you need to put Asian girls in a field?” And he or she unleashed a violent, aggressive character to match the puppet. They ended up conserving her voice.

Kathleen had made a whole lot of excuses through the years for why folks have been hiring her, perhaps as a result of she was good or as a result of she knew put up manufacturing.

“However that was me,” she mentioned of Toeknee. “I used to be humorous and so they preferred it.”

She referred to as puppetry a bizarre artwork type – due to the screens, puppeteers are taking a look at their work in actual time. They need to be self-aware and cozy with themselves. Worry of doing nicely can maintain them from connecting. Being Toeknee, absolutely within the second, helped her notice what she wanted to do as a puppeteer.

Picture courtesy Sesame Workshop / Photographer: Zach Hyman

In Might of 2021, the Asian American Basis reached out to Sesame Workshop about addressing racism towards Asians, partially due to a rise in harassment and assaults towards Asians throughout Covid-19. Kathleen and different Asians working at Sesame Road, have been invited to provide their perspective. From that, Ji-Younger was created. Between June and mid-September, Rollie Krewson constructed the puppet and Sesame Road shot a brand new particular, “See Us Coming Collectively”, specializing in Asian tradition and addressing racism.

Kathleen not solely performs Ji-Younger, she was additionally part of discussions that went into creating her. She mentioned Sesame Road at all times desires to do the proper factor. They’ve focus teams and cultural consultants. However they don’t have Asian folks on the curriculum group and have just one Asian author. She and the opposite Asians on employees felt a duty to make sure that Ji-Younger was actual to them.

Kathleen acknowledges that she performs the character as a result of she is Korean, however she additionally acknowledges the worth she brings to the character as a result of she is Korean. And he or she described how she and Ji-Younger make one another braver and collect power collectively.

“For somebody who has been like, I’m not going to steal the scene, I made a decision if that is the hill I die on for talking up, for ensuring the character feels genuine to me, then so be it,” she mentioned. “I inserted myself in conversations when perhaps in any other case I’d not have felt so emboldened.”

It was a turning level for her to really feel like she did belong. So did Ji-Younger. And being a puppet slightly than a human or somebody animated meant that these watching can undertaking themselves onto her.

And so they have. Kathleen has heard from many Asian youngsters – and adults – who related to the puppet. She described assembly the mom of a Korean little one who was on set. When the puppet appeared, the mother held the puppet’s fingers and began crying as a result of Ji-Younger was so essential to her. Kathleen mentioned Asian-American dad and mom, particularly, see how a lot of this illustration was lacking in their very own childhood.

“Having a Korean hyphen American character on a deeply American legacy present feels deeply validating,” Kathleen mentioned.

She acknowledged that Sesame Road has addressed racism by human characters because it began, however mentioned now the present is tackling range and inclusion otherwise than the present – or its viewers – was prepared for to start with. Ji-Younger was not only for one particular. She is now part of the present, typically sharing her Korean tradition and typically only a child enjoying with others, instructing the lesson of inclusion simply by her existence.

Kathleen continues to be getting used to the expertise of being a celebrated puppeteer on Sesame Road, selling the present and Ji-Younger by discuss exhibits, podcasts, articles, and even the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade.

Regardless of all this, for somebody who isn’t snug with consideration, puppetry is an effective match. As proud as she is of Ji-Younger she will additionally typically simply be the legs of a dancing cow.

“It’s so liberating,” she mentioned of puppetry. “You might be something.”

Picture credit score: Kathleen Kim

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by Drake Lucas



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