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Northwestern alumna and Sesame Street Master Puppeteer Breathes Life into Art

Tony-nominated actress and puppeteer Stephanie D’Abruzzo (C93) led a theater class on the Northwestern campus February 23, teaching students the delicate art of bringing a puppet to life.

“Any time you work with puppets, you’re invited to bring your adult intelligence and your child’s soul,” said Theatre associate professor Rives Collins as he introduced D’Abruzzo, who was nominated for a Tony for her work as Kate Monster and Lucy the Slut on the award-winning musical, Avenue Q. Additionally, she has worked as various characters on Sesame Street for 24 years.

“One of the reasons I love doing this is that I get to play such a wide variety of characters who are different than me, in age, height, gender and even species,” she told the class, and then played clips of her working on Sesame Street as such varied characters as Curly the Bear, a lemon, a bongo drum, and the Number Two. D’Abruzzo said as an RTVF major at Northwestern she found herself drawn in a multitude of directions. She wanted to sing, write, and produce. She discovered that puppetry was a way to do all of these at once.

D’Abruzzo made her first puppet film as a junior Radio/Television/Film major at Northwestern and subsequently won a student Emmy. 

She also said that puppets have certain advantages over animated characters: they can interact with the audience in real time or with other humans on stage or screen.  

D’Abruzzo said: “When I was a little kid, I wanted to go to Sesame Street, because I knew it was a real place. I loved Bugs Bunny, but on some level I knew I could never meet him. But Sesame Street is a real place. You can actually hug Big Bird, and I did, and it was the coolest. I have a picture of me hugging Big Bird, and even though I’d worked with that puppet for years, you can see on my face how happy I am.”

Mihta Garan, a junior Theater and English double-major, said in watching the clips of the puppets in D’Abruzzo’s work she was struck by the universality of themes and stories.

“With all these different characters, you stop thinking about race or gender or even species,” she said.

D’Abruzzo talked about how moving past race and gender had been a goal of using Muppets on Sesame Street. “This was one of the reasons Sesame Street was created in 1969. Think about what was happening then,” she said.

She also discussed her role on Avenue Q, which she said was originally designed to be a TV show but became a Tony Award-winning musical. In it, puppeteers went from behind the scenes to the front of the stage, visible to the audience.  

Both when puppeteers are visible and not, she said it’s important to make puppets as lifelike as possible.

“The suspension of disbelief is the cornerstone of puppetry,” she said. “You have to be as fully invested in the role as you can, because it can go so wrong so easily. We all know Elmo isn’t real, but when it’s brought to life by a skilled and talented puppeteer then he can be as real as any human being.”

During the class, she passed out “peepers” – plastic eyes worn between fingers that turn a closed hand into a puppet — and spent time with students teaching them how to lip sync, make the puppet emote, and move like it has two legs. Students stood before a mirror at the back of the class, using their hand puppets to lip-sync the alphabet, counting, and short songs.

Students found the class riveting and educational.

“I really admire how much she paved her own path,” said Allie Hagen, a Theatre senior. “It’s also really inspiring to see someone with so much joy in what they do.”

D’Abruzzo’s visit was funded by Northwestern’s Office of Residential Services through the Office of Residential Academic Initiatives.  While on campus she also conducted two firesides at the Communications Residential College, where she lived during her four years as an undergraduate.

-Cara Lockwood