Sesame Street Puppeteer Chris Thomas Hayes Creates Magic and Captures Imagination, Episode 107

Are you a fan of Sesame Street? I had the opportunity to ask Chris Thomas Hayes, a puppeteer and actor, about what it takes to capture our imagination, along with the imagination of our kids. This episode reveals a lot about what happens behind the scenes of Sesame Street. 

Chris walks us through how he gets into character in the field of puppetry and how he approached playing a legacy character that may have even existed when he was a child and watched the show on TV. Listening to Chris, I’m just in awe of the technical sophistication behind what it takes to play our favorite Sesame Street characters including Big Bird, Hoots the Owl, or Ernie.

Chris also talks about the way he conveys emotions through a puppet that is made of felt and stitching. In Chris’ words, the characters on Sesame Street were not built out of anger, but they came from love. They were built with the spirit of a child in mind that the more we watch them, the more we forget these are not real entities. So how then is he able to convey anger out of his puppets? 

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If you know a parent who’s always wanted to know what goes on, on Sesame Street, then share this episode with him or her. They’re going to love hearing all of this behind-the-scenes, never heard before information about our beloved Sesame Street. 

Chris Thomas Hayes’ Biography

Chris Thomas Hayes is an actor, writer, director, and puppeteer, originally from Hartford, Connecticut. On stage, Chris has had the pleasure to tour and perform with The Madcap Puppets, Dark Side of The Room, Dad’s Garage, Whole World Theater, The Center for Puppetry Arts, and Jazz at Lincoln Center with Wynton Marsalis.​ 

Some of Chris’ film and television credits include Teen Wolf, Doom Patrol, Woke, Vampire Diaries, and Sesame Street, where Chris serves as Muppet Performer for Hoots the Owl and Elijah.

Highlights

Creativity:  This art form helps maintain imagination. Everything we learn in school – improvisation, puppetry, acting, and all those things – means learning how to play again. We have that innately in us when we’re young. Then slowly, it’s dragged out of us and we just become who we are. 

Curiosity: Follow what makes you or your child curious and be part of the fostering of their imagination

Courage: Chris Thomas’ mentor taught him that while you want to preserve a legacy character, you should not be afraid to break the glass and bring something new. In what areas of your life should you be “breaking the glass”? What limiting beliefs do you need to let go of?

Bravery: Children are brave enough to ask questions and as adults, we lose a bit of that bravery. 

Surreal: There’s nothing like puppets. There’s really good CGI. But there’s something about being able to see those creatures and those creations up close where it feels surreal. 

Improv: There’s so much improvisation that goes with Sesame Street. There are a lot of moments when puppeteers can take lines, jump in, and pitch jokes, and those are the funniest moments. 

Awareness: There is no hole inside Big Bird so he has to look down at his chest when he’s walking forward. He’s doing it blindfolded so there has to be a lot of spatial awareness.

Age: The age that you do your character says a lot about what you have to say and how what you say should be received, at least from the acting standpoint with puppets. Many puppeteers write themselves a character biography so they have something to grab on to and guide them. It helps them figure out tactics or objectives in a scene.

Diverse: No one thinks about puppetry. But there are a lot of options to be a working actor. We get wrapped up in what we see in Hollywood, but there are tons of different positions for actors.

Play pretend: Being able to play pretend for a living and get into these worlds and characters is the best feeling.

Magic: Puppetry is taking that inanimate object and bringing it to life so that you would think that it’s moving by itself and has a life of its own.

Education: Sesame Street has an outreach branch that produces content related to racial literacy. They talk about race, ethnicity, and how our differences make us stronger. The curriculum is big on knowing how to teach it and what areas to focus on. 

Relevance: The episodes have now changed a bit that “parental helicoptering” is no longer necessary. They talk about homelessness, PTSD, etc, which are all tame and watchable. 

Emotions: In conveying emotions and voicing emotion, you have to think about what your body does, what you sound like, what you look like when you’re confident or angry. Anger is difficult to convey because the puppets are not really built out of anger. 

Links to continue to learn from:

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Melissa Llarena

Melissa helps movers and shakers up to those in the corner office rediscover what makes them unique so that they can land their dream job in a forward-thinking company where their ideas are listened to, valued, and supported.

She brings insights from having worked in 16-business units (including Human Resources) in NY, Paris, and London. Additionally, in her former corporate career, she worked on billion-dollar brands for P&G and on IBM for Ogilvy & Mather. Later, as the founder and CEO of Career Outcomes Matter, Melissa created a 3-step “sellable strengths” process which has been the centerpiece of her clients' results.

Melissa applies this method consistently to support mid-level professionals up to the c-suite to get into Fortune Global 500 organizations and agencies. She studied Psychology at NYU and earned her MBA from the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth.

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