Nicholas Lemon on Puppet Slams and Muppet Workshops

nicholas lemon

I first encountered Nicholas Lemon’s work in a little musical for kids called Maravilla: The Heroic Monomyth at the Second City in Toronto. As a huge Muppet aficionado, I was immediately captivated, charmed and impressed by the puppets and the puppetry in the show. They reminded me so much of Jim Henson’s Muppets. Lemon has been really great at keeping me up to date with his ventures since then and we did a little interview via email yesterday to promote The Toronto Puppet Explosion that happens TONIGHT June 6th at 7:30 at the Comedy Bar (945 Bloor Street West, Toronto) $5.00. Here is how that interview went:

Amanda Campbell (AC): I ask this of almost everyone I interview: Who are you? Where are you from? And how did you get so talented?

Nicholas Lemon (NC): My name is Nicholas Lemon and I live in Toronto. How did I get so talented? I’m not really sure. Lucky, I guess.

AC:  So, you started a production company when you were 14 years old. That’s insanely impressive. How did that come about?

NL: (laughs) Well, thank you very much. People continue to say that but, it’s never really occurred to me that doing something like this could be impressive. It really came about by accident. A friend of the family, who was a curator at the city art gallery, knew that I like performing and also used puppets. She asked if I, along with a friend, would be interested in putting a show together and perform at the gallery.

AC: What first got you interested in puppetry and what kind of experience were you able to hone as a child that gave you the skills and confidence to start this touring production company before you were even finished High School!? *impressed*

NL: Oh, thank you. I don’t ever remember becoming “interested” in puppetry. It was something that always around. What gave me the skills to tour was really the demand from the public. Within two years, we were performing something like 250 shows a year all over Ontario. It just became insane so quickly that I really had no option but to get better. And the better I became, the more we toured. The touring lasted from the ages of fourteen to twenty five.

AC: Can you talk about the work with puppets that you’ve done in Toronto recently? Maybe a bit about Maravilla and your connection to Second City?

NL: Actually, my work in Toronto has been, up to this point, quite minimal when you compare it to the rest of my career. I think the first thing I did was Maravilla: The Heroic Monomyth. I was approached about being a partner in, and helping to create, the production. The genesis of the show was in wanting to create something that goes back to the roots of puppetry as well as the material we all loved and grew up on, Jim Henson. It was a lovely show and had a great reaction from the public (I was told that Mirvish had taken an interest in the future of production). Unfortunately, due to business differences between the partners, Maravilla had only the one run. But, I’m glad I did it. The audiences loved it!

Out of that opportunity, I was approached by Second City to help create a puppet improv division to The Training Centre.  They saw the reaction that my work was receiving in Maravilla and wanted to start something like what the Henson Company was doing in the U.S. I made sure that they knew that I was friends with some of the people that work with The Muppets as well as at Sesame Workshop and that I would only come on board if the focus was on combining the technique needed, puppet wise, with the improv/ad libbing that Second City is known for. Once they made it clear that’s what they wanted as well and understood what was needed to achieve that, I agreed. After about a year, though, I had to leave as they went in a direction different from what I came on board for.

AC: What is a Puppet Slam and what can people expect if they go to Comedy Bar on Wednesday for the Toronto Puppet Explosion?

NL: Basically, a Puppet Slam (which are massive in the U.S.) is an evening where people can come and see a variety of puppetry in one evening. It’s usually geared to adults and truly anything goes. The scenes can be anything from the fun and silly to political or sexual in nature. At The Toronto Puppet Explosion on June 6th I, along with some of my students from The Actors Academy for the Puppetry Arts  (TAAPA) will be performing both The Weird Al Medley as well as a small demonstration of TAAPA’s Ad Libbing program.

AC: Can you tell any fun stories about studying with the puppet geniuses at the Sesame Street Workshop and the Jim Henson Company workshop???

NL: Well, it’s a really interesting experience. First off, you know you have to at least be great at what you do, because everyone else is. They also want you to succeed and be the very best you can. I remember at one of the sessions, a person was just not trying. It wasn’t that they were having trouble and trying to be better. This person was really not trying, thinking they were better than what they were because they were one of only a few Canadians there. At the next break, the people at Sesame Workshop decided to make cuts…this person was gone after that. I think this was day two out of a five day session. At the end of the five days, I was lucky to be offered the chance to stick around for the Bert and Ernie auditions. I was asked to assist Ernie. What a blast! So, you have to be great, do your job and have fun.

AC: What? Assist Ernie!! Amazing!! I know that you do celebrity impersonation puppets, how did you first get the idea to do that?

NL: Actually, the puppet likenesses came about because we thought that getting the artists permission would be a really interesting addition to show, something not too many people do. Weird Al was actually the very first celebrity we approached. When we received his consent, we thought about approaching others. Not everyone has said yes but, many have.

AC: Can you talk a bit more about TAAPA?

NL: The Actors Academy for the Puppetry Arts ( TAAPA) is something I created and is North America’s first and only school whose mandate is to combine the art of puppetry with the art of acting. Most people don’t realize how much acting and puppetry have in common. I saw that there just wasn’t a place where the public can really learn the skills you need to make this a successful and viable career. I’m really luck to have The Henson Foundation in New York, along with Sears and Switzer Acting studio in Toronto helping to support and spread the word about what we’re doing.

AC: Very cool. What else is coming up for you in the near future that you can tell us about?

NL: What’s coming up? Well, on June 10th, I’m headlining at The Rivoli. We’ll be performing The Weird Al Medley as well as TAAPA’s Ad Libbing program again. So, if you miss Wednesday’s performance, you’ll be able to see it again! The tickets at $20 and it’s for Toronto Environmental Alliances’ Fundraiser Comedy Night.

AC: I feel like some people might underestimate the power of puppets in performance and comedy and think that they are only used for kids’ shows, can you dispute that myth a little? Conversely, I was just at a Theatre For Young People Panel here in Halifax where one of the panelists said, “Puppets have been emancipated from children’s theatre. Puppets are sexy now, when did that happen!?”

NL: Really? Puppets are sexy?! That’s wonderful! As far as the myth of puppetry being for kids, I really don’t have to. The material that’s out there in today’s world really does dispel that fallacy all on it’s own. What I’ve found is that if someone still thinks that puppetry is for kids then they are wanting to see it that way.

The person who made sure that puppets have the reach they do nowadays is Jim Henson. He broke so many of the “it has to be this way”. I think that’s why everyone feels like they can do puppetry.

AC: Just because I am curious, I want to know a. What was the first Jim Henson’s Muppet experience you remember? b. What is your favourite Muppet movie? and c. Do you have a favourite muppet and why or why not.

NL: What a great question to end on! A. The story goes that a few months before I was born, my Mum went to see The Muppet Movie in the theatre. Once the beginning shot of Kermit in the swamp as well as the music from “The Rainbow Connection” started, apparently I wouldn’t sit still. I continued to move until the end of the move and she left the theatre. B. My favourite movie, hmm. That’s a hard one. I really can’t say I have a favourite as they all really have something that grabs me. C. When I was a kid, I could really relate to Gonzo, for some reason. (laughs) I don’t know what that says about me now!

AC: I love that. A little, endearing Weirdo. *laughs* That’s the best. When I was a kid my BY FAR favourite was Robin Frog. But I have soft spots for Rowlf, Fozzie, Wembley and Red Fraggle, Grover… and Kermit, obviously.

The Toronto Puppet Explosion happens TONIGHT June 6th at 7:30 at the Comedy Bar (945 Bloor Street West, Toronto) $5.00. Show up or Fall Asleep Wishing You Had.

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