Friday, September 16, 2016

The nativity show from the creators of the Muppets
Most people know Jim Henson as the man who brought the world the beloved comedic puppet characters known as the Muppets: Kermit the Frog, his on-again, off-again diva girlfriend Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, and Big Bird, to name just a few.
But most people aren’t familiar with Jim’s wife Jane, the co-creator of the Muppets – and a Catholic.

For years, Jane worked side by side with Jim, creating and performing their various shows since their teenage years. As the Muppet project grew into T.V. shows and movies - The Muppet Show, The Muppet Movie, Sesame Street – the characters became household names across America.

“People don’t know Jane Henson,” said Sean Keohane, a puppeteer who worked with Jane on her later puppet nativity show.

“Everybody knows Jim Henson, but they don’t know that he was married and there were two people back there in the beginning – it was those two for 20, 25 years.”

When the Henson family started growing in the 1970s, Jane retired from puppet - er - Muppeteering to raise the Henson’s five children.

After her children had grown and her husband died, Jane still had an unfulfilled dream – she wanted to create a puppet show that conveyed the Gospel message: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.” 

“Since she was a little kid, she had loved nativity scenes, the little creche figures under the Christmas tree,” said Sean Keohane, who worked with Jane as a writer, director and puppeteer for her nativity show.

“She said ok, this is the show that I want to create, this is on my bucket list, I want to do the nativity story with puppets, so she combined those things she loved,” he told CNA.

Keohane himself had loved the Muppets as a child and grew up to become a puppeteer with Disney. After he left, he started created his own puppet shows for adults, when Jane Henson and her daughter Heather attended one of his shows, about 15 years ago.

It was then that Jane started recruiting Keohane to create the nativity show with her – he was the only other puppeteering Catholic she knew who was writing puppet shows. He would write, and she would work with the Henson puppet shop to create the characters.

“Jane had said to me I don’t want the script to sound like … a New York guy from the Bronx wrote it, I want it to sound like the Bible,” he said.

She also didn’t want the characters to look like traditional Muppets, but rather like the nativity figures brought to life.

They based the play on the styles of liturgical drama performed in the Middle Ages in Europe during the Easter season, which were sometimes performed as puppet shows – though they were eventually kicked out of the Churches themselves and onto the steps or the town squares to be performed.

“That’s the tradition we’re going back to,” Keohane said. “One hundred years ago, you would go to little Italy in New York City and you’d go to a marionette theater and it was the Feast of the Assumption, and the Virgin Mary would be a marionette that would be taken up on a cloud into heaven by the puppet strings.”

(The word ‘marionette’ actually comes from this tradition, and translates as ‘little little Mary’.)

At first, Jane didn’t have grand visions for the scope of her play. She lived next to a convent in Connecticut, and she just wanted to perform the show with Keohane for the sisters, and maybe a few families.

But the show grew, and in 2009, the show had its first major debut at St. James Cathedral in Orlando, Florida, where Keohane lived. From there, they toured around churches and schools in the area – some Catholic, and some not.

A few years later, on April 2, 2013, Jane died from cancer. Shortly thereafter, her nativity show was picked up by CBS for a Christmas Eve special.

After adding more puppets and adjusting the set for television, the show made its T.V. premier live from St. Paul the Apostle Catholic Church in New York, with Regis Philbin narrating the show in between concert music. 

When the show ended, the Henson Foundation approved the show for additional tours. Last Christmas, Keohane brought the show to the Cathedral of St. Andrew in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and he’s hoping to create a more extended tour for Christmases in years to come.

“I think this is an amazing opportunity – you have a Henson, someone from this very talented family who’s Catholic, who created this show about: ‘God so loved the world that he gave it his only Son,’” Keohane said.

“She said ok, I’m lucky in my life, I have these talents, my family’s had success, how do we give back and how do we use that? How do we give back to God and how do we share that story with people in a world that’s kind of messy? This is a good message to remind the world of,” he added.

Besides the beauty of the message of the Gospel in the play, the show is also worth seeing because of the artistry of Jane Henson, Keohane said.

“She was this artist who created this thing, and hardly anybody knows about it,” he said. “Everybody knows the Muppets, but hardly anybody knows that this was an important thing to her, so I’d like to get it out there for people to see.”

It’s also a show that appeals to people of all faiths, or no faith, because of its artisty, Keohane said. After almost every performance, he would have agnostic or atheist people approach him and ask how they could help with the show.

“I would have a lot of people who would tell me they were ex-Catholics or they were agnostic or atheist, and the next thing they would say is: ‘And you know what? You should have Mary sing the Magnificat. And here’s a beautiful version of it.’ And it happened every time.”

As a passion project that Jane never expected to be performed in churches, much less in cathedrals and on T.V., the success of the show has been humbling and inspiring for Keohane.

“But it’s ended up in cathedrals, and that’s because people see it and they say wow, this is a beautiful piece,” Keohane said.

“It was a for Jane and the rest of us to use our talents to tell this story, and it was a great honor for her to ask me to do it. And in my career it’s one of the things I’m most proud of having worked on.”

To learn more about the nativity show and performances, visit the Jane Henson's Nativity Story Live Stage Tour Facebook page.

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