Inspired by the legendary Jim Henson as a child, David Matthew Feldman has devoted his entire career to the art of puppetry. From his formative years at The Puppet Company in New York, to his earliest television work on PBS’s Between the Lions, David has given life to dozens of characters to the delight of audiences both young and old. His stint as the excitable Mayor Milford Meanswell in the hit series LazyTown has propelled him to international stardom. And most recently, David has co-created a new PBS series, Oh Noah!
What drew you into a career in puppetry? Were you a fan of puppet shows as a kid?
I was a kid in the 70s, early 80s, which was the perfect time to be a Muppet fan. But I don’t like to use the word “fan” there, because I think it cheapens it. It was a very personal thing for me. Still is. You know when people ask you who influenced your life the most? For me it’s always been an easy answer. Without Jim Henson, I would not have become puppeteer. I just finished that biography by Brian Jay Jones, and he spends a couple of pages talking about Jim’s ancestors, and I’m thinking, wow, if that great-great-grandfather didn’t marry that great-great-grandmother, I wouldn’t be sitting here in Iceland doing puppets for a TV show.
But as Muppet-centric as my life was, I didn’t really think I would grow up to become a puppeteer. I enjoyed making and performing puppets at home, for my little sister, but I wasn’t one of those “performer” kids, doing school plays and joining the chorus and stuff like that. I was more comfortable at a desk, or just in my room, and I wanted to be a writer. It wasn’t until a course in college—where we had to do a puppet performance as part of a Shakespeare class—that I realized I had something to offer—that this thing that I did had value beyond just entertaining myself and my little sister. I really got a kick out of the class’s reaction, and I decided from then on that I would become a writer and a puppeteer.
People often lose themselves in their imaginations when watching a puppeteer perform his or her art. Would that be the best compliment you could receive?
It’s pretty good. What else ya got?
What you might be getting at—and what would be the best compliment—is if you forget it’s a puppet altogether. That’s our job. The Mayor of LazyTown, for example, is this big, cumbersome thing with so many challenges and limitations that it’ll make your head spin, but I don’t want you to be aware of any of that. All I want you to see is a guy, with two legs and two feet (even though they’re not usually there), who lives in this place called LazyTown.
Do you consider what you do a theatrical skill, or a mechanical skill with an artistic element?
Anything mechanical (like pulling a lever) is in service of the art. So, no, I don’t think of it as mechanical. It’s as mechanical as writing is, because you have to use a keyboard.
You’ve recently had great success with your own show on PBS, “Oh Noah!” How does writing differ from your stage work?
Basically, writing and puppeteering are very similar. They flex the same muscles (except, of course, for the physical muscles involved in performing). In both, you’re trying to gracefully communicate ideas—it all comes from the same part of the brain, I think—that part of your brain that’s still in the bedroom you grew up in, playing with puppets and Star Wars figures and coming up with stories. There are differences, of course. A big one for me is that performance is done in real time. While writing one minute of screen time can take who-knows-how-long, performing one minute of screen time takes…one minute (minus, of course, any rehearsal or preparation). This is good and bad. The do-it-now nature of performance is good as an exercise in letting go of the cerebral and trusting your instincts (a lesson for writing, too)—and especially good when you’re happy with the results. But puppeteering is about more than just “being”; it’s a craft (it’s about controlling the puppet the same way writing is about controlling words and ideas), and the writer in me often wants just one more take to go back and edit and fine-tune the performance the way I’d like. Fortunately, at LazyTown, they usually give it to me. Another big difference is the kind of collaboration—the back-and-forth of it all, which is the joy of it for me. For the past several years, I’ve been lucky enough to write with Louise Gikow. Writing with Louise (just the two of us, shaping ideas, hammering them out onto a computer screen) is a singular experience. That kind of back-and-forth is very different from the experience of collaborating with a set full of puppeteers and crew people, each pulling you in a different direction. I love doing both.
There are considerable requirements to begin and sustain a career in the arts. What was the most daunting when you first started out, and what do you find are the key challenges now that you have found success?
The hardest part was the how. How do you become a puppeteer on a television show? How do you write and sell your own scripts? How do you get there? Everybody has their own advice—their own anecdotes—but everybody’s stories are different because everybody does it differently. That’s the beauty of it, and the challenge of it, too. There’s no path; nobody left a trail of breadcrumbs for you.
Nobody ever asked a doctor, “So, how did you get to be a doctor?” Yes, it’s a tremendously difficult thing—you have to climb one hell of a staircase—but the stairs are there to climb. When you’re in the arts, you have to build your own staircase. And that never ends. Unless you have enough power to greenlight things, you’re always trying to figure out new paths—new ways to get there. I’m sure that the path that brings me to my next project (whatever that will be) will look very different from the ones that brought me to LazyTown or Noah. In the end, it will give me new anecdotes to tell.
As someone who has found a creative outlet, do you find that being inventive for a living makes you less likely to create on your “off” hours, or is that muscle always working?
Writing is about ideas, so I don’t think there ever are any “off” hours. (Isn’t this true for anyone who is really passionate about what they do?) New ideas come up unexpectedly, and old ideas have a way of just being there—like a ball of clay you keep rolling around until you get something you like. Often, I’ll think of something, quickly type it out, and send it off to Louise, as if to say, “Here, it’s your problem now.” (Then she finds a way to make it better.) But generally, when I’m not working, my creativity is directed at (and inspired by) my kids. Playing with them, making things with them, even just talking to them—these are the best ways to be creative.
October 23, 2013 by Mark Valenti