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Fran Brill was living the dream. She was fresh out of Boston University when the Theatre Atlanta play she was in was transferred to Broadway. Everyone had said how hard it would be to make it as an actress, and she thought, wow, this is a piece of cake! Then there was a blizzard on opening night, the show flopped, and she was out of work.
Brill (CFA’68) trekked to open casting calls with hundreds of other actresses and took all the voice-over work she could get, including the tagline for Pan Am. At the end of those long days, she would return to her room at the notoriously seedy Hotel Dixie on 42nd Street and watch Sesame Street, then in its first season, because the Muppets made her laugh. On those dreary afternoons, she never imagined she’d find herself in an audition with Muppets creator Jim Henson, Frank Oz (Miss Piggy), and “a trunkful of puppets.”
Henson was casting puppeteers for an upcoming Christmas special and Brill auditioned, although she had never held a puppet in her life. “I stuck my hand in the trunk and pulled out a puppet,” she recalls. “Jim asked me to try different things, and we all enjoyed each other and laughed and improvised.”
Henson invited Brill to participate in a two-week workshop on the fundamentals of puppeteering, a craft he had revolutionized by constructing puppets out of foam rubber for a wider range of expressions and with techniques like aligning their mouth movements with the dialogue. With her professional training and idiosyncratic voice, Brill was a natural puppeteer. Her outstanding work during the workshop and the subsequent Christmas special led to an invitation from Henson to join Sesame Street. “That’s how I ended up becoming the first female performer on the show,” she says. “Crazy things happen when you least expect it, and your whole life is led into a different area than you had planned.”
At first, Brill performed basic “anything puppets” that puppeteers could transform into a range of characters by switching out the features, costumes, and wigs. “The puppets are all lying on a table, and you pick one and come up with a character on the spot,” she says. A particularly charismatic anything puppet might become a principal character—like Brill’s Prairie Dawn, a seven-year-old hot-pink Muppet who aspires to be a journalist. Prairie Dawn was the first female Muppet performed by a female actress.
Brill developed her most famous character—Zoe, a three-year-old orange “monster”—to be Elmo’s best friend in season 25. The producers wanted a spunky female to round out the predominantly male cast and charged Brill with creating a character who would connect with the show’s female audience.
“Zoe had a very wide, almost Carol Channing mouth, and that drove how I spoke with her,” Brill says. “Then I heard a friend’s little son say, ‘Don’t joke me,’ which I thought was real cute, so that became Zoe’s handle. You just have to relax and let the character happen.”
Brill also performs part-time as five-year-old HIV-positive Muppet Kami, who was created for Takalani Sesame, the show’s South African coproduction. Developed in response to the AIDS epidemic affecting nearly one in nine South Africans, Kami is performed by a South African puppeteer on Takalani Sesame, while Brill performs her for US appearances. She has performed Kami at UNICEF events, the Peabody Awards, the United Nations for World AIDS Day, and in numerous public service messages with figures such as former President Bill Clinton, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, and Oprah Winfrey. “I just love performing Kami,” she says, “because it’s for such an extraordinarily wonderful cause.”
The same could be said for all of Brill’s work on the beloved show, which has been educating, inspiring, and entertaining children throughout the world for more than 40 years. When Brill tells new acquaintances what she does for a living, “they just light up like a Christmas tree! I get nothing but warmth from people when I tell them what I do. I believe in the worth of this show and its effect on children. It’s a lot of fun to be a part of it, and even after all these years, I keep learning.”
A version of this article was originally published in the spring 2013 edition of Esprit.