Fran Brill started down the Great White Way and ended up on Sesame Street.
By Lara Ehrlich
Fran Brill (‘68) was living the dream. She was fresh out of Boston University when her play with Theatre Atlanta was transferred to Broadway. Everyone had said it would be hard 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 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 airline. At the end of each long day, 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 Jim Henson, Frank Oz, and “a trunkful of puppets.”
Henson was casting puppeteers for an upcoming Christmas special, and Brill auditioned, though “I’d never held a puppet in my life. I stuck my hand in the trunk and pulled out a puppet. 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 the puppets out of foam rubber for a wider range of expressions, and techniques like aligning their mouth movements with the dialogue. With her professional training and her idiosyncratic voice, Brill was a natural puppeteer. Her work was so inspired during the workshop and the subsequent Christmas special that Henson invited her 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.” A particularly charismatic “anything puppet” might become a principal character—like Brill’s character 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,” as a best friend for Elmo in season 25. The producers wanted a spunky female to round out the predominantly male cast, and charged Brill with creating a character that 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 Kami, a five-year-old, HIV-positive Muppet who was created for Takalani Sesame, the show’s South African co-production. Developed in response to the AIDS epidemic that affects nearly one in nine South Africans, Kami is performed by a South African puppeteer on Takalani Sesame, while Brill performs the character for U.S. 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 because it’s for such an extraordinarily wonderful cause,” she says.
The same could be said for all of Brill’s work on the beloved show that has been educating, inspiring, and entertaining children throughout the world for more than forty years. When Brill tells a new acquaintance 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.”