It’s Not Easy Being Turquoise: Jim Henson, The Muppets, and the Art of Integral Puppetry

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BIO-Whitmire“Jim walked into the room and said, ‘I want to do a show that will change the world and end war’ — and the writers said, ‘Well that’s great Jim, how could we possibly do that?’ We didn’t know, but Fraggle Rock was the first ever international coproduction of any television show….”Steve Whitmire

The performer behind Kermit the Frog recounts coming to an Integral view.

KenWilber-SteveWhitmire-1Steve Whitmire spent 14 intense and creative years with the extraordinary Jim Henson before his passing. As of 2008, Steve has been the animating force behind, most notably, Kermit the Frog, for nearly two decades. This was not something Steve planned for in any way. Jim passed away at the age of 53 from an infection that no one could have seen coming—although it later became revealed that Jim had been considering Steve for the puppeteer of Kermit, so that Jim could explore other creative endeavors.

However, their connection had started decades earlier. When Steve was a scant 10-years-old, he wrote Jim a letter to express his appreciation for his work, and to ask if he had written anything on the construction of puppets. In fact, Jim had not written anything on the construction of puppets at that time, but responded personally to Steve’s letter, and directed him toward some simple Muppet patterns that had been published a few years ago in a magazine.

Thus started the career of a life-long Jim Henson puppeteer, aided by Steve’s mother’s sewing machine. As Ken comments, puppeteering can be, and has been, looked at by the world’s great Mystical Traditions as a metaphor for ultimate Spirit being the transcendental Puppeteer of all worldly phenomena. And there is much truth in that observation. Spirit, if nothing else, inhabits a massive number of multiple perspectives, and in order to perform puppeteering successfully, one literally inhabits, and becomes one with, the puppet’s personality. It is a minor re-enaction of what Spirit does moment-to-moment spontaneously, throughout the entire Kosmos.

As with Jim Henson, Steve Whitmire is a very humble soul. If nothing else, Steve is honored to carry on a tradition started by a modern-day master, by whatever name. Jim’s productions have been among the most successful television series in history: Sesame StreetThe Muppet Show, and Fraggle Rock were all international sensations. Sesame Street alone has aired more than 4,100 episodes over a 38-season run, winning 109 Emmy Awards in the process—and it’s still going. To say that Steve is a modern-day backbone of the Muppet tradition is in no way an exaggeration. You may not see his face, but you can see Steve animating Kermit the Frog in a musical duo with Kylie Minogue on YouTube, along with many other notable appearances.

Kermit the Frog was, and is, a public, (inter)national expression of the pluralistic, green worldview—but always with a subtle reminder of how multicultural expressions can be reconciled and brought together with an Integral View. It may not be easy being green, but it’s ever harder being teal (where an Integral understanding begins and expands). With the spirit of growth that Jim Henson embodied and intuited, and that Steve Whitmire carries on in an evolutionary context with a clearly Integral perspective, we invite you to celebrate this artistic and creative dimension of puppetry, and the “taking the perspective of other” that it implies, in this one-of-a kind-dialogue….

In the second part of this fascinating discussion, Steve discusses what it is like to play so many different characters simultaneously, including Wembley Fraggle, Rizzo the Rat, Ernie, and Kermit the Frog. Almost every character, Steve explains, is in some way related to some aspect of his own consciousness and creativity, the natural expressions of some of the quirkier subpersonalities jittering about in his psyche. So, Ken asks, when playing so many multiple roles at once, where exactly is Steve Whitmire to be found?

Steve responds with a brief description of some general contours of the states associated with his puppetry, including his recognition of the remarkable stillness of awareness that permeates the chaos of performance, the effortless clarity that accompanies the intensity and precision of his art. And, he notes, these are the sorts of things that he has only become aware of in the past decade or so, identifying Ken’s work as the primary framework through which he has been able to truly analyze his own life and career, seeing the “patterns that connect” all the various aspects of his being.

As such, Steve has begun to notice a very powerful impulse to further bring the Integral vision into his craft, leading to perhaps the most interesting—and exciting!—portion of this interview: Integral Puppetry! Imagine giving the AQAL vision the “Sesame Street” treatment, perhaps with different characters representing different altitudes of consciousness, all interacting and trying to figure out how to get along. Or maybe a puppet for each voice in the Big Mind process, a colorful cacophony of Skeptics, Controllers, Wounded Children, and Protectors all struggling to create a single cohesive identity…. The possibilities are endless, and endlessly entertaining to think about! The potential to appeal to people who are already thinking integrally—but have yet to recognize this faculty in themselves—is especially intriguing, as is the ability to teach the integral map in such a way that people don’t even know it is being taught to them. Which, Steve mentions, “is the secret of Sesame Street anyway….”

Steve is one of the few who have had an actual hand in what has become an intrinsic part of the “national character” of America (pun intended). His limitless creativity, levity, and altruism are both inspirational and infectious; so much so that it is hard to listen to this interview without feeling the very same warmth in your heart that has come to define the entire Jim Henson legacy. We are all extremely happy to present this interview to you all, and eagerly anticipate any endeavors we may share with Steve in the future!

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Steve Whitmire

About Steve Whitmire

Steve Whitmire auditioned for Jim Henson and began his Muppet career in London working on The Muppet Show. He has performed Ernie and Kermit the Frog since Jim Henson's death in 1990, and his other notable characters include Rizzo the Rat, Bean Bunny, Beaker, Statler, Jake the Polar Bear, Andy Pig, Mr. Poodlepants, Wembley Fraggle, and Sprocket the Dog.

Ken Wilber

About Ken Wilber

Ken Wilber is a preeminent scholar of the Integral stage of human development. He is an internationally acknowledged leader, founder of Integral Institute, and co-founder of Integral Life. Ken is the originator of arguably the first truly comprehensive or integrative world philosophy, aptly named “Integral Theory”.