THE GEEKS SHALL INHERIT THE EARTH: IT’S TIME TO PLAY THE MUSIC – AN INTERVIEW WITH KAREN PRELL

Prell and fellow “Muppet Show” performer Kathy Mullen were brought in to audition for two female “Fraggle” characters, Mokey, the quiet artist, and Red, the tomboy. The two ladies took turns playing off each other with both puppets. A few days after the audition, Prell received a call from Henson himself, to tell her that she got the part of Red. “I finished talking to him, got off the phone and I was so upset! Because I had wanted to be Mokey. I was heartbroken. I called my parents and wailed, ‘They gave me Red, and I don’t know how to be Red!’ I’d really been thinking of myself as a quiet, artistic person, and couldn’t imagine how I could possibly perform a character like Red. I was terrified. I didn’t click with Red to begin with at all. It was very difficult. In fact, they had cast Kathy as Mokey. Kathy was really wonderful. She worked with me in New York before the show started shooting. We had the prototype puppets, we met at her place and we just did various scenes and exercises, to help establish the characters and figure out their voices, try to get contrast in between what each of us were doing. It took a bit of work to figure out what to really do with Red. Until like the first five or so Fraggle shows, I was still struggling to find out who she was. The show where we figured out who Red was, was the show where Red had to imitate Mokey. It was called, I think, ‘I Want to Be You’. So she had her hair down, and had a big Mokey sweater, just doing all the over-the-top Mokey stuff. And in trying to show how Red was not Mokey, it helped me discover who Red was. And after that, it was wonderful. It was heaven. And Jim was right, he could see the potential of me doing Red and just gave it to me. Eventually, I discovered it, and knew he could see it all along! It was just up to me to catch up to his vision!”

“Fraggle Rock” ran for several seasons on HBO, and during its run, Prell continued on with the Henson company. She was called in to work on the feature film, “Dreamchild”, which told the story of Charles Dodgson – a.k.a. Lewis Carroll, and his relationship with his “Alice in Wonderland” inspiration, Alice Liddell. In the film, Prell played The Doormouse, in a fantasy sequence involving Carroll’s Mad Tea Party characters. It was on this film that she met her future husband, Mike Quinn – a puppeteer and physical actor in his own right, who had performed in “The Dark Crystal” and “Return Of The Jedi”. Their courtship didn’t begin until the two worked side-by-side on Henson’s ambitious fantasy “Labyrinth”.

“It was this long and arduous shoot,” Prell remembers. “As shooting progressed, Mike and I were starting to get interested in each other, but we were too shy! But our puppets on camera would start to flirt with each other. There would be this huge wide-shot with a half a million goblin puppets, I might be doing something in the fore-ground, he might be doing something in the background, and sometimes they’d put all the puppeteers in place but still have to work on lights or something. All the puppeteers are ready before any filming starts. So our puppets would start to imitate each other, or make faces at each other. Or whatever you could do with a puppet while you’re stuck through a hole in the ground. So we’d go nuts, having the puppets flirt with each other, but after the shooting was over, oohhh, we were too shy, we couldn’t talk to each other. So that went on for ages, but finally started dating around the last half of ‘Labyrinth’. We were really having a good time with each other towards the end of shooting – which was nice. It was such a tough shoot it was good to have some support.”

Prell and Quinn married and remained in England for the next nine years, working on “odds and ends” for Henson projects like “The Ghost of Fafner Hall”, “The Animal Show’ with Stinky and Jake”, and “Mother Goose Stories”. In 1997, both Quinn and Prell were offered work with the computer company Pixar, and returned to the states. Quinn was responsible for the “Woody’s Roundup” section of Toy Story 2, while Prell worked on their short “For the Birds”, among many other things. Both are responsible for the Internet grass-roots movement to bring “Fraggle Rock” to DVD. “There aren’t any markets currently showing it. Hallmark went back and forth about showing it. They’re kind of off and on with it. There is nothing on tape right now, there’s no way for people to pass it on to their kids. Which was sad, because ‘Fraggle Rock’ was such a highlight of my career.”

While neither of the performers want for work in their various fields, Prell is still eager to return to work with the Henson Company again. With a new television movie in production, and ample rumors of a new upcoming TV series, there should be plenty of opportunities for her in the future. “I’ve had to kind of work at reminding the company that I’m still around. The Hensons were kind of under the impression that ‘nope, she’s done with puppets forever’ and I wasn’t considered for new puppet work. Finally when I finished with Pixar (full time) and decided to go back to freelance, I had to do a big push to reintroduce myself to the Hensons. And even put together a showreel and a resume to people who already knew me, and say, ‘Hi, I’m available, remember what I did?’ So when I heard about these projects, on (popular internet site) Muppet Central, of course (laughs), I went out of my way to contact the people in charge and say, ‘I heard about this, I’m interested. Please keep me in mind’. I continue to do that. Dave Goelz and Martin Baker have been really good at reminding people to remember me.”

The Henson Company has been delivered quite a few blows over the last decade, beginning, of course, with the death of founder Jim Henson, then quickly followed by the passing of Principal Muppet Performer Richard Hunt. Since then, the company has been sold, then sold back, but the core troupe continues to work as hard as ever, as each new project comes along. And Prell finds that quite heartening. Whatever happens in the future, she’s sure the Muppets will endure. “Some of the people who were there when Jim put the Muppets together are still around, and they still carry part of the Muppets in their hearts,” she said. “The ingredients are still there, they’re just waiting for the right set of circumstances to bring them all together and make the magic again.”

All photos courtesy of Karen Prell. Do not reproduce.

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Mike Watt attempts to explore all the things that make Geek culture great, as well as pointing out all the things that make Geeks genetically superior to all other humans. During the course of this exploration, he may undoubtedly have to reveal horrid truths about Hollywood and Mainstream Cinema, as they compare to the riches of independent filmmaking. Ultimately, he hopes to bring higher awareness of and respect to Geek Culture, as well as secure a hefty book deal and the accolades of his (richer) peers. Feel free to lavish him with affection (or bitch at him) at hollywoodisburning@hotmail.com.




Posted on March 10, 2004 in Features by
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