Nic Marshall is the force behind The Jim Henson Retrospectacle, a weeks-long event that commences in Wellington this weekend. Featuring characters from The Muppets, Sesame Street and Fraggle Rock, the Retrospectacle includes film screenings, workshops and four huge live shows featuring Bret McKenzie, the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, and Henson characters performing together.
It’s a unique event on the world stage, with its status further bolstered by the participation of real-deal Muppet characters, performed by the vastly experienced Henson puppeteers, many of whom first developed them decades ago.
We caught up with Nic on the phone just before the event gets underway to find out more about what it’s like to put on such a massive and complex undertaking.
How long has it been since you first got the idea to do something with Henson characters in New Zealand?
Well, because my standard response is nine years. But actually, I realized I’ve been saying nine years for a couple of years [laughter].
It’s a slightly hazy first memory but it’s actually a bit longer than that. I think the first reach out to The Jim Henson Legacy was actually in 2006. But in terms of kind of the bigger vision, it’ slightly more recent, because it started just from a little idea for a weekend of screening. And so, this kind of bigger Retrospectacle [with big live shows, a film programme, and workshops] that’s been probably the last sort of six or seven years, maybe.
Is it one of those things where the longer you spend talking about it and thinking about it, the more ideas you – maybe unfortunately – keep coming up with?
Well, sort of. And the interesting part about this is thinking about it because there’s not often that you get to indulge in going back over the kind of evolution of something.
The Retrospectacle has had a whole lot of different versions of itself. So for a while, there was just a kind of singular focus on the film series and then the Jim Henson Legacy offered up more and more generous things. There was a little time there where objects and exhibition was the big focus. And that didn’t quite come in line with timing.
The partnerships weren’t quite right then. And that was incredibly disappointing at the time. I look back now and think about the concert focus because the music part had always been a big hopeful thing around it. But originally, it was just going to be a concert of tribute songs, New Zealand musicians singing their favourite Muppet songs alongside a film series. And then, it grew with great involvement.
How long has the current shape of the show been what you’ve worked towards?
Since 2013 really. Bret and I did a sing-a-long at the New York Children’s Film Festival with Walter [the Muppet performed by Peter Linz]. We had a real blast doing that. And then Bret knew I’d been thinking about honouring the legacy, partnering with him and celebrating Jim and concept came more in line.
What is it about Jim Henson’s characters that has made you pursue this for such a long time?
Well, I think the characters are such an extension of Jim. This really is a celebration of Jim and his creative force and his collaborators. People connect to his work through the characters because they embody such amazingly nuanced layers — they have these complicated but simple personalities that people just respond to. You forget that they’re inanimate, they’re made of foam and fleece. It’s very easy to suspend your disbelief and really see them as living.
And the music for me, the music of The Muppets, has been such a huge part of my life and formed so much of my sensibility both musically and sort of who I am in the world. And the way people have responded when I’ve mentioned this. The way New Zealanders really do light up when you do mention The Muppets, it’s pretty rare to find someone who has an open dislike for them.
Besides that your enthusiasm and dedication, what other aspects of your background sort of come to be on making this a reality?
Well, my background is in illustration and kids’ TV. That’s sort of where my professional career landed after design school. And then the film exhibition thing, I was drawn into sharing collective experiences.
The film series is screen focused, the concert still feels like a collective experience. I’ve been really lucky to be aligned with the New York International Children’s Film Festival for a number of years. And I get the operational side of rolling out a gig.
There’s obviously a very brief moment between the idea and the implementation. Do you remember what you were doing at that moment when the final approvals happened and what that felt like?
Well, to be honest, this project has had such an interesting path to fruition and just so many people involved. It’s been tricky in lots of ways because there’s been incremental greenlight moments. So it’s only really now, truthfully, that it’s in the world and it’s still a very surreal thing that this little idea is about to be executed.
And I probably won’t really feel like it’s in the world until the 29th of April [laughs].
And just the nature of it. There are so many wonderful people who we’ve wanted to have across this in terms of making sure that we’re representing Jim in the right way. Wanted and needed, because obviously these are all very almost sacred things that have levels of permission and levels of approval and I’m still understanding the complexity of that. It’s been terrific to kind of be in this and helped through by the Legacy and just a lot of people being extremely generous and responding with a lot of “yes”.
What are some of the aspects of that programme that you’re particularly proud to be showing people onscreen at the Embassy?
Well, I am just so delighted that Craig Shemin who’s the president of The Jim Henson Legacy is involved. He’s so great. It’s through his compilations that he’s been curating for a number of years that we get to see this other side of Jim Henson. And it’s a side that I’ve gotten to know over the last decade.
We come to his work through The Muppets and Sesame Street, most of us- after he’d been this commercial making genius and an experimental filmmaker. Those rarities from the vaults are super exciting. And we actually get a restoration version of Time Piece which is an experimental film. We’re the first to see that and I think that’s going to be an amazing moment.
But for me, I also am looking forward to reliving those big screen picture moments in that beautiful cinema. I’m super excited to see The Muppet Movie.
The Muppets Take Manhattan is my favourite Muppet feature and getting to see it has been really cool. And I can admit to you – this is the first time I’ve admitted this – I was pretty freaked out by The Dark Crystal. I was a big Labyrinth fan but I need to school myself up more along with the The Dark Crystal. And so that will feel like almost watching it for the first time.
I know I was a kid, but I think I spent a lot of it hiding [laughs]. So it’s going to be good to see that and to share it with small people in my life, my niece and my nephew and the kids that I love, and just have that experience of seeing stuff together.
There’s not one layer of content for adults and one layer of content for kids in Henson’s work.
Yes. Yes. Yes, that’s totally true.
There’s obviously stuff geared towards older and younger, but you spend much of the time in the middle of the Venn diagram.
I love that description. That’s amazing because it’s so true. There’s so much other stuff out there that is purposely operating on those two levels, throwing in the adult gag to keep the adults amused while the kids are entertained on a kind of base level.
Henson’s work didn’t patronize and it wasn’t condescending and it didn’t exclude anyone. And I think that thing of inclusion has always been an important thing to me and it’s interesting taking time now to look at where some of those ideas might have come from. And I think we are a generation who, whether we knew it or not, got a lot of our worldview from these films, and those themes of tolerance and inclusion were just there without being slammed at you.
The Jim Henson Retrospectacle kicks off in Wellington this weekend with screenings and workshops