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Sesame Family Robinson – From making Muppets to Raising Moppets

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Off to Bangladesh

Curriculum of the Day:  Different Cultures

I’m traveling to Bangladesh tomorrow to run a workshop for Sisimpur, the Bangladeshi Sesame Street.  

Marty and I for many years now have gone around the world helping the international co-productions. Many people don’t realize how much work Sesame Street does to help children all over the globe. We partner with countries to do local productions of the show using their own Muppet characters and their own curriculum focusing on issues particular to their country. There are 20 active co-productions including Indonesia, Bangladesh, India, South Africa, Mexico, Netherlands, Brazil, Palestine, Northern Ireland and Egypt.

I’m particularly fond of the Bangladesh show for many reasons. One is that I have been on it since the inception.   It was right after 9/11 and our country wouldn’t grant the team visas. Why? Well, probably because they are Muslims. Muslims with masters degrees still are Muslims. So, Sesame wisely moved our first development workshop to South Africa. There, we worked together with the Bangladesh team to create the show’s characters: Halum, a vegetarian Tiger; Shiku, a smart, introverted little boy fox; Ikri, a little monster girl; and Tuktuki, a slightly older village girl. Marty and I then traveled to Bangladesh with our producer at that time, Nadine Zylstra, to do a writer’s workshop and hire and train the puppeteers. It was a life-changing experience to be in a country of such poverty and so much heart. A documentary film was even made about the making of the Bangladesh show.


Marty with his newly hired puppeteers.


Litu, our soon-to-be head writer with Haider, our live-action film producer enjoying the final night party.

Sisimpur has been airing for 7 years now. When it began, it was the only locally produced children’s show airing on the main television station. It has been proven that children who watch Sisimpur go into school one entire grade level ahead of other children. You can’t beat those numbers. The outreach department even brings the show to poorer villages via rickshaw.

We’re about to start the sixth season and there are new writers and a need to revisit the characters on the show as well as change the structure. So, I’ll be running a five-day writing workshop along with the new producer, Mary Tai. Here’s the shows website: www.bracnetsisimpur.com    

This will be the first time I’ve been away from Lyra and Ripley for any length of time. Marty and I are planning on talking twice a day and doing some videos from each side of the world. I’m excited to go, and also anxious about leaving the girls. Can Mommy leave her children for 10 days and not go insane? We’ll see…

Sisimpur Workshop Day 1

Curriculum of the Day:   Traffic Safety

Dhaka is a city with no traffic lights. If you do stumble across one, no one obeys it anyway. I haven’t been here for two years. There’s a noticeable change in the traffic—more cars, less rickshaws. The roads are still a free-for-all. You just have to hold on and trust your driver. All the buses are scraped along the sides. Driving here is a contact sport. 


Dhaka any time of day.

We arrived at the BRAC Center at 9:30 a.m. and made our way to the familiar 21st floor. We’ve held two other workshops here. It’s a glass room with a roof balcony that gives you a 180 degree view of Dhaka.   


Our view from the balcony. The new condos on the right get an excellent view of the slums. Quite a juxtaposition.


A great view of the local mosque. The loudspeaker call for prayers interrupts us every day.

Many of the writers are the same so it was “old home week” with Ratan (Dada), our executive producer, and Litu, our head writer, still leading the group. Hugs and handshakes and introductions all around.

With our new New York producer, Mary Tai, we spent the entire morning watching last season footage, debating what worked and what did not. The puppeteers arrived and we discussed the characters, redoing the bible and trying to develop each of them further. These puppeteers are young people that Marty hired almost six years ago while they were still in college. They look at him like a god so it’s nice to tell them how well he’s doing and show them pictures of the girls.

We are moving from individual skits this season to three scene storylines so we watched some video of the India and Indonesia shows which already use this structure. Galli Galli Sim Sim in India has a particularly excellent website.

We broke at 6:30 and Mary, June (research NY) and I went to the upstairs hotel restaurant. I had duck, a very welcome class of red wine and a fabulous mango pudding with chocolate ice cream.

I retreated to my room, took another bath and slept like a log.

Bangladeshi Purgatory

Curriculum of the day:  Frustration

I have been to the Bangladeshi purgatory and its name is customs.   

After landing in Bangkok after midnight, I spent an uneventful day in a Novotel outside the airport.  


The lovely Bangkok Novotel.   I could be anywhere in the world.


Although not every hotel has an altar.


Or a Shiva.

My compatriots and I were then bussed back to the airport and loaded back onto our plane and arrived in Dhaka a mere 24 hours late. I proceeded to passport authority only to realize that no one gave me a landing card. Hey, don’t they make sure you’re all taken care of in business class? So I had to go to the information desk, find a pen, and fill out the form while all the guards stared at me. By the time I got back into the cue, I was LAST. For 20 minutes, they had only one desk servicing our entire flight of non-Bangladeshis. Finally, they opened other desks so we could spread out.

Of course, the line I chose had an older woman who was the slowest typist in Dhaka. Then, it was her time to be replaced, which took five minutes. Her replacement was the second slowest typist in Dhaka. I watched as other lines moved along while ours was stuck in first gear. Much like when trapped on the supermarket line, I had a deep philosophical debate whether or not to switch lines. You know the drill. Will the other line suddenly hit a snag as soon as I join it? Should I just hold out here? I chose to stay put, finally getting through and finding my luggage among the last holdouts. The carousel had long stopped turning. I then spent 10 minutes trying to find the man holding the sign for my hotel. I went outside and was mobbed by people yelling, “Taxi!” I asked for help from a guard who led me back inside, and together we looked for the hotel guy, finally finding the gentleman helping two German ladies. First, they put me in a van. Then, they took me out of the van (leaving my luggage), and put me in a car behind the van. I still don’t know why; there was plenty of room in the van. Welcome to Bangladesh. We got to the hotel, and I took a bath and went to bed!

Sisimpur Workshop Day 2

Number of the Day:  8

We needed to have eight storylines by the end of the day. They will be our first batch of shows for this season. We’re doing 40 shows, so we’ll have five batches. The plan is to finish the workshop with two batches of outlines done and the batch one first drafts completed. Will we do it? Time will only tell.

After a brief reminder from me about three act structure—beginning, middle and end—conflict, resolution, why do we care, what’s at stake, action not activity—all those Writing 101 lessons—we dove in.   

Why is thinking so exhausting? At the end of a workday like this, where you are brainstorming, brainstorming, brainstorming idea after idea, it’s like you ran a marathon. Well, maybe more like a half-marathon, but you are whipped. We got our eight storylines though—everything from Halum, our ageless tiger character, being a tree to better bird-watch—to Tuktuki, our little village girl, digging more deeply into her emotional life when her only pair of sandals break.

Got back to the hotel and had the joy of singing to Ripley over the telephone.


Our team at lunch. Everything is very spicy for me, so I tend to eat a lot of rice.

Saturday

Word of the Day: Bliss

I have a weakness for a good spa. So, as the writers are churning out their first drafts today, I am off getting pampered. First, I talked to Marty and got the news of the girls’ day. They had their first Oatmeal Goodness. Lyra was a robust eater, Ripley a little less so. Then, I went to a spa  and ordered my self an" Ultimate Spa Experience"—tanaka and oatmeal body polish, Swedish massage and a gold face hydrating treatment. I am renewed.

 



I don’t know what this is supposed to do, but it felt great.

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Like your family we have twins, boy/girl, that turned three last month. I saw your blog entry for January and it looks like we have something in common, potty training twins. Like one of your girls, my son WILL NOT pee in the potty but his sister was doing well until she caught on to "Bubbie" not trying. I was just letting things run their course but our local pre-schools/mommy day out programs require the children to be potty trained and this mommy needs a day out. Bribery isn't working. Have you had any success?

Sommer

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How often is the telly puppet renewed or replaced?

Katherine Sydney, Australia

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I read in 40 Years of Life on the Street about an incident involving Snuffy's puppet where a sombrero caused the wood frame to collapse on you and Bryant Young. Did they rebuild the puppet after that or did they just make a new one?

Edward

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I just wanted to say thanks for the blog. My daughter Kylie (who just turned two yesterday) loves to ask if we are going to see "the babies." Thank you so much to you and Marty for bringing the joy of Sesame Street into our lives every day.

Kendal and Kylie Montreal, Canada

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I've noticed that there are fewer Muppets and people in an episode now than there were twenty years ago. Does everyone show up on the set for filming days or only certain ones? Who decides who gets to play the Anything Muppets? There are some voices I hear more than others.

Glenda

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