Now imagine going to work feeling like that. Typing at the computer would lead to gibberish. Then imagine your job is to entertain children by creating emotion through expressions on a face that’s not your own. It’s hard enough to find your nose, much less remember your choreography while not dancing so far astray that you fall off the stage.
That is the challenge faced by performers like Sheila Murphy, who plays several characters in the Sesame Street Live performance of “Elmo’s Green Thumb” coming to Reno next week.
“It’s all about body language,” Murphy said about playing a life-size puppet character while mimicking pre-recorded dialogue. “Everything you do as a character is three times as big.”
Murphy, who has been performing with Sesame Street Live for three years, plays the roles of Baby Bear as well as Grundgetta, the love interest of the famous trash can dweller Oscar the Grouch. In this Sesame Street story, the lovable Elmo is trying to find a place to plant Sunny, his sunflower friend. In the process, Abby Cadabby, Sesame Street’s fairy in training, tries to cast a spell to make Sunny grow but accidentally shrinks Elmo and friends. The now-miniature characters wander Big Bird’s garden learning about the ecosystem.
Besides water and grass and other elements of nature, Elmo and friends learn about the little creatures that inhabit the smaller world, including a ground beetle, also played by Murphy. It may not seem like the role of a lifetime for a professionally trained dancer, but for Murphy there is a deeper satisfaction that comes with wearing a giant bug suit.
“It’s not a matter of exactly being a Sesame Street character,” she said. “It’s a matter of performing. ... There’s something about children’s theater when you see the look on a child’s face and they come running up to you.”
Though the end result may seem like child’s play, the Sesame Street Live production is a serious undertaking. Each show typically includes around 17 performers, eight crew members, a company manager, an assistant company manager and a performance director. Murphy said the cast of professional performers spends three weeks rehearsing before going on tour, with additional rehearsal at each venue to get used to the stage. Sets and equipment for each show are hauled around in two 48-foot semitrailers and are put up and torn down in about eight hours.
It can be a grueling tour at times, but Murphy said the nomadic performing life has its perks, too. At just 25 years old, she has already traveled around much of the country. On her last trip to Reno, she saw a snowstorm worse than any she ever saw in her native Pittsburgh. She has also gotten to meet other dancers and learned from them in ways that go well beyond her training at Clarion University in Pennsylvania.
“You learn other dance routines or stretch routines from other dancers,” Murphy said. “Some are into sports acrobatics so they can teach me things like handstands and other stuff I can’t do, so I’m learning.”
Learning is what the show is all about, whether live or on television. “Sesame Street” premiered on television in 1969 and today is recognized by adults and children worldwide. The stage version started in 1980 and today is run by VEE Corporation out of Minneapolis. According to a fact sheet from VEE, the stage shows have been seen by more than 50 million children and their parents worldwide.
While the show’s target is young children, the visual effects of the show appeal to the big kids in the audience, like when Abby Cadabby finally figures out the right magic word to return her friends to normal size or turn objects into pumpkins.
“As an adult, that’s actually really cool,” Murphy said.
Sesame Street Live “Elmo’s Green Thumb” will be at Lawlor Events Center on Tuesday at 7 p.m. and Wednesday at 10:30 a.m. and 7 p.m. Tickets are $12 and $18, and a limited number of $23 premium seats and $30 Gold Circle seats are also available. A facility fee of $2 is added to all ticket prices. Tickets can be purchased by phone at (800) 225-2277 or online at www.lawloreventscenter.org.