Finding the Human in the Puppet
By Anna Harrison
Louis Henry Mitchell, the Creative Director of Character Design at Sesame Street Workshop, has the honored distinction of being the only FUTURE NOW speaker to have his own page on the Muppet Wiki. This honor, of course, did not appear out of thin air, but as a result of years of dedication and hard work, and in a Leadership Talk last month with FUTURE NOW Founder and CEO Peggy Kim, Mitchell gifted the audience with some of the things he has learned along the way.
Mitchell was around nine years old when Sesame Street began airing, and while he was initially blasé about it, “as time went on, I saw these people of different colors. That’s a Black guy there! It was really kind of shocking, to be honest, because you didn’t see that that often.” Inspired by the inclusivity that Sesame Street promoted and intrigued by the mechanics of the puppets, Jim Henson “became not just my hero, but like a mentor. You don’t always have to connect directly with [mentors]—you can read about them; you can study them.” Though Mitchell had yet to meet him, he followed Henson’s career, and eventually got a call from the Sesame Workshop in 1992.
But, just how did Mitchell get to Sesame Street? Mitchell spent his childhood immersed in art of all kinds. Though his father wanted him to join the army and was more concerned about the practical necessities of life like free medical coverage, his mother encouraged his creative talent. She bought him his first sketchpad when he was eight. “It blew my mind,” Mitchell confessed. “She thinks I’m worth a sketchpad?” That moment was like a “seismic jolt of lightning” that spurred Mitchell onward in his creative journey. He even taught himself to play piano by ear. “My visual artwork, my musical artwork, and I also write a lot too, they all come from the same place,” Mitchell explained.
Mitchell credits much of his drive to his mother, who “kept encouraging me towards this creative life.” Her wisdom and faith in her son ensured that, even if he had doubts, “The naysayers never got a vote in my life. She made me bulletproof inside. Whenever I had to go and do something, that sense of security that she put in my heart, inside, was like armor and I was able to reach out for so many different things.” The self-confidence that she inspired helped Mitchell make it all the way to the Sesame Workshop, where he says that “I haven’t worked a day in 30 years.”
At Sesame Street, Mitchell oversees “the characters to make sure they’re being represented correctly, whether it’s an illustration [or] it’s three-dimensional with puppets.” He has been the driving force behind the creation of characters like Julia, a girl with autism, and Ji-Young, a Korean American girl whose existence was spurred by the rise of anti-Asian hate crimes the past couple of years. Mitchell doesn’t necessarily see himself as an activist; rather, he sees and responds to what the culture needs, and he emphasizes that these characters are not created as a knee-jerk reaction to current events, but come from thoughtful recommendations from the education and research departments. “We really, really do care about the communities we represent,” he told the audience.
This means that Mitchell does a lot of his own research as well, as Frank Oz did before him. He and his teams will talk to people and artists from the groups they are aiming to represent, creating a collaborative atmosphere—as he said, “I have to vanish and become those characters.” So, it’s vital to learn about their cultures. “It’s really important to anchor real life to what’s going on here, because we’re not just entertaining,” Mitchell explained. “There’s entertainment involved, but it’s really about connecting to the culture and the people you’re talking to.”
All of this collaboration means that Mitchell has cultivated and grown his leadership skills over the years, and he guides his team “with a gentle hand, but definitely with a very strong conviction.” Citing Tom Peters’ In Search of Excellence and A Passion for Excellence as inspiration, he tries to live by example and let humility be his guide. To Mitchell, that means understanding that “It’s not about you. When you have to lead other people, if ego gets in the way, you start getting distracted.”
With both his team and the characters he creates (though they may be puppets held together with cloth and string), Mitchell always keeps “humanity [at] the forefront of everything.” While characters like Ji-Young confront issues in our society, Mitchell wants to “address humanity… mostly towards encouragement, not so much dealing with problems. There’s always a problem, but I’d rather shine a light on the possibilities of what human beings are capable of.” Even when his team wrestles with heavy topics and have to find a way to make issues like racism approachable for preschoolers, Mitchell’s approach is to celebrate the creativity and kindness of people at their core.
As he says, “Human beings, we really are sensational.”