Sunday, November 7, 2010

"Does it Have to be with Puppets?"

Sesame Co-Productions: The Content Seminar

I have had the honor to travel on behalf of Sesame International and work with some of the most extraordinary individuals and help them create their own version of Sesame Street. From Mexico to India, Japan to Palestine, and South Africa to Nigeria, I have helped train puppeteers, instruct writers in how to write “Sesame,” and directors on how to shoot puppets, solo and with humans. I’ve even helped train a few “wranglers” (those unsung heroes of TV puppet productions who make your favorite characters look good on the air). But one part I’ve never done was “The Content Seminar.”

I have never been to a Content Seminar. I just attended my first. But “what” you ask “is a ‘Content Seminar?’” Listen closely.

Before India’s Grover shows off his “cute and adorable” French basket to us, or Ireland’s Poddo uses the “Big Thingy Machine” to answer the question of the day, they and their friends, their entire Sesame world, was constructed with a content seminar. This is when the key learning points and educational themes (or the curriculum) are presented, discussed, and decided upon. Especially to narrow down what exactly needs to be addressed for that particular country’s child population. And there is much discussion, and debate, and dialogue, and monologue, and talk, talk, talk, talk, talk,…… And Power Point. LOTS of Power Point. (Those of you in league with the corporate world know what this means; I’ve got enough to explain.)

The content seminar for every version of Sesame Street abroad varies; they run from the casual to the highly formal, depending on how many entities are involved. I will now save time and cyber space and skip the excruciatingly long speeches afforded the more formal one that I sat through (and if I never hear the words “power point” again, it will be too soon) to the fun part (aka Day Two of the seminar).

At one point, folks are divided into groups of different topics and to brainstorm either items to be used for the show (such as skits, songs, animation, or live action pieces) or to comment on the topic itself and whether it is even relevant to the children and culture of their country. For example, helping kids deal with a fear of the dark is mute in one area due to the fact that a lot of rural villages have no electricity. So kids are use to the dark. What some DO fear are bullies, teachers, and fathers.

Yes. This is one of those times when you realize how big and different parts of the world are.

Our group, which discussed art, music and social studies, went last and I assisted the designated presenter with the help of one of the rehearsal puppets I brought from NY for the puppeteer auditions the following week. So he and “Donnie” (the puppet from the Jim Henson NY Shop I named) talked about our topics of art and music and the fact that some people in the region don’t participate (or even condone) it but, that it should be included for families who do. Also, dance and a very festive regional one every child would know (and another team member rose and demonstrated it with “Donnie”) and social studies meaning everyone’s place in their family and community and helping one another. You know….. stuff we in the U.S.of A take for granted. After all the other presentations, there were questions and critiques. Even someone asking, "Does it have to be puppets?" But after ours? None. Instead there was applause and the sense that suddenly, having seen the human and puppet interacting, even singing and dancing to get the message (aka “lesson”) across, in such a natural, easy way, everyone suddenly had the exact same moment of “Oh….. THAT’S what this show will be about. NOW I get it!”

It was fascinating to see what a content seminar entailed. As I said before, some are much more casual than the one I got invited to, but all still try to gather as many minds as possible to collectively agree what goals to achieve and what issues to address for that particular country. And more importantly what a child in that nation will take away from watching this show.

After all, it’s going to be their Sesame Street.