Talking with his hands

Puppeteer Allan Trautman demonstates how he controls his character, Gush, on the new PBS Kids show "Splash and Bubbles," during a production day at Jim Henson Studios in Hollywood. KATHARINE LOTZE/Signal. 08082016
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The first time Allan Trautman put a puppet on his hand was at his first audition.

“I was just looking for acting work,” he said. Trautman had just graduated from Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1973, when he went on an audition for a show on a PBS affiliate in St. Louis called “Letter People,” that asked for voices and was willing to train actors to be puppeteers.

“I just discovered in the audition it was something I could do,” he said.

He didn’t pick up puppeteering again consistently after he graduated with his masters in acting from California Institute of the Arts in 1978.

Trautman started working with the Jim Henson Company in 1990. Trautman was hired by Jim Henson himself for his first job on Muppet Vision 3D, a film that played in Disney World and Disney California Adventure. He went on to work on movies like Muppet Classic Theater, Muppets in Space, and most recently, the latest Jungle Book film. He lent his movements to the panther, Bagheera, and the film’s villain, tiger Shere Khan.

It was “unlike any other shoot I’ve been on,” Trautman said. He and other puppeteers were hired to be acting partners for the film’s only live-action character, Mowgli, played by Neel Sethi.

Though most of his acting was covered later by the digitally created animals, he doesn’t mind.

“It’s kind of liberating,” he said.

Puppeteering has changed quite a bit since Trautman started in 1973: most of the work he does now is digital, and he can watch the characters he voices come to life in real-time on a screen as he controls their movements with his hands.

Trautman likens puppeteering to “playing an instrument.”

One thing that hasn’t changed? Puppeteers still “talk with our hands,” he said, using one hand to control a character’s facial expressions, and the other to control its mouth and limbs. His latest character is a frog fish named Gush on the upcoming PBS Kids series called “Splash and Bubbles,” which is set to premiere this fall.

Trautman frequently lends his own voice to the characters he controls, but thinks of himself more as a puppeteer than an actor. And when he’s not bringing animated characters to life on screen, he’s teaching others how to do it.

He’s a lead puppeteer for the Jim Henson Company, and works to teach Henson-style puppetry techniques to new puppeteers.

But even when he’s not puppeteering, he’s still teaching. After long 11-hour days at on set, Trautman still finds the time to teach theater classes — though sometimes online — at College of the Canyons.

“I just like to keep my hand in something other than the entertainment industry,” he said. Trautman said there are times when puppeteering jobs are scarce, and teaching gives him “something to focus on” when he’s not on set.

This fall, however, Trautman will stay busy. Right after “Splash and Bubbles” wraps production, he’ll be heading to Las Vegas to act in Henson Alternative’s Puppet Up! Uncensored, an adult-oriented live-action improv show currently on stage at the Venetian.

After that, Trautman doesn’t have a job lined up yet. But he has no plans to leave the industry any time soon.

“It’s such an enjoyable job,” he said. He’ll keep working “as long as the puppet world will have me.”

 

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Katharine Lotze
Katharine Lotze is a photojournalist and columnist at the Signal, and can be found photographing daily life in Santa Clarita, or writing personal essays about her own daily life.