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The shooting in Atlanta this past week was a horrific tragedy that has been difficult for me to comprehend. While there is still a lot to learn, it seems clear that Asian-owned businesses, and Asian women in particular, were the targets of this shooting.
This is a personal issue for me, as my grandfather was from the Philippines and I identify as Asian American-Pacific Islander. Filipinos have also been the victims of anti-Asian sentiment and violence, and I fully condemn all of it.
It has been heartening over these last few days to see the media really begin to pay attention to the issue of violence and discrimination against the AAPI community. I hope that this is the beginning of some real change on this front, much as the death of George Floyd changed the conversation about Black lives in this country.
If you’re looking to learn more about the issues of violence in the AAPI community, I highly suggest giving Dion Lim a follow on Twitter. She is a reporter and anchor at KGO ABC7 in San Francisco, and was actually the second guest ever on my podcast. She has been covering this issue in depth for well over a year and continues to shine a spotlight on even minor crimes against Asian Americans that might otherwise go unreported.
I remember having my eyes opened when reading Talia Lavin’s amazing book Culture Warlords that the issues of racism and misogyny are incredibly intertwined, and frankly, whether we’re talking about Asian Americans, Black Americans, or anybody else, it should be clear to us all by now that all lives have value and that we have not done enough as a society to affirm that and stand behind that. (She was also a guest a few months back, if you missed it).
Let’s hope that the wave that started last year continues and more of us stand up and say enough is enough. We all have a role to play in stamping out bigotry, racism, and misogyny.
Last week, I had a chance to talk with Michelle Zamora, a Los Angeles based puppeteer. She’s the co-founder of Viva La Puppet, and is also the lead puppeteer on the new Netflix Kids’ series Waffles + Mochi. Michelle plays Waffles, a half-frozen waffle and half-Yeti creature that works at a grocery store run by Michelle Obama. Waffles and her friend Mochi spend each episode traveling the world to learn about the nutritional value, growing techniques, cooking methods, and cultural significance of all kinds of foods.
I started by asking Michelle about what led her to puppetry. As a child of the 1980s, she grew up being influenced by Shari Lewis, Mister Rogers, and Jim Henson, but it wasn’t until she was in college that she considered puppetry as something to pursue:
“I went to school at Cal State LA and I went to the theatre department. I was doing a lot of acting and performance. That was my trajectory, I wanted to be an actor. One summer, there was nothing going on in the theatre department, so I went into the scenic shop and there was one guy there, his name was Tony. And I said Hey, I want to make a puppet. I just literally woke up that morning and said I want to make a puppet. And he threw me some foam and said Okay.”
Michelle talked about what led her to continue in puppetry after that. It really comes down to the power of an important tool in improv: “Yes, and…”
“It was just sheer passion and some voice inside me that said I want to do this and somebody Yes, anding it. And I realized growing up, there’d be these people like my parents, teachers, everyone that would just Yes and me when I would say I want to do this, I want to do that”
After she fell in love with puppetry, Michelle was able to shift gears away from acting, although all of the time she had spent training as an actor was useful for her new career:
“I think what I really loved about when I first discovered puppetry was that I could take all my training as an actor and translate it into this object. How can I fully translate what I could do as an actor into this object? It takes years and years of just really figuring out and playing, and then getting confident too.”
After working on numerous commercials, music videos, and other projects involving puppetry, Michelle was very excited when she was asked to join Waffles + Mochi, which was initially called Listen to Your Vegetables and Eat Your Parents. The show is geared towards young kids (although, frankly, I really enjoyed watching it and learned a ton from it too). It combines the educational aspects of Sesame Street with some of the zaniness of Pee Wee’s Playhouse and the Sid and Marty Kroft shows like H.R. Pufnstuf.
One of the most interesting aspects of the show was how believably Michelle was able to puppeteer Waffles when she was tasting a new food for the first time. I was impressed that I could see the puppet tasting something sour or sweet, simply from how she moved the lips. But figuring out how to translate taste to a puppet didn’t come easily at first:
“When I first took a bite with the puppet, I was like Mmmmm… wait, stop, I’m not connected at all, I don’t even know what this thing tastes like. Can somebody get me a spoon? And so they gave me a spoonful, and I said Okay, give it to me and I’ll put it into the mouth of the puppet at the exact same moment, and then we’ll have a genuine reaction of the first bite. And so that’s what we did the whole show. It kind of had to happen that way to elicit a really genuine reaction from me as Waffles in the moment.”
I’ve noticed a resurgence in puppet content lately, whether it’s The Dark Crystal, Fraggle Rock, or Earth to Ned. I was curious from Michelle’s standpoint why it seems like puppetry is having a moment right now:
“I think that our generation is now coming back full circle to the things that we responded well to, which is the practical, magical thing that happens when you use puppets in commercials, in music video, in TV, in all sorts of media. There’s just something that’s really tangible and you can see that this puppet is touching this object and it’s responding, and I can kind of feel like maybe I’ll see this puppet in my world one day. There’s something really real about them, and it’s because they’re made by hand. They’re made by materials that are in our world by a bunch of skilled hands.”
Waffles + Mochi is now streaming on Netflix. If you missed it, you can listen to Michelle’s full interview as well.
On Thursday, I will be talking with Andre Comeau, one of the original cast members from the very first season of MTV’s The Real World. He and the other six cast members from his season recently reunited at the original loft for the new Paramount+ series The Real World: Homecoming. We talk about being a part of the original reality TV show and the impact that the show had on his life. It’s a really fun and interesting conversation. I hope you can tune in!
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