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How the return of Fraggle Rock keeps true to the spirit of Jim Henson

Save your worries for another day as Fraggle Rock performers Dave Goelz, Karen Prell and John Tartaglia talk death and laundry, what the Fraggles’ world says about our own and how they honour the original series as it returns after 35 years.

If ever there was a time we needed to dance our cares away…

A staple of 1980s childhoods, with the funkiest TV theme tune ever composed, Fraggle Rock was fun, silly but also incredibly profound.

The Fraggles live in caves, never taking life too seriously but sharing important lessons about looking out for each other and the environment. They lived alongside the industrious but tiny Doozers and in terror of the gigantic Gorgs, while Silly Creatures (us) were oblivious to their existence.

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Thirty-five years after the last series, the show has been revived, with two of the original performers returning to their roles – Dave Goelz is Boober, but is best known for being great as Gonzo, who made his Muppet debut in 1978.

Karen Prell also reprises her role as Red. After Fraggle Rock finished, she went on to be an animator for Pixar then worked on computer games, notably at Valve, but is best remembered (by me at least) for being the little mouse who says “Please sir, I want some cheese” in the opening song of The Muppet Christmas Carol.

The pair speak to The Big Issue alongside acclaimed Broadway star and puppeteer John Tartaglia, who takes on the role of Gobo (and countless others) and was instrumental in bringing the Fraggles back to the Rock.

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The Big Issue: Did you know you were going to go back there someday?

Dave Goelz: We never left. We were just waiting for you to come back!

Karen Prell: Well, we hoped there would there be more and it took a little longer than we expected, but it is definitely a thrill to be back.

Even if you’re slightly older, are the characters the same as they were when you last played them in the mid-80s?

KP: Red is still the Red that people remember, and that comes from the same places inside of me, but there’s a chance to dig deeper and peel away layers of the onion.

DG: We do these characters over long periods of time and we’re always finding new aspects of them. It’s like stage work where an actor tries to find something new as each performance unfolds. It becomes second nature. We do a lot of characters, once we put the puppet on, there’s no mistaking. We don’t do the wrong voice for a given puppet. Just doesn’t happen.

John Tartaglia: And they’re definitely part of us. Dave often talks about taking a flaw of yourself and putting it into a character. They’re all pieces of us, sometimes pieces that we’re not in touch with in our human selves, but we somehow bring it out for the character.

DG: We’re really just in therapy. That’s the truth. I’ve been going on for almost 50 years now and I still can’t get finished with it.

Am I right in saying that your character Boober was inspired by your own life at the time?

DG: I was on an aeroplane with our head writer Jerry Juhl. And yeah, we had a stressful lifestyle then, we were flying all over the place doing a lot of stuff. And I remember thinking it’s just death and laundry. Those are my big concerns.

JT: Jerry Nelson, who created Gobo, is a master of voices and character and heart and puppetry. My job was to bring as much of myself as possible to Gobo and still honour what Jerry originated. I’m from musical theatre originally, I’m a stage performer. So I tried to bring a little bit of that energy. I feel like I’m just kind of carrying him on for Jerry.

KP: And doing it beautifully.

DG: It’s the hardest thing in the world, to try and take on somebody else’s character. It’s so hard and it’s so rare to find somebody who can do it.

JT: Thank you. It helps that I’m here with Karen and Dave.

John, when did you find that performing with puppets was your purpose?

JT: This is a true story. When I was about six or seven my mother and I were on a road trip. We were staying in a motel and she turned on the TV. There was Fraggle Rock. I’d never seen it before. And I instantly knew in that moment that I wanted to be part of that world. I didn’t know what a puppeteer was. I didn’t know how it was made. But the show instantly took me and never let go. I would always tell people that my dream job was to work on Fraggle Rock, which of course was out of production. I do feel like there’s some sort of weird, full circle manifesting.

DG: That may have happened with John. But as I grew up, I did not get a job on Howdy Doody. Your dreams don’t always come through.

JT: That’s our next project Dave, we’re bringing back Howdy Doody!

DG: I’m in!

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Have you ever thought about what each group of characters in the show represent in regards to our own society?

DG: I think they represent things like the food chain and so forth. But not in a very specific way. And I think that gives us latitude to tell more stories. When we did the original show, Jerry Juhl felt that we had run out of stories to tell, they really just didn’t have anything else to offer. That’s why we stopped after four seasons. We just wound it up at that point. But now we have a host of new issues to focus on. We are also living in a very stressful time.

JT: Each of the individual characters represents a part of humanity, and it’s about how vital it is that all those different parts work together and are a piece of the whole.

DG: Michael K. Frith and Jocelyn Stevenson, who were involved in the original creation of Fraggle Rock, talked about the five characters as being parts of a single character. So together they formed a full character. That was an interesting thought. Not something we refer to all the time at all. But it is different aspects of personalities that are that we’re representing. And everybody has more than one thing in them.

Since Fraggle Rock was last on there have been amazing advancements in special effects and technology. Why do puppets still appeal?

DG: All these fantasy media like animation, computer animation, puppetry, they all have their strengths and weaknesses. The thing that’s so captivating about puppetry is that you’re seeing something that you know it’s really happening.

KP: Think of puppetry and computer animation as different types of musical instruments, making different types of music. One is not better than the other. If something has never existed before, it might get a lot of attention and be very attractive. But it’s not like, Oh pianos are old, we’re only going to play guitars now. We’ve got this full orchestra of music that can bring characters and stories to life. Puppets are being appreciated once again for the beautiful music that they can make.

JT: They’re also the last magic trick. People can look online how to do a card trick or how to do a disappearing trick. It’s human nature to pop the bubble. But we can have one of these Fraggles on our hands and even though somebody sees that we’re puppeteering and the voice is coming out of our mouths, there’s something that they still believe in. There’s magic there that you can’t define.

It’s one of the reasons why people always put fingers in a puppet’s mouth right away. I actually asked a psychologist once about that. They said, ‘Oh, they’re trying to break the reality’. They’re primally trying to say: this isn’t real, this isn’t real. That, I think, says so much about puppetry. It brings it to life and people don’t always understand why they believe it so much. But they do and it’s wonderful to see how it brings out that inner joy, that inner child with somebody.

DG: It is fascinating. And it’s so much fun to do, because literally you can be right in front of them doing a character and the fact is the character is much more interesting than we are. That’s what you look at.

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The title still calls it Jim Henson’s Fraggle Rock, so what of his ethos is still identifiable in the show?

KP: So many of the people working on this new series, even if they didn’t have a chance to work directly with Jim Henson, they have been touched by the entertainment he created all their lives. Wanting people to appreciate and connect with each other and be respectful and have fun.

DG: Yeah, our new performers grew up with our work and somehow absorbed the philosophy behind it.

JT: Jim [when creating Fraggle Rock] said, “I want to make a show that ends war”, which is such an incredible thing to say. So many of the things that were important to talk about through Fraggle Rock in the 80s are still very much relevant today. And now there’s a whole host of other issues that kids and their families are battling every single day. We need Fraggle Rock now more than ever.

Fraggle Rock: Back to the Rock is on Apple TV+

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