The Ms. Q&A: How Lisa Henson is Moving the Company into the Future—and Pushing Girls Toward Empowerment

Ah, the holidays. As I sit here, flicking through the rounds of seasonal television, I have to ask: What state would the world be in if children didn’t have an alternative to watching Charlie Brown scrape around for his anti-depressants? And no, I don’t want to watch a giant ogre trolly around with his anthropomorphic sidekick, nor do I want to watch a green psychopath shoplift goodies from little boys and girls. Who am I talking about? Exactly.

I want to watch Michael Caine time-travel with the Grim Reaper. I want to watch Gonzo the Great and Rizzo the Rat make 19th century literature interesting. Yes, I want to watch The Muppet Christmas Carol.

Many of us have memories that come directly from the works of the Jim Henson Company. From The Muppets (which changed hands to Disney in 2004), to Fraggle Rock to The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth, Henson’s band of puppeteers have dazzled and delighted generations of young and older. Now, in an age where computer animation and 3D are as ubiquitous as social media, the Jim Henson Company pushes on–pioneering and adapting in this ever-changing landscape.

Recently, CEO Lisa Henson (Jim’s daughter) talked with Ms. about the company’s new and upcoming works, how it creates strong women characters and how a strong woman like Henson handles the challenges of running the show.

You were elected as the first woman president of The Harvard Lampoon, which has been around for more than 200 years. What did that mean to you?

Well, I had been on the Lampoon‘s art staff for a couple of years, and they not only generally didn’t elect women, they generally didn’t elect the art staff either, so perhaps there was a leadership vacuum. The press that we got when I was elected president was a little bit of a surprise for me, because I was really only focusing on the members of the Lampoon to see if they thought it was a good idea for me to be the president. I didn’t give a moment’s thought to what the press would think or what I would say to them. So I was a little bit surprised that it was so interesting to the public. There had been women on the Lampoon for more than ten years, but there just simply hadn’t been a president. So it was probably a bigger news story than it felt in the reality of my life. The person who was president after me was Conan O’Brien so I was very seriously under-talented compared to some of the Lampoon presidents prior to and after me. But it was a really good experience creatively and in terms of managing anything.

As CEO of the Jim Henson Company, could you take us through the events of a typical day?

I have a lot of meetings every day because I like to have face-to-face encounters with the people that I’m working with and I’m not as good on emails. Most of those will be creative meetings on the projects that I’m supervising, like Dinosaur Train and Sid the Science Kid. Then I’ll usually have at least one staff meeting a day on various business affairs or operations of the creature shop, or just our overall business strategy meeting.

You’re also producing upcoming films for the Jim Henson Company– how do you juggle being a producer and also going through all the meetings as well?

Running a production company and being a producer aren’t really very different. Right now I’m spending more time producing the TV shows rather than films because we don’t have a film in production. The TV shows all have very excellent writing showrunners—we have a great showrunner/show creator named Craig Bartlett, who created Dinosaur Train, and a wonderful head writing showrunner named Bradley Zweig on Sid the Science Kid. So because we have strong talent and dependable people running our shows, I won’t have to micro-manage.

Ok, I have to ask a Dark Crystal question—is the sequel in production?

It’s in pre-production, and rather a slow pre-production at that. We have been partners with a company called Omni Lab based in Sydney, Australia. They’re a very up-and-coming company and they’re very ambitious for Dark Crystal. In partnership with them, we’ve made the movie into a much bigger film so it’s taking its time to get going.

Is it using puppetry?

We’re planning on using puppetry as well as CGI [computer generated imagery] and even the puppets will be augmented with CGI. But we would like to have a pretty strong component of puppetry because of that tactile quality that the original puppets have. It would be a lot simpler to make a CGI movie but we’d like to hang on to some of the puppetry.

What place do you think puppetry will have in the future of the television and film–or what place do you hope it will have?

Right now puppetry is still popular, but it’s in an interesting transition because the people who seem to like puppets the most are adults who grew up with the puppets in their childhood. So while we develop a lot of adult or live-action shows for weeknights or primetime, at the same time we still do some puppetry for pre-schoolers, such as Pajanimals. We don’t do too much puppetry in the mid-range though, for teens or older kids, so I’m uncertain about that age group for puppetry. But most adults [of today]  grew up with The Muppet Show, so they have that personal relationship with puppets.

In a previous interview, regarding Dinosaur Train, you talked about how you had developed strong female characters that  could potentially inspire the next generation of female scientists. What other characters have you created that might influence girls?

In the shows that we’re doing–particularly the two we’re doing for PBS Kids—we care not just about the balance of girls and boys but the educational content and diversity of the show. It’s an impressionable age that we’re making the programs for. Both are science shows, and we know there’s a nationwide effort to get girls to embrace the scientific fields professionally. So we want to make sure that young girls can visualize themselves as scientists and might be able to articulate that they feel like a scientist. Getting people excited about something, whether it’s math or reading or science, is a subtle dance because you have to make the subject interesting to the kids and at the same time give them the vocabulary to articulate that they’re interested in it.

We say that Sid the Science Kid is cheerleading for science, because we have kids saying when they come home from school saying, ‘Scientists in the house!’ We actually use the phrase ‘scientist’ quite frequently, even though the children are meant to be only 4 years old on the show.

On Dinosaur Train, we know that boys are going to be inclined to love it because it’s got dinosaurs and trains, but we also make sure that the show plays great for girls because we have strong female characters. We’ve got a really outgoing little girl character named Tiny who is extremely friendly, and makes friends with new dinosaurs wherever she goes. She models the idea of ‘inquiry’ because she’s got a lot of questions for everybody she meets.

So is it a conscious decision when you’re creating characters to make them appealing to both genders?

Well, it depends. You could make a show that is almost entirely for girls—like a show entirely about fairies is something most boys will never be interested in. Similarly, you could make a show about monster trucks that girls might never be interested in. The shows that we do, we like to think that they’re really for everybody.

After you graduated from college, you rose through Hollywood really quickly and became the youngest studio head in 1993 when you were named president of Columbia Pictures. From your experience, is Hollywood dominated by men?

Well, there are some parts of the business that are dominated by men—the directors, for instance. There are more male directors. And animation is very dominated by men as well. But that’s not true of all aspects of Hollywood, and certainly the executive ranks at the studios have a lot of powerful women, many of whom have been there for a long time. Certainly on the producing side there are many successful and powerful women in both television and film.

I read on Slash Film that they were filming something for the new Muppets movie at the Jim Henson studio where you work—were you there for that?

I wasn’t, but I understand that they dressed down our lot because in the plot of the movie the Muppets’ studios are a bit rundown. So they took our beautiful, idyllic lot and made it look grungy (laughs). When people see it in the movie, I don’t want them to think that we work in a grungy studio—our place is gorgeous.


Kyle Bachan can dance all day. He's also a feminist from Toronto, Canada who enjoys travelling the world and meeting new people. He currently writes as a Senior Editor over at Gender Across Borders.