Elissa Jenkins - Fat Puppeteer - Children's Performer

“This show needs energy, so don’t be fat and overweight unless prepared to lose some, cos she’s a high level energy show.”

This was the sales spiel written by an Australian puppeteer who was selling his puppet show. Brett and I often look around for old puppet shows to buy with a view of helping them live on, but naturally we weren’t going to express interest in this particular show. I am rather fat (medium fat to be clearer), so rocking up on this guy’s doorstep to be judged wasn’t going to be an option.

My husband Brett Hansen and I run Larrikin Puppets. Outside of Covid’s live performance restrictions, he makes a full-time living from the fast-growing business whereas my work with Larrikin Puppets is part-time. I have another part-time job, working remotely, with an environmental/social justice non-profit that rocks my socks off, so I am currently very happy with the arrangement.

In 2019 Larrikin Puppets presented 162 live puppet shows and puppetry workshops at festivals, shopping centres, libraries, schools, childcare centres, birthday parties etc. I performed in about 3/4 of the shows and I am the designated driver, so I drove to and from all of them. They are fun, colourful, fast-paced, high-energy performances.

The shows take an hour to set up. This involves unloading the van, loading the equipment into the space (sometimes up to 500m from where we’re parked), setting up the pop up theatre, connecting and testing the tech, and laying out the puppets.

The show or workshops take 45 minutes to 1 hour to perform. Often we do 2-3 in a row or 3-4 in a day. This includes having our arms up in the air, often both arms, as well as appearing as semi-respectable albeit puffed, sweaty humans for a friendly introduction and, at the end, for a demonstration on how the puppets work as well as a meet and greet. Sometimes, for our storytime shows, I appear as a human storyteller. For all the puppet shows, I get all dolled up with a fancy dress, a tutu and a rainbow wig. Actually, on that note, it takes about 1 hour to do my costuming, hair and makeup at home.

The show then takes another hour to pack down. This involves packing everything up, carrying it back out to the van and loading it all back in.

I began puppeteering professionally in November 2016, almost four years ago. I was fat then and I am fatter now. I was sick then and I am sicker now. I was old then and I am older now. I am a sick, fat, forty-four year old puppeteer and children’s performer. None of this has negatively impacted my success as an emerging performing artist. My audiences and my fans absolutely love me.

I perform a hand puppet called Marina, aged 3. As a hidden puppeteer, I get to leave my human body behind and put my arms, my voice and my mind into a super cute puppet monster to create a convincing toddler character. After the shows I appear as a human with Marina and have terrific conversations (as a fellow toddler) with the toddlers. Kids of all ages love Marina as they see her as a little sister. Even 10 year old boys, particularly country boys or boys at Christmas time, will chat with Marina and give her a gentle high five.

I also perform a hand puppet called Flossy. Flossy is a sassy, diva grrrl monster who loves stealing the limelight off Troggg (who’s the star of the show). She’s loud and rambunctious and calls a spade a spade. She’s all girl power and loves a laugh. She’s probably a feminist. She’s great at educating the kids because she’s very confident.

During COVID 19 restrictions, I was delighted to receive my first custom commissioned puppet. Her name is Bangles and she’s not a monster, but more of a bird. She has wings and she loves having her head up in the clouds, using her imagination. She writes and recites poetry. Her voice is a whisper and she’s super chill and super cool. She has a calming personality.

As a human performer, I can be none of these characters. I am not a human actress, but even if I was I couldn’t rock up to an audition in my forties in my fat body and try out for any of these parts.

But as a puppeteer I can play all of these characters and more. I even play an adorable character called Yellow Beard. I believe he is a boy. Brett believes he is a girl. So I guess they’re gender fluid. Yellow Beard is a simple sock puppet, but they’re so groovy. They’ve been all around the world and they know a thing or two about life.

Nothing – not being sick, not being fat, not being forty-something – can take these characters away from me. At least, nothing has yet.

2 1/2 years ago I was diagnosed with a rare eye disease, possibly autoimmune related, that turned my world upside down. It is not only painful, but it can make you blind. It became my single-minded goal and the goal of my team of health professionals to save the eyesight in my left eye.

Prednisone is often the only answer. And anyone who has been on high doses of prednisone knows how insatiably hungry it can make you, how puffy it can make you, how moody it can make you, and how drastically it can affect your sleep patterns. Those were the side effects it gave me, anyhow.

Everyone on prednisone who has an autoimmune disease knows that your goal is to get off the prednisone because it wreaks havoc on your body. So you take something called a ‘steroid sparing agent’, generally another anti-inflammatory, to help wean you off the steroids. I’ve tried methotrexate, mycophenolic acid and I am now on fortnightly injections of Humira (which seems to be working – yay!).

In these last 2 1/2 years of managing a rare disease, I have often risen at 4am to drive 2 1/2 hours to a puppet show, done my job, driven 2 1/2 hours home again then sat at my desk and worked my other part-time job into the evening – four to five times a week.

In these last 2 1/2 years of managing a rare disease, Brett and I have spent 5-6 weeks of the year touring regional and remote communities, up to 8 hours drive away. I am the designated driver. For a variety of reasons I won’t go into here, Brett doesn’t drive.

The text books describe my eye disease Scleritis as “exquisitely painful”. My eye generally flares up for 2-3 days. I then go to see my ophthalmologist who adjusts my medication to help ease the pain (so I can function) and the inflammation (to save my sight).

For three years I couldn’t walk because my right foot hurt so much. This year my podiatrist Stephanie Cosgrove fixed all that up for me, but prior to that I would limp in excruciating pain.

But through all of this I have still performed my job as a puppeteer. Because it’s fun. Because it brings me joy, delivers joy and inspires joy. And because it gives me the opportunity to share wide-eyed wonder.

And to that Australian puppeteer who thinks you can’t be fat if you want to perform high energy puppetry or must “be prepared to lose weight” (a dangerous tenet in itself), I hope I have proven you and others wrong.

Thanks Marina. Thanks Flossy. Thanks Bangles. Thanks Yellow Beard. And a big thank you to my family audiences. Thanks for not judging me. Thanks for accepting me without fear or favour. Thanks for sharing in the fun, the joy, the laughter and the whimsy. Thanks for your unconditional love.

2 thoughts on “I Am A Sick, Fat, 44 Year Old Who Plays A Toddler, A Diva And A Poet With Wings

  1. Awesome
    Keep being yourself and hope the new meds do their job and don’t have prednisone in your future again
    May you never lose your sight
    Onwards and (arms) upwards

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.