Taking it to the 'Street'

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Destinee Ott, Richmond Register, Ky.
·6 min read
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Apr. 25—Chris Hayes and his five-year-old son watch as two of Sesame Street's newest Muppets, Elijah and his five-year-old son Wes, sit together to discuss issues of race on Sesame Street.

As the two Muppets interact, Hayes's son points to Wes and says, "That's me."

In many ways, he's right.

His father, Chris, is the puppeteer and voice behind Elijah.

Hayes said he brings many parts of himself to the role of the character who is a part of Sesame Workshop's — the nonprofit educational organization behind Sesame Street — new resource which supports families in talking to their children about race and racism.

The initiative, called "ABCs of Racial Literacy," is part of Coming Together — the entity's ongoing commitment to racial justice.

"His (Elijah's) voice is mine," Hayes said. "A lot of what makes up his character is me reaching inside of myself and pulling from things... and putting that out on camera."

Hayes always had a love for puppets, but his journey towards a life working with Sesame Street began when he decided to move to Kentucky.

Hayes is originally from Connecticut and went to a prestigious university there. However, the bills became so high he decided to take a gap year.

During his break, his cousin, a Berea College graduate, called him and asked him what he was doing. The only answer he could give was, "Looking for a job, I guess."

His cousin told him to come to Kentucky and get back into school. Hayes said he wasn't completely sold on the idea.

However, he flew to Kentucky and spent a week in Berea. One week was all it took for him to become hooked.

"I was sold," Hayes said. "... Just how it was so self-sufficient."

Hayes applied to Berea college and got in. He minored in theatre and had an independent major in performing arts management. He said he wanted to have business sense, but knew his passion was to perform, so his major was meant to help him on this path.

"So I took a lot of acting classes, music classes, and then accounting and things like that thrown in there too," Hayes explained.

While in Kentucky, Hayes met his wife, a Berea College graduate as well. He would spend his summers in Atlanta, where he visited the Center for Puppetry Arts. While there, Hayes spoke to a woman who said she'd had puppeteers who would go on and work with Sesame Street.

"I'd said, 'What? I need to be here; I need to be doing puppets,'" Hayes said with a laugh.

For the rest of his college career, Hayes had it in his head to figure out how to do more with puppets.

It stayed a quiet hobby of his which he was obsessed with for some time.

However, when he was getting ready to graduate, he had his resume ready and brought it to the Center for Puppetry Arts, where he interviewed. Hayes also brought his resume to MadCap Productions in Cincinnati, even though they were not taking resumes at the time.

"I was throwing a lot of spaghetti out, seeing what would stick," Hayes said.

When Hayes officially graduated and had not heard from any of his prospects, he had no clue what was going to happen. However, he finally got a call from MadCap Productions asking if he wanted to audition.

Of course, he said yes.

His audition and acceptance into MadCap Production started three to four years of Hayes touring schools all over the nation doing puppets.

Then, in 2014, Sesame Street put out a call for puppeteers to join one of their workshops. When the opportunity came, Hayes knew he had to send something in. He was selected and flew to New York and spent three days, all day long, going over everything he would need to know to be a Muppeteer. Then, after the workshop, Hayes was met with a year of quiet.

"I thought, "Well, that was fun," Hayes said with a laugh.

To his surprise, after the year-long wait, he got a call from Sesame Street asking if he wanted to come and help out. He accepted.

In the beginning, Hayes assisted with anything he could. He explained he would work the right hand of some of the Muppets who had left and right hands. Or he would play things such as butterflies.

"I would do anything and everything," Hayes said.

Hayes' first character he had the chance to take over was Hoots the Owl, a saxophone playing owl, in 2019. He explained Hoots is a legacy character, one he grew up watching.

"It's crazy to get a chance to play a character you looked up to," Hayes gushed. He put in a lot of work and watched countless episodes of Hoots to get the voice and the mannerisms down so he could get the legacy of the character just right.

Now, Hayes has a chance to play a Muppet who is very much modeled after himself, and he said it is an honor to be working with the initiative and helping to expand the talk about race.

"We're opening up the conversation," Hayes said. "Especially with kids now being curious about why they are different and what makes them different, and why things are different socially. They're questioning how to become a better generation. The videos are helping to open that conversation up. Between parents and their kids who are watching it with them. The best conversation, I find, comes when you are talking to people you love."

Working for Sesame, Hayes said, is a dream come true.

"I just hope I don't wake up," He joked. He is one of the puppeteers for Sesame Street who doesn't live in New York. With COVID-19 restrictions, when he leaves from Georgia to New York to shoot his scenes, a lot of his time consists of quarantine.

"It's a lot of sitting in a room and learning the lines and getting ready to go on set," Hayes said.

Working with performers who have been on the show for years and years, Hayes said he always goes into his workdays wanting to be as prepared as possible and do justice to the script he's been given.

"The beautiful part of being able to go there and then come back home to Georgia is I get to watch the shows with my family," Hayes said.

In his spare time, Hayes works on his own projects.

He has also had jobs as an actor, working on shows such as "Vampire Diaries," "Teen Wolf," and commercials.

"You feel naked without your puppet," Hayes aid with a laugh.

On stage, Hayes also does improve and standup. He said he is continually working to better himself with or without the puppet.

Hayes said he is up for any new challenges the world has in store for him when looking towards the future.

"I just want to keep making a great show," Hayes said. "... Even my worst day on the Sesame set is better than the best day any other place."