The Corner

Occupy Sesame Street: The Plight of Joe the Puppeteer

Occupy Wall Street’s answer to Joe the Plumber: Joe the Puppeteer. A recent story in the Nation, with no hint of irony, laments the plight of the overeducated, underemployed puppeteer:

A few years ago, Joe Therrien, a graduate of the NYC Teaching Fellows program, was working as a full-time drama teacher at a public elementary school in New York City. Frustrated by huge class sizes, sparse resources and a disorganized bureaucracy, he set off to the University of Connecticut to get an MFA in his passion—puppetry. Three years and $35,000 in student loans later, he emerged with degree in hand, and because puppeteers aren’t exactly in high demand, he went looking for work at his old school. The intervening years had been brutal to the city’s school budgets—down about 14 percent on average since 2007. A virtual hiring freeze has been in place since 2009 in most subject areas, arts included, and spending on art supplies in elementary schools crashed by 73 percent between 2006 and 2009. So even though Joe’s old principal was excited to have him back, she just couldn’t afford to hire a new full-time teacher. Instead, he’s working at his old school as a full-time “substitute”; he writes his own curriculum, holds regular classes and does everything a normal teacher does. “But sub pay is about 50 percent of a full-time salaried position,” he says, “so I’m working for half as much as I did four years ago, before grad school, and I don’t have health insurance…. It’s the best-paying job I could find.”

Like a lot of the young protesters who have flocked to Occupy Wall Street, Joe had thought that hard work and education would bring, if not class mobility, at least a measure of security (indeed, a master’s degree can boost a New York City teacher’s salary by $10,000 or more). But the past decade of stagnant wages for the 99 percent and million-dollar bonuses for the 1 percent has awakened the kids of the middle class to a national nightmare: the dream that coaxed their parents to meet the demands of work, school, mortgage payments and tuition bills is shattered. Down is the new up.

But, happily, Joe has found a home in “Liberty Park.” He has “already produced a museum’s worth of posters (from the crudely handmade to slicker culture-jamming twists on corporate designs), poetry readings, performance-art happenings, political yoga classes and Situationist spectacles like the one in which an artist dressed in a suit and noose tie rolled up to the New York Stock Exchange in a giant clear plastic bubble to mock the speculative economy’s inevitable pop.”

But wait! There’s more. Joe has found an outlet for his University of Connecticut master’s degree. At a recent meeting of OWS Arts and Culture Group, Joe had the sort of epiphany that changes lives and makes lasting impressions in culture and politics: 

“I have to build as many giant puppets as I can to help this thing out—people love puppets!” And so Occupy Wall Street’s Puppet Guild, one of about a dozen guilds under the Arts and Culture working group, was born. In the spirit of OWS, Joe works in loose and rolling collaboration with others who share his passion for puppetry or whose projects somehow momentarily coincide with his mission. With the help of a handful of people, he built the twelve-foot Statue of Liberty puppet that had young and old alike flocking to him on October 8 in Washington Square Park. Right now, he’s working with nearly thirty artists to stage Occupy Halloween, when his newest creations, a twelve-foot Wall Street bull and a forty-foot Occupied Brooklyn Bridge inspired by Chinese paper dragons—along with a troupe of dancers playing corporate vampires—will inject a little bit of countercultural messaging into the annual parade of Snookis and True Blood wannabes strutting down Sixth Avenue.

Yes, Joe, people love puppets! We know that because we’ve been subsidizing Sesame Street for decades, notwithstanding a licensing operation that puts Elmo and Ernie on everything from diapers to breakfast cereal. (Don’t get me wrong. I’m a huge Kermit the Frog fan. I just think he can make it on his own in the world). But I digress.

The author of the article may lack a sense of irony, but there is a hint of self-awareness. “Yes, it’s hard to draw a straight line from something like Occupy Halloween to the overthrow of global capitalism or a financial transactions tax or student debt relief or any number of goals—some of world-historical magnitude, some straight from the playbook of reformist think tanks—that swirl around Liberty these days.” But no matter! It’s the “creative types, either shoved into crisis by the precarious economy or just sick of making things under the corporate system, who have responded most enthusiastically to Occupy Wall Street’s call. It’s not where one might have looked for a revolt to emerge organically.”

Those creative types’ “praxis revolves around two principles.” And whose praxis doesn’t? “First — autonomy, horizontalism [Me: Yes, just note the increase in sexually transmitted diseases] and collectivism.” (Would you believe “three principles?”) “We’re nonhierarchical [four principles!], self-regulating, self-deliberating and self-organizing.” (“Amongst our principles . . .  are autonomy, collectivism, a ruthless efficiency, and almost fanatical devotion to the Pope. I’ll come in again.”)   

There’s probably more here worth exploring, but I’ll leave it to our worthy readers.


The Latest