In her roomy Phoenix studio on Grand Avenue, puppeteer Stacey Gordon clears a sliver of space for us to sit amid brightly colored sock puppets, overstuffed cardboard boxes and plastic containers filled with scraps of vibrant fabrics and yarns. The work space is home to Puppet Pie, Gordon’s thriving puppet-making business, where the spunky redhead fills custom orders, teaches workshops and holds court on Phoenix First Fridays. In her home life, Gordon is the devoted mother of a 13-year-old son with autism. Last year, her two universes happily collided when Gordon auditioned for and snagged the role of Sesame Street’s newest character, Julia, a 4-year-old, red-haired girl with autism. Since earning the part, Gordon’s life has been a whirlwind of media attention, including spots on 60 Minutes and the Today Show, articles in Time and People magazines and an interview with NPR. “As a kid I dreamed I’d be on Sesame Street,” Gordon says. “I feel so honored to be part of it.”
How did you get your start in puppeteering?
I started being a puppeteer as a kid with my church group and in my room for my friends. Then I started doing adult shows at the Great Arizona Puppet Theater in 2002 and sold my first puppet in 2005.
Did your upbringing play a part in it?
If I’d had a different set of parents, there’s no chance I’d be a puppeteer. I was homeschooled in junior high because my mom thought junior high was a wasteland. She’d ask, “What do you want to learn about?” We did the math books and stuff because there were standards, but she would come home after work with a giant hunk of clay and say, “We’re going to sculpt faces. We’re going to learn about anatomy by sculpting.”
What’s the craziest puppet you’ve made?
A bowl of cereal. I’ve made a meatloaf piranha, squid Elvis, Jazzercise cat and dominatrix bunny, complete with whip.
Most memorable Sesame Street moment?
After my audition, I got to visit the set and had a really great conversation with [cast member] Marty Robinson. He knew that I had auditioned and saw me starry-eyed on the set. As I was leaving, he said, “I hope to see you again. I hope that you come back. I hope you get it.” After I got the job and came back, we stood in the green room in the exact same spot and he smiled and said, “Remember what I told you before you left? I’m glad you’re back.” He’s been on the show since the ‘70s. He’s Snuffy, he’s Telly Monster, he’s Slimey the Worm.
What does it feel like to be Julia?
It’s a huge honor, but at the same time it’s a huge responsibility. I identify very closely with a lot of the things I know my son experiences. Autism isn’t just sensory issues and being awkward in social situations. I really want to come at this with the most reverence possible and with the most respect possible.
How do you think it helps kids with autism?
It helps them because they feel represented. They can say, “Oh look, that’s just like me.” Second, it’s hopefully going to make their peers understand and accept their behaviors. The most important thing for kids with autism is acceptance as they are. Not just awareness of autism, but being accepted into the friendship group. I think it’s a good life lesson. This isn’t just a lesson [for] families with autism.
How has being on the show changed your life?
It’s a huge part of my life emotionally and a small part of my life physically (about four to six days a year). I’m still doing workshops. I’m still cleaning my house. I’m still taking my kid to school every day. I just get asked more questions.
Who is your favorite Sesame Street character – besides Julia?
I identify with Super Grover. I come into a situation. I approach a problem really gung-ho. I really want to help. I make the problem worse while everyone else solves it, and then I’m like, “Good job, everyone. Glad I was here.”
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