We’ve all watched, loved, and learned from Sesame Street, and that’s exactly its point. In 1969, Joan Ganz Cooney and Lloyd Morrisett co-created Sesame Street to entertain, educate, and enrich the lives of everyone in its audience, especially pre-school children from working-class families. Much like Berea College’s founding commitment to interracial co-education, Sesame Street’s programming has always sought to bridge the educational gaps between students of under-resourced schools and their more-privileged peers. Now, one Berea College graduate is filming his fourth season of Sesame Street, joining its missions with the founding legacy of his alma mater, and he’s just getting started!
Sesame Street performer and 2006 Berea College alumnus—Chris Thomas Hayes—credits his mother with encouraging his natural and playful love of the arts. Single-parent households like hers often require ample creativity to thrive, and Chris’s mother fully embraced the creative outlets available to her children in their Hartford, Connecticut community. This lifelong love of the arts is partly why Berea College felt like home to Chris when he transferred here as a sophomore to study in our Theatre Department. As a hub of artists and craftspeople, Berea welcomed Chris with open arms.
Berea College also felt like home to Chris because of its devotion to offering the highest-quality education to students who—like Chris—are turned away by most schools because they simply cannot afford the enormous costs of tuition, fees, books, and board, let alone internships or chances to study-abroad. Berea College offers help with all of this, but before discovering Berea, Chris had spent his freshman year back home at the University of Hartford where, even with the scholarships he had earned and his wages from on- and off-campus jobs, the cost of higher education was simply too high to keep going.
But Chris believed in the worth of his art, and he drew inspiration from his grandfather, who always preached the power and joy of education. So, Chris searched until he found Berea College, and after coming here, he soared. His road to success in the fine arts was not easy, but he is now filming his fourth season of Sesame Street while also co-running a youth-centered theatre company in Atlanta, Georgia with his wife—fellow Berea graduate, Greta Hayes ’10. Together, he and Greta are passing on the service missions of their alma mater, and Sesame Street itself.
To learn more about this remarkable road to Sesame Street, read on for the abridged interview with puppeteer, actor, educator, and Berean, Chris Thomas Hayes:
BC: Would you please describe your artistic and career paths in your years after graduating from Berea?
CTH: Towards the end of my time at Berea, I decided that puppetry was an area that I could actually pursue as a career. As a senior, I auditioned at the mecca of puppetry in America, the Center for Puppetry Arts in Atlanta. It didn’t go well, but putting myself out there showed me what I needed to work on if I wanted to make it to the biggest stages.
Immediately after graduating Berea, I began touring the nation with the Madcap Puppets theatre company out of Cincinnati. I had randomly stopped by their studio and left a resume (which I’m sure was 99 percent full of theatre shows I did while was a Berea student). I toured the nation with Madcap for 3 years, learning how to puppeteer for children audiences and learning how to use puppetry to educate. I also found myself in front of the classroom through our workshops, teaching and introducing new generations to the artform.
After a couple of seasons at Madcap, I decided to leave Cincinnati and move to Atlanta to pursue puppet and non-puppet acting on a bigger scale. I got an agent and auditioned for dozens of commercials, TV shows and films, landing co-star roles on several of them. I also began performing improv professionally, getting paid for my stand-up and working at the Center for Puppetry Arts, a mecca for puppet theatre, all while constantly sending resumes to “Sesame Street” and “The Muppets.”
BC: How did you make it to Sesame Street?
CTH: Finally, after many years of performing and creating, I was invited to attend a three-day Sesame Street Puppeteer workshop in New York and learn the Muppet style of performing. That workshop led to my being invited to assist and perform background characters on the show for season 46 (We’re on 51 now!).
Art is work, and it takes more than drive, talent, or craft skills to pay bills. It takes all those, and it also takes putting yourself out there constantly. That’s how you build relationships with other artists who care and want to help. Without risking the move to Atlanta, I wouldn’t have met Steve Whitmire when he taught two invite-only classes at the Center. Steve is the man who performed Kermit the Frog, Ernie (of Bert and Ernie), Beaker, and lots of other Muppets for decades, and the Muppet style cues I learned in his workshop helped prep me for the audition.
In February of 2019, I became the Muppet performer for Hoots the Owl on the show. Enormous shoes to fill. Within just the last year I’ve performed live on the “Today Show,” done Sesame Street TV specials, and had the pleasure of performing at the Lincoln Center beside Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. This month, we’ll be shooting the 51st season of Sesame Street, too. It’s been a long crazy journey that has in many ways also just started. It’s been a blessing to have been able to watch a lot of these things with my son, which has always been a goal.
BC: Since a college degree doesn’t guarantee a living-wage job in any field—arts or otherwise—how did Berea College’s Tuition Promise Scholarship influence your post-graduation decision-making?
CT: Well, I spent freshman year of college at a university back home in Connecticut before I came to Berea, and my friends from that school are paying back enormous sums after graduation. Some of them are paying around $150,000, and that’s not even taking into account that I was able to study abroad during my time in Berea with very little out-of-pocket costs.
The opportunities that Berea affords its students are valuable and invaluable at the same time. I took a gap year to work before transferring to Berea, so everything that Berea had to offer hit a little harder, and that value wasn’t lost on me. Becoming a student again was freeing and pushed me to make the most of my remaining 3 years in college at Berea.
I was also lucky to have great teachers while at Berea who challenged me and gave me a lot of autonomy when creating and learning. Some even challenged the way that I thought and articulated my ideas. Deborah Martin, Gloria Johnson, Shane Ayers, Andrew Baskin, Trip Bratton…I could keep going.
Going through the motions is also a huge part of learning, and those in-class projects helped to take the intimidation factor out of starting real-world projects.
I’m also exceedingly lucky to have another Berea graduate by my side: my wife Greta Hayes (Class of 2010). I feel way less self-conscious and awkward walking around New Orleans or downtown Atlanta with a puppet on my arm when we’re together planning shots or shooting a take. It’s good to have someone who is equally invested. We currently shoot shorts and produce theatre in Atlanta, and we also run a theatre company for high schoolers.
BC: What advice do you have for aspiring puppeteers, actors, and other artists?
CT: For actors who want to pursue TV and film, I would find a location like New York, Los Angeles, or Atlanta where shows are being made and cast, and be willing to travel or live there. There are lucky breaks, but no shortcuts. I’m constantly working to make sure the opportunities I’ve been given don’t dry up.
The thing that most people will agree with is to do your art as much as possible. Act, paint, dance, write whenever you can, and do it with your community. Put yourself, or your puppet, on camera as much as you can if that’s where you want to be. If something doesn’t exist artistically, it’s an opportunity for you to create it. We have waaaaay more processing power in our cellphones than NASA did in their computers when they landed on the moon, so shoot on your cellphone, or buy a $50 camcorder and make something.
Also, read and watch the things you want to be in. Take notes whenever you can.
Above everything, LOVE what you do and be happy doing it. If you do it for recognition, or money, or validation, or status it will drive you crazy and will never give back to you in a rewarding way. My biggest frustration most days is that I can’t practice my art even more than I’ve been able to with my short time on this planet.
Lastly, help others learn. I worked hard to get here, but I didn’t do it alone. Nobody does, so look for ways to help others succeed, because, just like art, success is better when we all have it.
By SAM MILLIGAN