'Sesame Street' has its first Black female puppeteer
Megan Piphus Peace was a shy child. She recalled sitting crossed legged in front of the television screen when she was 2 watching "Sesame Street" and reruns of "The Shari Lewis Show."
She felt like the characters were her friends.
"I did not know until I was much older that the puppets were not real," Piphus Peace, 29, said.
When she did find out, though, they remained her friends.
The puppets left such an impression, in fact, that she decided to try her hand at it. Her parents bought her a puppet at age 8, thinking it would be a good outlet for her. At first, she did not take puppeteer classes or workshops, but instead learned how to mimic the ventriloquists she watched on VHS tapes at home. She practiced in her room for hours and put on shows at home for her family.
"I lived inside of a shell," she said. "I had a hard time opening up and expressing myself."
It was puppeteering, she said, that allowed her to find her voice. So she never stopped.
In June 2020, Piphus Peace made history by becoming the first Black woman to be a puppeteer performer on "Sesame Street," and the following year, she became a full-time cast member on Season 52 of the show.
She plays Gabrielle, a 6-year-old Black girl who first appeared in the series in 2017. Before Piphus Peace started playing Gabrielle, a child actress performed the voice of the character.
"I've always felt that I can say more with a puppet than I can myself," said Piphus Peace, who for years worked as a real estate agent.
Despite getting glowing feedback on her "Sesame Street" performances and feeling at home with the cast, she hesitated to trust her puppeteering career to make a full-fledged living. But last month, she decided to pivot away from real estate — which she was doing between taping seasons of the show — to focus on "Sesame Street" and other puppeteering opportunities.
"I really had to decide what makes me come alive," Piphus Peace said.
Playing Gabrielle, she said, is a long-held dream come true - especially because of the historic nature of her casting.
"Representation is what got me into puppetry," said Piphus Peace, explaining that watching performances by Judy Buch and Liz VonSeggen, both female ventriloquists, motivated her. "Seeing female ventriloquists onstage inspired me."
Growing up, Piphus Peace performed at churches, schools, festivals and events, doing both puppeteering and ventriloquism. She was also a standout student.
As a high school senior in Cincinnati, she was known as the "Ventriloquist Valedictorian," and as a student at Vanderbilt University, she was called the "Vanderbilt Ventriloquist."
She appeared on "The Tonight Show" in 2012, and "America's Got Talent" in 2013. After graduating from Vanderbilt in 2014 with a degree in economics and a master's of science in finance the following year, she worked full time in real estate for seven years, all the while puppeteering on the side.
Although Piphus Peace has long been a die-hard "Sesame Street" fan (her favorite character was always Zoe), she never expected to be a cast member.
Her path to "Sesame Street" started in 2018, when on a whim she reached out to Leslie Carrara-Rudolph — the original performer of Muppet character Abby Cadabby — to express her admiration of her work.
"We kept in contact, and she became a mentor for me," said Piphus Peace, who lives with her husband and two sons, ages 1 and 3, in Nashville.
Carrara-Rudolph asked permission to send along a video of Piphus Peace puppeteering to "Sesame Street" staff to consider her for future roles.
"To say that I was intrigued by Megan would be an understatement," Carrara-Rudolph said. "Megan's sheer talent as a singer, actress, writer and performer is incredible on its own, but I was instantly inspired by her loving heart, strength of character, humor, humanity and what an energetic creative force she is."
In March of 2020, Piphus Peace was stunned to hear from the show. She received a message from Matt Vogel, an actor and director for the program who has played several characters, including Big Bird and Kermit the Frog. He asked if she would be willing to audition for "Sesame Street."
"I never expected that," she said.
Vogel, for his part, was interested in learning more about Piphus Peace's unique skill set.
"She comes from a different kind of puppetry background than most of us other 'Sesame Street' Muppet performers," Vogel wrote in an email to the Washington Post. "Some of us went to college to learn puppetry, or acting schools, etc., but Megan is a self-trained ventriloquist — something none of us have done."
He said what struck him was her natural talent.
"What sets Megan apart from a lot of us is her innate musical ability," he continued. "We could see in her videos potential and a lot of energy and natural instincts, which are also important to this job."
Piphus Peace underwent a lengthy audition process, during which she had to learn the distinct "Sesame Street" style and record multiple video submissions. She received copious notes from the show about how to improve her techniques, she said, and in June 2020, she was offered an opportunity: Would she be the voice of Gabrielle for CNN's partnership with "Sesame Street" to produce a "Standing Up to Racism" town hall for kids?
Definitely yes, she told them.
"It just felt so wonderful to be empowered by the greatest puppeteers on earth today," Piphus Peace said of the "Sesame Street" actors.
She was asked to officially join the cast, and in September 2021, she traveled to the Kaufman Astoria Studios in Queens, where the show has been taped since 1993. Her first time recording at the famed studio, she said, was surreal.
"I felt all of the magic," Piphus Peace said, adding that each recording season runs for about six weeks. "It felt like an impactful moment of me holding Gabrielle and being on the set."
She also explored the scores of framed photos of the cast and crew around the studio. One thing struck her: She didn't see any Black female puppeteers pictured on the walls. She confirmed with her producer that she was the first.
"I immediately started crying," said Piphus Peace. "The more diversity we have, the more display of the possible opportunities we have for the next generation."
"Being the first Black female puppeteer on the show," she added, "means opening doors for future performers, and persons of color anywhere in the television and entertainment space."
Her colleagues agreed.
"Over the years, we had encountered very few puppeteers who are Black — and the ones that did find their way to 'Sesame Street' had all been male," said Vogel. "It was refreshing and inspiring to see Megan — our first Muppet performer who was a Black female — and her natural abilities."
Carrara-Rudolph said she is proud of her friend and mentee.
"Megan is a born leader and a powerful woman who has used her creative gifts to tell stories we all need to hear and connect to," Carrara-Rudolph said.
Season 53 of the show — Piphus Peace's second on "Sesame Street," which was recorded in January — will stream on Cartoonito on HBO Max this fall, and PBS Kids next year. She plans to travel to and from New York for future recordings.
Through her role on "Sesame Street," Piphus Peace hopes to teach others — especially children — to believe in their dreams, no matter how out of reach they may seem.
"It gives me so much purpose," she said.