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Sesame Street's Leslie Carrara-Rudolph brings Character Development to New York City College of Technology

When Justin Simonich, Creative Producer of Animation at Sesame Street, asked me to speak to his 2D animation class, I asked the usual question,

"Is there anything specific you’d like me to touch on?”

“Just make them laugh, ” he said.

His students usually hover over their individual computers but don't often engage with each other, so my main goal was to make authentic heART connections. We decided to focus on

the process of character development. I'd entertain by introducing my characters and their origin stories through storytelling. Then we'd use drawing and writing exercises to jumpstart their imaginations, tapping into their own life experiences as a resource for creating unique characters. 

The students probably expected a lecture about design, color palettes, and archetypes. Instead, they were serenaded by a candy-loving sock, high-fived by a Sasquatch, had a Granny puppet sit in their laps, and had their foot read by a fortune teller with a red Tutu on her head.

Breaking the Ice

When I walk into a grade school, college, or corporate training in my purple plaid coat and painted sneakers carrying a fish purse and several large bags of puppets I'm never sure how I'll be received. It's my version of Willie Wonka meets Mary Poppins, with a dash of Monty Python. Poppinwonk, my not-so-secret identity is the “character” layer that helps me be a little fearless.

The first few minutes are always the trickiest with so many thoughts and feelings competing for my brain's attention, but then my love for characters takes over and I introduce the audience to my brain...well, the multicolored carved foam brain I have on a leash. I explain to Justin's class that I have an overactive imagination - I’m constantly teaching my brain to follow my heart. Justin shouts “Me too!” and the whole class laughs. From that moment on I knew we'd have fun. Group laughter is one of the best ways to break the ice. It opens the door for people to receive joy. It's why Jamie and I named our company Humor With a Heart and it's exactly what these students needed.

Three Simple Ingredients for Creating Characters

I began my “Show and Tell.” The “show” is me performing various characters. The “tell” is me sharing how my personal history informs the layers and backstories of my work as an artist and performer. I introduced the 3 simple ingredients for creating a character: the voice, the body, and the imagination.


The voice is determined by many different factors not just how it sounds. People often ask, “Which came first, the voice or the character?” It's like asking "which came first the chicken or the egg?" The egg and the chicken are the same thing just in different stages of development.

A character begins as an idea, the “egg”.  That “egg of an idea” needs a story, a “voice” to give it some chicken legs to cross the road. In other words, the voice is informed by where the character is in their story. It's the who, what, and where:

WHO - Age, gender, human, creature, etc…  is the first step

WHAT - The character’s intention. What do you want? What are you saying? How do you feel about it?

WHERE - Where are you physically and emotionally?

These few basic questions add layers and are the basics for character homework.


Physical characteristics provide additional layers to a character. Whether the character is a human, animal or creature, their age, emotional state, and relationship to their environment all determine how a character moves.


Imagination is crucial in character development because it sets the stage for the story and pulls the audience in. Design plays a huge part. Whether a character is animated, a puppet, or a human, its life rests in the performer and the audience's belief in it.

The Wizard of Oz

Performing a three-minute version of my favorite movie, The Wizard of Oz, provides the clearest example of how each character’s voice and intention inform their physical and emotional life. Scarecrow wants a brain, Tinman wants a heart, the Lion wants courage, and Dorothy wants to go home. Wisdom, love, courage, and home (truth).

I think we are all on a journey looking for these same four things. We can choose who we want to be in our story as we travel down the “yellow brick”.  To help students explore their stories, I took them to my OZ, sharing the tornado that ripped through my family, how I gained courage through characters and followed my heart. I could feel a shift in the room. A student later wrote:

 “It was a really nice feeling when the door was shut and you were there because nothing else could be done about anything else. All we had to do is pay attention and life didn’t hurt for a moment.” 

Little did they know that I was feeling the very same way.

Granny Dot and Polardoodle: Bringing What's Inside Out

We only had 3 hours but we played hard . We did a "Drawing with Numbers," created original stories, and did a simple writing exercise  I call “Poetic Thinking.“ There was a sense of willingness, everyone was in the moment together, and no one had a phone in their hand…except Justin who took pictures.

The writing exercise was my favorite because that’s when the students really opened up.  When it came time for the students to share, I decided to let “Granny Dot” take over. Talking to an old lady puppet in a bathing suit seemed to make them feel less self-conscious. Their stories were so clever and original.

Then Polardoodle came out. He is my simplest puppet because he's basically two things; he’s cute and he wants hugs...he's also gassy. Polardoodle got so many hugs that my arm was sore. I’m used to my arm being hugged in hospitals and at community outreach events but not at a College! I'm so grateful that everyone was so open to connect through joy.  Our short time together gave my heart wings and hope for humanity. 

Thanks to Justin for sharing his class with me. The letters these incredible humans later wrote, reminded me just how vital it is that we connect in meaningful ways and find people who see and hear us and value our ideas. The arts are a beautiful way to do that. I'm so grateful our paths crossed on the “yellow brick”

HeARTfully yours,
Leslie Carrara-Rudolph 

 Photos courtesy of Justin Simonich



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