Megan Piphus Peace was a shy child. She remembers sitting cross-legged in front of the TV screen when she was 2 watching “Sesame Street” and reruns of “The Shari Lewis Show.”
She felt like the characters were her friends.
“I didn’t know until I was much older that the puppets weren’t real,” 29-year-old Piphus Peace said.
When she found out, however, they remained her friends.
The puppets left such an impression, in fact, that she decided to give it a try. Her parents bought her a puppet when she was 8, thinking it would be a good outlet for her. At first, she didn’t take any puppeteering classes or workshops, but instead learned to imitate the ventriloquists she watched on VHS tapes at home. She practiced in her bedroom for hours and put on shows at home for her family.
“I lived inside a shell,” she said. “I had a hard time opening up and expressing myself.”
It was puppetry, she says, 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 on “Sesame Street,” and the following year she became a full-time cast member on season 52 of the emission.
She plays Gabrielle, a 6-year-old black girl who first appeared on the show in 2017. Before Piphus Peace started playing Gabrielle, a child actress provided the character’s voice.
“I always thought I could say more with a puppet than myself,” said Piphus Peace, who worked for years as a real estate agent.
Although she received rave reviews for her performances in “Sesame Street” and felt at home with the cast, she was reluctant to trust her career as a puppeteer to earn her full living. But last month, she decided to step away from real estate — something she did between recording seasons of the show — to focus on “Sesame Street” and other puppet opportunities.
“I really had to decide what made me live,” said Piphus Peace.
Playing Gabrielle, she said, is a longtime dream come true, not least because of the historic nature of her cast.
“Performance is what got me into puppetry,” said Piphus Peace, explaining that watching the performances of Judy Buch and Liz VonSeggen, both ventriloquists, motivated her. “Seeing female ventriloquists on stage inspired me.”
Growing up, Piphus Peace performed in churches, schools, festivals and events, doing both puppetry and ventriloquism. She was also an outstanding student.
As a high school student in Cincinnati, she was known as the “Ventriloquist Valedictorian”, and as a student at Vanderbilt University she was nicknamed 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 of Science in finance the following year, she worked at full-time in real estate for seven years, while doing puppeteering on the side.
Although Piphus Peace has long been a die-hard “Sesame Street” fan (her favorite character has always been Zoe), she never expected to be part of the cast.
Her path to “Sesame Street” began 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 for her work.
“We stayed in touch and she became a mentor to me,” said Piphus Peace, who lives with her husband and two sons, ages 1 and 3, in Nashville.
Carrara-Rudolph requested permission to send a video of puppeteer Piphus Peace to “Sesame Street” staff to consider for future roles.
“To say Megan intrigued me would be an understatement,” Carrara-Rudolph said. “Megan’s talent as a singer, actress, writer and performer is incredible in itself, but I was immediately inspired by her loving heart, her strength of character, her humor, her humanity and what an energetic creative force she is. “
In March 2020, Piphus Peace was stunned to hear about the show. She received a message from Matt Vogel, an actor and director on 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 didn’t expect this,” she said.
Vogel, for his part, wanted to know more about Piphus Peace’s unique skills.
“She comes from a different puppet background than most of us ‘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-taught ventriloquist – something none of us did.”
He said what struck him was his natural talent.
“What sets Megan apart from many of us is her innate musical ability,” he continued. “We could see in his videos potential and a lot of energy and natural instinct, which are also important for this job.”
Piphus Peace went through a lengthy audition process, during which she had to learn the distinct “Sesame Street” style and record several video submissions. She received many notes from the show on how to improve her techniques, she said, and in June 2020, she was offered an opportunity: Would she be Gabrielle’s voice for the CNN partnership? with “Sesame Street” to produce a “Standing Up to Town Hall “Racism” for children?
Certainly yes, she told them.
“It was so wonderful to be empowered by the greatest puppeteers in the world today,” Piphus Peace said of the “Sesame Street” cast.
She was asked to officially join the cast, and in September 2021 she traveled to Kaufman Astoria Studios in Queens, where the show has been taped since 1993. Her first recording at the famed studio, she said said, was surreal.
“I felt all the magic,” said Piphus Peace, adding that each recording season lasts about six weeks. “It was like an impactful moment where I was holding Gabrielle and being on set.”
She also explored the dozens of framed cast and crew photos around the studio. One thing struck her: she didn’t see any black puppeteers depicted on the walls. She confirmed to her producer that she was the first.
“I immediately started crying,” said Piphus Peace. “The more diversity we have, the more visible the possible opportunities we have for the next generation.”
“Being the show’s first black puppeteer,” she added, “means opening doors for aspiring performers and people of color everywhere in the television and entertainment space.”
His colleagues agreed.
“Over the years, we’ve encountered very few black puppeteers — and those who found their way to ‘Sesame Street’ were all male,” Vogel said. “It was refreshing and inspiring to see Megan – our first Muppet performer who was a black woman – and her natural abilities.”
Carrara-Rudolph said she was 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 taped in January – will air on Cartoonito on HBO Max this fall and on PBS Kids next year. She plans to travel to and from New York for future recordings.
Through his role in “Sesame Street,” Piphus Peace hopes to teach others – especially children – to believe in their dreams, no matter how unreachable they may seem.
“It gives me so much purpose,” she said.