See Jane Spotlight

The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance
A Pillar of Inclusive Entertainment

By Mary Ellen Holden

As the summer winds down, anticipation is building for the premiere of The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance, a new, original TV series prequel out on Netflix, August 30. The 10-episode show is set many years before the actions of The Dark Crystal, Jim Henson’s beloved, cult fantasy movie from the 1980s. Almost a decade in the making, the series has a timeless, completely original quality that feels 100% contemporary and relevant.

The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance transports audiences to the fictional world of Thra which is dying. Three Gelfling leaders unite the seven Gelfling clans (each representing a different race) to form a resistance that rebels against the evil Skeksis to save their world. The series is a stand-out in terms of its artistry, workmanship, performances, and mythology. Inspired by female leadership from The Jim Henson Company, this series embodies a magical, gender-equal world empowered by hope, healing and unity that audiences will want to experience. For a brief moment, Hollywood’s parity problem has been averted.

Lisa Henson, CEO and President of The Jim Henson Company and Halle Stanford, its President of Television took me “behind-the-scenes” for a look at how the series and the Company are addressing representation in children’s and family television.

Mary Ellen Holden: How do diversity and inclusion inspire creativity at The Jim Henson Company and on the set of The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance specifically?

Lisa Henson: We are always working to improve the behind-the-scenes situation and in the case of The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance, all four producers from our company were women. We did significant outreach for diverse puppeteers and voice casting. We utilized blind casting as best we could for voices. There are several cases where people were playing siblings where the actors themselves are of different ethnicities. Our goal was to cast the right people with the right timbre of voice. I think casting is where the rubber meets the road in terms of diversity.

Halle Stanford: Diversity and Inclusion are embedded in the DNA of The Jim Henson Company. Kermit the Frog coined the phrase “It’s not easy being green” which, speaks to every single child who has ever felt different whether it’s due to race, socioeconomic status, neurodiversity, gender or another attribute. “The Rainbow Connection” speaks to inclusion. I’m very proud to say that Lisa and I have incorporated all types of people, creatures, and characters within our programming to reflect the modern family that we want to see and promote in our world.

Holden: Would you consider The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance to be a female fantasy?

Henson: Two of the three lead characters are female which I think is an unusual balance these days. We have created a whole culture for the Gelflings which is a matriarchy and each of the seven Gelfling clans have a Maudra and they are all ruled by the All-Maudra who serves as the symbolic leader of the Gelflings. There is a beautiful, gentle natural quality to the Gelflings. While they are male and female there is a bit of feminine energy to them and their culture is a matriarchy. Conversely, the Skeksis have a bit more toxic masculinity.

Stanford: The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance definitely tells our story through a feminine fantasy lens but that doesn’t mean it’s only for women. To me, our big themes of protecting the earth and one another, about diversity and inclusion, and connecting through truth are all more feminine. We also have a terrific range of female fantasy heroes in our series and their approaches to the world of Thra. There are no token characters in this world or women trying to act like men. I’m excited to get the word out about our feminist-inspired series.

Holden: How has the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media inspired you/The Jim Henson Company?

Henson: I’ve been tracking the Institute’s research and findings for many years. At this point, people like me and Halle have the Institute’s insights embedded in our thinking as opposed to having the aha moment.

Holden: Can you share an example of how the Institute’s research has informed your work?

Henson: For this program, gender balance was most important with our puppeteering team behind the camera. We hired 12 principal puppeteers, including 5 women, and each handled 2-3 characters. This was a breakthrough production for several of the women on the team because they were in lead roles for the first time or multiple lead roles; they really got to stretch their muscles. We struck such a gender balance with the puppeteer casting that there was a completely different atmosphere on the set. Louise Gold, who was probably the youngest puppeteer on The Dark Crystal film, was on our series as one of the twelve principal puppeteers. It was exciting to have that continuity. The female puppeteers were so happy as they felt supported and encouraged by the way we put the production together.

Stanford: When I was listening to the Institute’s research, I suddenly realized that our beloved Dark Crystal at that time had only one strong female lead and that female characters were missing from our supporting cast. I went to Lisa with this concern and was able to start filling out the female leads and transforming the characters we had -like the Skeksis- to have female voices! Lisa and I hosted some wonderful creative brainstorming sessions, one which we like to call The Great Creative Conjunction. We were looking at the Wall of Destiny prop that shows Gelflings, symbols and other elements of the mythology of Thra and realized that the leader Gelfling in the carving looked female. That discovery sparked our creation of a matriarchal Gelfling mythology in which a female “Maudra” is elected by the clans as its leader! Geena’s research had a massive effect on the transformation of this property to what it is today.

Holden: What advice would you have for a young woman looking to enter this industry?

Henson: Across the industry, women need to shoot for the top leadership role in whatever genre it is that they’re interested. For film they should try to be director, for television they should target showrunner, in animation they should try for creator. While it’s ultimately a team effort, there is a leader for every team. Women must set their sights on the top position and go for that.

Stanford: We want to help each other, to lift each other up. So, reach out to your heroes is my advice…do it! Don’t be afraid to pick up that phone or send that email. I would also say that you should follow your bliss. Tell the stories that you want to tell. For me, I’m passionate about telling stories of hope and healing to educate, inform and inspire audiences. I have stayed true to that.

Holden: Where do you see the future of children’s storytelling?

Stanford: We just concluded our own internal study on gender and race in children’s and family programming. For preschool programming alone 40% of the characters we see are non-human. I love non-human, animal, and fantasy characters (in fact, all the characters in Dark Crystal are non-human) but children need to start seeing themselves in the shows they watch in all different (intersectional) ways. Showing real kids as they are in the world is my producer challenge for the next year.

Holden: As Geena Davis says, If She Can See It, She Can Be It.

Close-Up with Alice Dinnean – Puppeteer

One of the beauties of being a performer with puppets is that age and gender and even species matter less than the character and spirit that you lend to these inanimate objects.

In the case of The Dark Crystal, I was able to draw on both my memories of being a teenage girl, which informs Brea early in the series, as well as my grown woman’s experiences of the kind of grief and loss we all inevitably gather over the decades of our lives. This, I hope, brought depth to Brea later on in the story, as the old-soul side of her was gradually revealed.

The opportunity to perform Brea on this series was the privilege of a lifetime: the chance to add a strong, inspiring girl to the vast and varied canon of the Henson universe. It was the very thing I’d been preparing for during a 25-year apprenticeship, without really knowing it. My great hope is that audiences come to love Brea as much as I do, and that she inspires other girls to take action, to explore, and to stand up and speak the truth.
– Alice Dinnean

IF SHE CAN SEE IT, SHE CAN BE IT