For this Pride Month at ToughPigs, we’re reminding you again that transgender people are just people in your neighborhood like everyone else. We’re not evil or weird, or even new, despite what a lot of people want you to think. We’ve always been here, living our lives, hanging out with our friends, and sometimes, making the art you love.
Case in point: The Jim Henson Company and Disney have worked with a number of trans and nonbinary puppeteers and performers over the years. They’re a part of shows you enjoy, like Muppets Mayhem and Fraggle Rock: Back to the Rock. So for Pride Month, I reached out to some of them and had amazing conversations with some of the most genuine, passionate artists I’ve ever spoken to. Below, I’m going to profile one of them and share some stories. Stay tuned this month for more profiles!
Morgana Ignis (she/her)
Henson Projects: The Curious Creations of Christine McConnell, Earth to Ned, Fraggle Rock: Back to the Rock
The Beginning: Morgana is the self-described “enthusiastically transgender” woman behind (or more accurately, inside of) some of the full body characters in recent Henson projects. She began working with Henson after Kirk Thatcher brought her onboard The Curious Creations of Christine McConnell, to be the body performer for the goliath Edgar.
As Morgana says, “Working in puppetry wasn’t a route I thought my career would take,” but her life kept intersecting with that sphere. She was a stop motion animator with shows like Robot Chicken and Moral Orel before returning to school for acting and movement.
That led to a career in performance, mainly as creatures in a variety of horror and sci-fi films, as well as doing professional cosplay for conventions. One notable one that got her attention was Apocalypse from the X-Men movies: she walked around the convention floor in a giant suit and performed monologues for the crowd.
While Morgana didn’t intend to work with puppets, she says “When I have the opportunity to work in a new creative medium that’s on brand for me, I take it.” Because of her knowledge of movement, she wound up on the list of performers that Henson would contact for “not just suit characters, but any kind of out-of-the-box characters with special rig setups.” This, plus her skill with improvising, eventually led to Morgana being called in to portray Ned as a puppeteer on Earth to Ned.
Coming Out on Earth to Ned: When Morgana went in to audition for Ned, she wasn’t sure what to expect. She says “I had no idea what the puppet was going to look like. I didn’t realize that this wasn’t a suit character, but a massive rig. I was basically inside of an alien’s stomach, pulling levers from the inside. But my ability to work in sync with other puppeteers ended up landing me the role.”
Obviously, any major puppetry role would be significant, but playing Ned was even more important to Morgana than it might seem. As she says, “Ending up on Earth to Ned was a major turning point in my career. I had been out in my personal life to those close to me, as trans, since around 19-20. Even in ‘boymode’ I was already expressing myself with a level of goth-y punk androgyny.”
Morgana wanted to be an actor, but that was almost impossible because there was little representation for transgender actors at the time. Instead, as she says, she “would be Morgana in my personal life, but ‘boymode’ for work-related functions.” Yet, as she adds, this “was growing harder to hide.” For instance, when people would see her social media profiles, they’d see photos of her as a girl.
When beginning on Earth to Ned, Morgana realized “that it didn’t matter what I looked like or what I wore,” since she was inside of a giant rig. She says, “I could go to work every day dressed the way that I normally do.” So, after being confirmed for the role, she came in to the Creature Shop on the first day of rehearsals wearing a full face of makeup and her favorite dress, and no one said anything. Of course, because of her usual androgynous ways of expressing herself, this was a fairly smooth change in presentation.
When production began, however, Morgana knew she would be introduced to the many guest stars on Earth to Ned, and didn’t want to be introduced under her deadname. (For those who don’t know, a deadname is the name trans people were assigned at birth, and no longer use after transitioning.)
Morgana asked her producer if she could be introduced to guests as “Morgana,” but was unsure if she would be able to change that name everywhere at work. The producer took this issue right to the top, and spoke to Brian Henson himself.
Morgana notes that Brian was confused at first. He asked, “So you want to be introduced to the guests as Morgana…but you want to be called [Deadname] by the rest of us? That’s ridiculous. If you want to be called Morgana, that’s what we’re going to call you. If you’re Morgana, you’re Morgana.” From that point on, her name officially changed on the callsheet and never went back.
She laughs. “I was worried this whole time about transitioning and getting work, and then I basically just had Brian Henson kill my deadname. If Brian is supportive…yeah, I might not run into everyone being supportive, but f*** it, I’ve got him in my corner.”
Morgana says that her time on Earth to Ned was amazing. Not only did she finally get to be herself, but she got to be herself and act casually in front of renowned celebrities and experts.
On transitioning, Morgana notes, “It has been nothing but a career boost since then. [Before I came out publicly,] my abilities as an actor were being dulled, because I was playing a role to play a role. I was pretending to be a male actor playing other roles. So when I came out, I didn’t have this block where I was trying to hide something when telling a narrative.”
Other Projects: These days, Morgana has been doing less puppetry work, although she was involved in some promotion for Back to the Rock. Of note, you can see her in the episode of Tested where Adam Savage visits the Henson Workshop; she’s demonstrating how Junior Gorg operates.
However, she’s mainly doing other acting jobs, largely those that no longer require her to hide behind a puppet. She says, “Playing creatures was the best thing I could do as an actor with gender dysphoria. I could get down to the bare bones of performance. While completely hiding everything I was uncomfortable with. Now that I’ve solved that issue, now I can do the rest.” (If you don’t know, gender dysphoria refers to the intense feeling of discomfort trans people have when they are not able to live authentically as their true selves.)
These days, her most famous non-puppet character is Sallie May on the animated YouTube series Helluva Boss. Morgana not only voices Sallie May, but consulted on the production team regarding “how to make this trans character cool and sexy.” She loves that Sallie May resonates with many queer people around the world.
She adds, “Trans and gender nonconforming people are so hungry for representation. Thirty seconds of [Sallie May’s] introduction was enough to ignite an audience.” Playing Sallie May has gotten Morgana a lot of auditions. “Roles I couldn’t get because I stayed in the closet are coming to my table every week now.”
Final Message: I asked Morgana what message she’d like to give to our readers, whether they are cis or trans.
She says, “Let authenticity be your weapon. Everyone will face adversity for something. Everyone is someone else’s freak. It becomes very difficult to attack someone who has overwhelming self confidence behind them. You end up looking absolutely ridiculous going after someone who has zero shame or insecurity in what they are or do.
“I think many people face some level of dysphoria in different ways. But I’m living exactly as I intended to do. I don’t mourn not having been born in a certain way. I had a specific vision for myself of who and what I wanted to be, and I’m doing that. I have a goal, and I’m hitting it.
“Sometimes transphobes will try to throw insults at me about things they think I’ll be sad about. But I’m thriving. Everything about my life since I got this confidence and became me has gotten better. Personally, romantically, professionally…I look at the sad individuals who spend all day coming after people in our community, and there’s not a single one of them I would switch places with.
“Sometimes, the only response I need to give a bigot is, ‘My life is so much cooler than yours.’ And that’s it. How empty does your life have to be that this is what you do all day?
“All I can think of when I see negative comments was ‘I’m on Tested and you’re not.’”
You can find Morgana’s website here: https://linktr.ee/MorganaIgnis
Click here to be an out-of-the-box character on the Tough Pigs forum!
by Becca Petunia