Significant headway has been made over the past year to improve diversity behind the scenes of the kids entertainment industry. But when Higher Ground Productions started casting its new series Waffles + Mochi, the studio realized there was one group that was being left out of these inclusion efforts.
“The puppet community is a very intimate one,” says creative producer Qadriyyah Shamsid-Deen. “You’ll get lots of recommendations for people who are really well-known. [We heard], ‘This person is really great because they’re technically advanced and have worked on Sesame Street.’ But what was really important to us was finding the right voice. A lot of times, that voice is in an underrepresented community [where the talent] might not be represented by agents or have an extensive resumé.”
Produced by Michelle and Barack Obama’s production company, Waffles + Mochi launches on Netflix this Tuesday. The hybrid series follows a pair of puppet characters as they explore a grocery store to discover and enjoy new foods from around the world. Michelle appears in every episode, along with other guest chefs and celebrities. Creators Erika Thormahlen and Jeremy Konner (Drunk History) were inspired by a grocery market frozen food aisle.
Shamsid-Deen and her team auditioned an extensive group of puppeteers to fill out the cast, but they also reached out to everyone they could in the broader puppet community to get recommendations. And YouTube and social media sites helped them seek out folks online who maybe weren’t steeped in puppeteering, but had tried something innovative on their own channels. The team also looked for foodies who could be trained as puppeteers, says Shamsid-Deen.
Headlining the show is Michelle Zamora, who had been helping Higher Ground source talent as a consultant before Shamsid-Deen realized she’d be perfect as Waffles.
“She’s a mother, but she was also the only person on set who was a Latinx woman and a puppeteer,” says Shamsid-Deen. “She was giving us a lot of technical advice—like how does a puppet eat—and we realized when working with her that she was Waffles.”
Russ Walko co-stars as Mochi, with Jonathan Kidder, Diona Elisa Burnett, Taleia Gilliam, Andy Hayward, Piotr Michael and George Konner rounding out the cast.
Higher Ground is collaborating with Partnership for a Healthier America on the show, and its mission is to encourage kids to learn about food, and to get even the pickiest eaters to try something new. As an adult who dislikes lobster, it’s a lesson Shamsid-Deen relates to.
“We want kids to see something that may excite them, and to put it in their mouth and say, ‘Hey, I like it or I don’t like it, and I made up my mind [by trying it],’” she says.