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Puppetry: The Playful Art

By Eleanor Boylan

I distinctly remember how old I was when I saw my first puppet show. I was forty. Sitting on the floor with my children at a friend's birthday party, I watched the show and watched the children watch the show. I kept thinking, "Where has this been all my life?" Why, after years devoted to children's theater, hadn't I realized that puppetry is a special form of theater - a magical, provocative dramatic art? It was also, I noted with a happy jolt, a business! That was twenty-five years ago. I've been a professional puppeteer ever since.

Puppets are uniquely effective instruments of communication, capable of "getting away" with things that human actors cannot. Puppetry is the oldest of the performing arts, predating live theater and probably even mime.

An eminent puppeteer, Forman Brown, once summed up its extraordinary appeal: "It is in his unlikeness to human beings that the puppet is comical; it is in his likeness that he is poignant." Thus an audience can roar with laughter when a puppet whacks another puppet, but that same audience will watch in pained silence when a puppet weeps, or is lost or abused.

One need not make a living as a puppeteer to discover the appeal, the joy, the wallop of good puppetry. Making puppets and presenting them in plays at home can be a marvelously rewarding family project, just easy enough to be fun, just challenging enough to be even more fun. Puppetry has been described as the "possible art" for children. They take to it naturally. If you, the parent, realize puppetry's potential and know some basic rules, you can help children do more than just "put on a puppet show"; they can transform a corner of the living room into an enchanted place.

Puppets are at their absolute best in short stints, brief sketches, and vignettes. They cannot sustain long, talky scenes. Give them dramatic material, lots of action and preferably two or three short plays or sketches rather than one long one. Puppet projects should start not with the puppets, but with the play. A small cast of puppets may be made in a day or two if the materials are gathered ahead of time, but the selection of the story itself can be a matter of deliciously prolonged family discussion. Someone might have a favorite fairy tale or fable, someone else might propose a "part I've always loved" from a favorite book. You can do both. Thus, "The Lion and the Mouse" might be adapted into a five-minute play, and the Mad Tea Party from Alice in Wonderland into a ten-minute one.

Puppet ResourcesYou can find books of puppet plays in your library, but it is more fun to adapt your own. You know your requirements, the number of available puppeteers, the occasion for which the show will be presented, etc.

Here are a few suggestions that might help you plan a successful and enjoyable show:

1. Keep in mind the number of hands you will be working with.
Older children can handle two puppets, younger ones can usually manage only one.

2. Have rehearsals without puppets.
Think theater! Practice a bit for expression and projection. It's fun to rehearse dialogue at odd times: at meals, in the car, at bedtime, on the beach. Encourage the puppeteers to learn their lines by heart, or to learn the action so well that they can improvise.

3. Don't plan scenes that require the curtain to close and time to elapse.

4. Use a narrator to clarify the story.
Dialogue may be interspersed with such narration as: "And so the fisherman took up his net and walked along by the seashore - when he suddenly heard a voice!" Then the fish speaks. Narration helps to bridge scenes and explain what has happened, off stage. The narrator may be standing out in front in full view, or be reading from backstage, or be one of the puppeteers.

5. Consider narrating the entire play.
This is advisable when working with very young children or when rehearsal time is short.

6. Two fifteen-minute plays are much better than one that lasts thirty, and three ten-minute plays are better still.
All the popular fairy tales and fables adapt well to the puppet stage. For younger children, try "Goldilocks," "Little Red Riding Hood," "The Three Little Pigs," or "Peter Rabbit."

7. Work towards a special occasion and then be sure to mention it.
Nothing pleases a guest of honor more than to have the puppets refer to his birthday, her school award, his visit, her chicken pox.

Now you are ready to make the puppets ...

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