Puppet workshops inspire imaginations, fire creativity
Lincolnville — Montville resident Nancy Tyndall, of Milkweed Puppet Theater, loves not only telling stories with puppets, but also helping boys and girls make their own puppets to tell stories with.
Sponsored by Partners for Enrichment, she did a series of workshops with students in kindergarten through second grade in School Union 69 in late March and early April, going to Lincolnville Central School March 18 and 25 and April 2. There, and also at schools in Appleton and Hope, the first workshop was to tell the stories students would eventually act out with their puppets and assign parts, the second was to show them how to make the puppets and the third was the students' chance to tell the stories with their puppets, accompanied by Tyndall's narration.
Each grade made a different kind of puppet and told a different story. Tyndall brings all the necessary materials with her, and does a significant amount of preparation so children can finish their puppets in a one-hour workshop. She takes any puppets not completed at the end of the hour home and puts the finishing touches on.
Tyndall has learned from experience that children find it easier to be creative within a prescribed structure, so she leads them through a “recipe” for making their puppets, leaving them free to choose from different colors of fabric for clothing, different yarns for hair, and to draw and color the puppets' faces themselves.
On March 25, she showed Deborah Burns' second-grade class how to make rod puppets to tell a story of the Micmac and other Native American tribes, “The Hidden One.” They began by tracing canning jar lids on card stock for the puppets' heads; those whose puppets would be animals added a snout, ears or whatever else was needed. Next, they cut out the torso drawn by Tyndall on another folded piece of card stock, and colored it according to what their character was wearing. The main rod, a paint stirrer, was inserted through a slit in the folded edge of the torso.
Later, a tube of colored fabric was slipped horizontally onto the rod and fixed inside the torso for the sleeves, and the two sides of the torso glued to the rod. Tyndall and Ed Tech Leslie Lang helped with this step.
Children used cut-out forms prepared by Tyndall to trace their puppets' lower bodies, following guide lines to make either pants or a skirt. They also cut out their puppet's right hand, from a shape she prepared, which was glued to the sleeve, and a slimmer rod attached to it, so the puppet could gesture.
Finally, the young puppet makers selected their puppet's hair from different colored clumps of yarn, which was glued to the head, and the head glued to the main rod.
The last workshop is not a performance, as such, Tyndall said. Since there is no chance to rehearse, she keeps it informal. She tells the story, and the puppeteers repeat their lines after her: “that gives them a joyful experience,” with no need to memorize, she said.
She breaks the story into several scenes, so that each child gets to be in a scene. Children can play any part they like: boys can be girls, girls can be panthers, and everyone gets to be both a participant and an audience member.
It is “a lively, dynamic way to experience a story,” she said.
Tyndall said teachers have told her that after her workshops students go on to make up stories of their own. Even the shyest can take part, thanks to the comforting anonymity of the puppet theater. She remembered one boy who never spoke in school who still wanted to make a puppet. When it came time to act out the story, Tyndall said his lines.
Allison McWilliams' first-graders used hand puppets to tell the native South American story, “The Wings of the Butterfly.” It is about a young girl, Chimmy, who lives with her tribe on the edge of the Amazon rainforest. She is beguiled by a beautiful butterfly into straying deep into the forest, where she gets lost. Chimmy meets different creatures in the forest, many of which turn out not be what they seem.
When some friendly monkeys offer to take her in for the night and show her the way home the next day, she is elated and shares a meal with them. But at night the lord of the monkeys turns into a jaguar and chases Chimmy through the forest. Even more lost than before, she is about to give up when a butterfly like the one she followed into the forest turns up and offers to lead her home. They come within sight of her village, but the great Amazon River blocks the way. The butterfly turns Chimmy into a butterfly, and they fly across. Though the girl now wishes she could remain a butterfly, her friend knows better, and turns her back into a girl. But now that she has been a butterfly, her heart will have wings forever.
With the kindergarten classes, Tyndall made bird puppets using new socks with clothespins for the beak. They told the native Canadian story, “How the Robin Got Its Red Breast.”
She likes to use international folktales, and seeks out stories students will probably not be familiar with. These stories are archetypal and therefore speak to all people, she said. “The ability to imagine solutions, courage to face unknown journeys, all those things are important.”
The biggest challenge for her is having just a short time for each workshop, Tyndall said. That is why she does so much advance preparation. She said students' artistic skill is less important than that they make the puppet their own. “You can make something lively no matter where you begin from,” she said.
For Tyndall, the reward is seeing the children's eyes light up with the magic of entering into a story. “Their excitement and their responses definitely inspire me.”
Sarah E. Reynolds is copy editor for the Courier Gazette and Camden Herald.
Sarah E. Reynolds has been a reporter and writer for more than 20 years, winning awards from the Maine Press Association and other professional organizations. She loves to read, ride her ATV and play word games.