VPR Backstage: Marlboro College Puppet Institute

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(Host) Puppetry is an ancient performance art form that s experiencing a revival. At Marlboro College this summer, students are getting intensive training in Puppet Theater.

VPR s Betty Smith goes backstage at a puppetry workshop.

(Sounds of fish music.)

(Smith) A small fish bumps its nose on the sides of a narrow channel, swimming in circles, back and forth. Soon it s joined by other fish and some are very big. The little fish wiggles its tail. (Sounds of laughter, fish music continues.) The fish are white cardboard cut outs with black eyes, scales and fins painted on both sides. They re attached to black sticks.

Puppeteers, also dressed in black, crowd fish into the space. The little fish swims in tighter and tighter circles. A black bird swoops in and out again. The little fish disappears and a very large bird flies out and over the audience with wings of black gauze.

Nothing is spoken. A few lines of text dangle at times on strips of white paper beside the little fish. (Music signals end of the puppet show, sound of crowd applause.)

Eric Bass is a co-founder of the Sandglass Theater and artistic director of the Institute:

(Bass) “The participants were given at the beginning of this workshop excerpts of five letters. They are required to use these letters as inspiration for their imagery and then to find texts in these letters to use for within these pieces. In the piece we saw, the text wasn t spoken. It appears as kind of bubbles in the thoughts of a fish. We re looking for the way that text is linked to imagery.”

(Smith) There are 17 participants in the workshop. Their ages range from 19 to 55. They re college students, storytellers who ve never worked with puppets before and a visual artist who s never been a performer. And some are theater professionals.

Gregory Lehane is head of the directing program at Carnegie Melon University School of Drama. Lehane has directed puppets for children s television, but he has come to Marlboro to learn more about them from the inside.

(Lehane) “Puppetry – and performance objects I think is the hip term for it – are becoming a much more current theatrical vocabulary, thanks probably to Julie Taymor and the billion dollar success of Lion King. So students are getting hungrier to learn some things about it.”

(Smith) Backpacks lay on the padded benches of the small, dimly lit amphitheater. People are warming up, stretching and doing breathing exercises. At first it looks like your average dance or theater movement class. But when the students sit down to face each other in two lines, they each hold a simple hand puppet. The head is a ball of bright yellow foam with one feature: a nose. The body is fabric. A single wooden arm with a bright foam hand pokes out of the right side. This is manipulation class and lnez Zeller Bass directs a sneezing exercise:

(Zeller) “Put your puppets in a sitting position. Inhale, stop and then release with an enormous explosion. Get the power from right here. Keep it internal here but put it all into the puppet. Okay, I will give a clap and you start.” (Sound of a clap, three breaths, sneezes and laughter) “Okay, try to keep your own bodies neutral. Okay? Greg, carry it further. You re just almost to explode and you re holding and holding, then go.” (Sound of a clap, three breaths and terrific sneezing.)

(Smith) Seventeen little puppet bodies arch backward with their yellow foam noses pointed to the ceiling. Then they snap forward. Everyone is intent upon the task, because it s harder than you might think, to make a puppet sneeze.

For VPR Backstage in Marlboro, I m Betty Smith.

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