- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 8, 2007

Leah Kong of North Potomac says puppets are almost as real as the people who move them. She once made a puppet from a tennis ball.

The 6-year-old recently attended a performance of “The Magic Flute” at the Puppet Co. Playhouse, a center for exploration of the puppet arts, at Glen Echo Park in Glen Echo.

“It’s a good way to tell a story,” she says. “The show was about love.”

Puppetry is an art form that has evolved for centuries. The creativity of the field has been used to entertain children and adults alike.

This summer, the Puppet Co. Playhouse offers “Puppet Making for Kids,” two weeklong camps where children can make a hand puppet, a “Muppet”-style mouth puppet, a simple marionette and a simple rod puppet. The children also will visit backstage during a performance in the playhouse. The camps will take place June 18-22 and July 9-13.

Although students are given basic patterns and forms, they are encouraged to use their imaginations when making their characters, says Allan Stevens, president of the Puppet Co. Playhouse.

“When you are making puppets for fun, there are really no hard and fast rules,” Mr. Stevens says. “You could turn your garage or kitchen table into a puppetry studio.”

Being a professional puppeteer requires a lot of energy and strength, especially because many of the puppets are heavy, he says. However, the best puppeteers make it look easy. He has had an interest in puppets since age 4.

“I had seen some puppets displayed in a store window and started to make paper puppets,” Mr. Stevens says. “I also did puppet shows for birthdays in high school.”

Puppets are very powerful models for young children, says Ingrid Crepeau, master puppeteer at Dinorock Productions in Silver Spring. Ms. Crepeau is author of “A Show of Hands,” a book on puppetry. Her musical partner is Michele Valeri.

The touring dinosaur show includes string puppets, rod puppets, hand puppets and body puppets, where the puppeteer hides inside the body of the puppet and moves a controllable mouth.

“If you move it, it’s alive,” Ms. Crepeau says. “If you take a stuffed toy and jiggle it, they assume it’s alive. When children are 3 or 4, reality sets in. They know it’s not real, but they are willing to say, ‘OK, we’ll pretend it’s real.’ ”

Because puppets capture the attention of children, it is easy to teach children through the interactions of puppets, she says. Further, puppets can bring emotional healing to suffering children.

“A number of years ago, I made some puppets with the child life workers at Children’s Hospital in D.C.,” Ms. Crepeau says. “They used the puppets to help children talk about how they feel about their hospitalization. They will tell puppets things that they won’t tell you. They tell the puppets all kinds of things because they suspend reality.”

Puppetry is an expressive art form that inspires children to use their imaginations, says Bill Hopkins, president of the National Capital Puppetry Guild, the area guild that is chartered by the Puppeteers of America, a national nonprofit organization founded in 1937. The group meets every other month at the Puppet Co. Playhouse.

Each April, the Puppeteers of America sponsors a day of puppetry. Guilds from around the country participate in their own regions, he says. On April 21, the Alden Theatre in McLean will have five professional puppeteers performing, along with workshops on how to make their own puppets.

“Puppets are really an entertainment art form,” Mr. Hopkins says. “It’s a lot of fun. We are trying to get more young people involved so they would really appreciate the art of puppetry.”

Professional puppeteers undergo extensive training in many fields, says Bart Roccoberton Jr., director of the puppet arts program and professor of puppet arts at the University of Connecticut in Storrs.

The school offers two graduate degrees in the field, a master of arts and a master of fine arts. The undergraduate degree in puppetry is in the dramatic arts department.

Along with puppetry classes, the students are studying acting, voice, directing, lighting, design, costume and stagecraft, Mr. Roccoberton says.

“Puppetry has been with us since the beginning of civilization,” Mr. Roccoberton says. “It’s part of the nature of human beings. People would cast shadows on the walls with the first fires and take the head of an animal after the kill and re-enact the kill.”

Three or four generations of children have learned to read and write through “Sesame Street,” he says. Currently, there are videos of puppets teaching Afghan children how to avoid minefields.

“Puppetry gives us an opportunity to perform foolish behavior,” Mr. Roccoberton says. “Rather than a human being getting hurt, let the puppet be the fool. No one is hurt that way.”

Puppets can help children understand issues, such as the dangers of secondhand smoke, says Debra Burrell, partner in Fuzz and Stuffing Puppets in Norfolk. She works with her husband, Craig T. Adams.

The company has performed educational shows for the American Lung Association. The show teaches the children how to disagree with adults who smoke without being disrespectful.

“Puppets have a long history of being used to tell stories in many cultures,” Ms. Burrell says. “Marionettes means ‘little Mary.’ Years ago, it was blasphemous to act as a Bible character. So they made puppets to tell the stories because people couldn’t read the Bible.”

Apart from educational shows, the couple also presents enchanting performances, such as Basilisk the Wizard, who is touted as “the worst magician in the world.” The wizard is a traditional Japanese bunraku puppet and takes two persons to work. Therefore, Mr. Adams moves the head and the left hand, while Ms. Burrell moves the right hand.

Although there are varying forms of puppetry, the traditional Punch and Judy shows that were developed in the Middle Ages are known as the first family of puppetry, says George Neff, executive director of Dr. Neff’s Incredible Puppet Company in Monroeville, N.J. The company creates puppet shows accompanied by orchestral instrumentation, such as the Haddonfield Symphony in Haddonfield, N.J.

“I remember seeing a puppet show in Philadelphia when I was a child. They used to have Punch and Judy shows in some of the department store windows,” Mr. Neff says. “I’ve been interested in puppets forever. It’s a good way to entertain children.”

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