Montezuma-Cortez High School and Stan Winston School - Inspiration for students
by Nicholaus Sandner
I have always been interested in puppetry, and I had been waiting for the right group of students to delve into studying puppetry and creating a puppet production. This spring I had just such a group in my Advanced Theatre Studies class at Montezuma-Cortez High School in Cortez, Colorado. I knew the time was right when I discovered Stan Winston School's puppet-making video courses by BJ Guyer over the winter break, and I got so excited to learn the process of making a foam puppet and teaching the process to my students.
Pictured above: Some of the students with their puppet creations.
We began the semester by researching a variety of puppetry forms and styles, from working to breathe life into inanimate objects to creating shadow puppets. We created sock puppets and worked on the basics of coordinating mouth movement to speech. We made shadow puppets out of foam core and bamboo sticks and performed fairy tales. We even researched international puppet styles - Bunraku puppetry from Japan, water puppets from Vietnam, Punch and Judy from Europe, African tribal puppetry, and totem pole story-telling from Alaska were among the styles we studied.
We looked at several ways that puppetry is advancing through technology, from the work of the Jim Henson Company with digital puppetry to the work of Legacy Effects and other special effects companies on animatronics and cable puppetry. It was fun for the students to learn that the concepts involved in early styles of puppetry are still being used today in the movie industry.
The first steps
Creating foam puppets was our final area of exploration, and we knew that we wanted to create a puppet show for local elementary school kids. Our original idea was to incorporate as many of the styles of puppetry that we had studied into the final project, but time limited us a bit. I watched BJ Guyer's foam puppet making courses and created a puppet just ahead of my students, and I taught them the steps as I went.
Pictured above: It's all about teamwork! Students help each other to create their first puppet.
It was a challenge for many of the students because they hadn't fabricated with foam, and many hadn't sewn before. We made the mouth plates out of thin plywood, glued the finger rings, cut and glued the 1/2 inch upholstery foam with contact cement, twisted the hand armatures, and sewed polar-fleece until we were all experts at the ladder stitch.
Pictured above: The inside and outside of the puppet head.
Pictured above: One of the students sews together their puppet's fleece "skin".
Each student was responsible for making one puppet from start to finish, but we soon discovered that some of the students would require a little extra help from their peers. It was great to see the students become the teachers as they helped each other through the more challenging steps of the process, especially the sewing and foam gluing.
Pictured above: Creating a posable wire hand armature.
The story behind the concept
As we got closer to finishing our puppets, we began the process of story development. We brainstormed ideas as a class and soon settled on a time-travel concept that would allow the audience to choose which locations they wanted to visit, like a choose-your-own-adventure story. We broke the story into five scenes. The first and last scenes were the same with every show, and the middle three had two versions - 2A - Pirates, 2B - Cowboys, 3A - Ancient Egypt, 3B - Medieval, 4A - Space, and 4B - Dinosaurs. We decided that we wanted to include interactive elements, so we made a puzzle for the A segments, a riddle and chase scene for the B segments, and a dance for the C segments. We created the characters for each segment and cast our puppets to play multiple roles, and then we had one of the students, Liv Story, script the show. She has a real knack for puns and playful dialogue, so the script turned out amazingly.
Pictured above: Drama students at Montezuma-Cortez High School presented puppet shows for local elementary school children at the Black Box theater in the high school. Photo courtesy of The Journal.
We then were faced with the challenge of costuming our puppets - in a variety of time periods and styles. We decided to keep it simple and look for inexpensive baby clothes to suit our needs. We found a wealth of cheap treasures at Walmart of all places in the 3-6 month baby T-shirts. We cut shirts to make vests and jackets, tea-dyed white t-shirts to make khaki adventurer shirts, and attached felt to create suits of armor. The hardest part was making fedora hats out of felt and paperboard, but we were happy with the way the costumes turned out.
Pictured above: Dressing a puppet in a baby T-shirt.
As the students were winding down their puppet building, I decided to build a dragon puppet. I took the original patterns and modified them to create the large head, and I made the mouth plate larger, too. I decided to make it a two-person puppet with human hands, but all our characters had four fingers, so I set out to create character gloves. I started with stretchy winter gloves, which I covered with foam to build up the fingers and parts of the hand. I combined the pinky and ring fingers together and extended the length of each finger to make the hands bigger.
Pictured above: Operating the dragon required two performers - one for the head and one for the hands.
Then I sewed polar fleece around the foam fingers to create the creature skin, and I extended the fleece down the performer's arms to the elbow. The upper part of the arm was made with a foam tube and was pinned to the body, which ended up being a hanging piece of polar fleece. I had intended to build the body, too, but we ran out of time, and it would have gotten in the way of the arm performer. The dragon was cute and popular among the students.
Pictured above: The finished dragon puppet is ready for the show.
We performed our show five times per day over two days, with new groups of kids coming in every hour. It was fun to hear their reactions to the jokes, hear them participate in solving the puzzles, and then hear their questions to the puppeteers and the puppets afterward. My favorite part was giving the kids high-fives from the puppets as they left - it's so fun to see the imagination that little kids tap into so easily and regularly. My students had a very unique experience working with elementary school kids, and I am so proud of the hard work they put into the semester.
M-CHS Drama Presents "Amelia's Time Travel Adventure" Puppet Show 2017 - Version A:
M-CHS Drama Presents "Amelia's Time Travel Adventure" Puppet Show 2017 - Version B:
M-CHS Drama - "Amelia's Time Travel Adventure" Puppet Show 2017 - Version A - Elementary:
I would like to thank BJ Guyer for sharing his expertise, and I would like to thank the Stan Winston School of Character Arts for making such high-quality courses available.
- By Nicholaus Sandner
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