Living Arts Weekly: A Collaborative Puppet Show

May 28, 2023

Last month I wrote about Creative Exploration through Storytelling, and the opportunity for my rising first graders to participate in our final puppet show of the year. They each created a bendy doll for their puppet, and I adapted “The Golden Fish” by Cynthia Aldinger for our show. While it was tricky to add this endeavor to the usual busy-ness of the school year’s end, the richness of our experience made it all worth it. 

To prepare for their participation, I adapted the story so that it focused on a group of children instead of one, and included a line to for each of them to speak. I visualized the blocking and the basic scenery considering factors such as: 

  • Where and when would the puppets rest so there was not more than one pair of hands moving a puppet at the same time in the same place? 
  • Where would I place the scenery so that they would not bump or knock them over while moving their puppets?
  • How would I pace the story and movement so that here was not too much lag time as the children moved their puppets across the scene?

Next, I told the story for a few days before bringing these five children into a practice time in which I retold the story, while pausing to explain and direct what they would be doing. This included setting up specific spots for them to sit to the side of our “stage” as well as how to move around each other as they came on and off. It was important to talk about and to practice how this (and they) would look and sound so that they were not distracting to the audience who was watching the show. 

It became apparent quite quickly that it would take too long to have them all take turns to move their puppet at each major scene change- the children gather at a garden, a goat pen and a pond, then to their homes before ending back at the pond. Instead, I had two or three of them move to each scene before they all went home and then all ended at the pond, and added details to enrich the story during these lengthier transitions. 

They helped to add details to the scenery- rocks, moss for bushes, trees, flowers, etc. They  practiced how the puppets would walk or skip by watching each other walk or skip and trying to imitate that with their puppets. I didn’t focus on perfecting, just introducing and practicing it a bit. Once they were really doing it, I would have interrupted their imagining if I was picking on the details too much. They easily slipped into the story’s life when they stepped up to the scenery. 

Lastly, when it came to the actual puppet show, I alternated performing the show alone using one or two child puppets, and having them perform with me. My intention was to give the participants some gestures to imitate and a visualization of the whole show. In the end it felt even more important because it allowed all of them to experience the story more deeply as an audience, especially because even with practice, the collaborative show still remained broken by the distraction of moving participants. 

Now at the end of it all, there are a couple of things I would change for next time. The biggest would be to have the children take turns (one or two at a time) to participate instead of having five. With one or two, they could have remained behind the scenery the whole time, reducing transition time and distracting movements and allowing them individually to “live into” the story more deeply. Secondly, I would shift to a different time of year. While it was a beautiful privilege for “rising” into first grade, the mood of the season already had the children “squirrelly” and needing more time to move. Acting out the last story of the year would be a more appropriate choice.  

I am happy to have explored this collaborative puppet show and plan to try it again. My six year olds truly felt the privilege involved and worked hard to live up to it- they were beaming with pride on their participation days! I was fascinated by how they individually approached and worked with the story and the whole task. There was rich observation in how they moved their puppets and brought varying expressions to their lines. I got to know them all in new ways, and watched the story flow into the imaginative free play of some more than ever before. I will certainly take time this summer to look for a new story to try a collaborative puppet show with next school year. 

Cheers to more creative exploration through storytelling! Tell us what you have been up to recently!