Part human, part fantasy, puppets and puppet shows have delighted both young and old for generations. Children (especially wee ones) feel a very special kinship with these hand-held cloth-and-tinsel beings. If you don't believe me, the next time you have the opportunity, stop and watch how tenderly an awestruck toddler who's been invited to touch a fuzzy animal puppet (still on the puppeteer's hand) will stroke and caress that pretend character. It's as if the puppet were much more real ... well, than you or me.
Why this affection and ready trust? One reason may lie in the fact that children often dwell in a world suspended between reality and fantasy. And puppets can help create a needed bridge between the two by communicating with youngsters in a unique language of sights and sounds that, although foreign to most adults, is crystal clear to kids.
What's more, psychologists and teachers tell us that oftentimes a shy or troubled young person can disclose to (or through) a puppet a carefully guarded secret, which otherwise might never have been expressed. But whatever the reason(s), children and puppets really do share an almost magical bond.
Realizing the inherent possibilities for magic in puppetry, MOTHER EARTH NEWS "elves" have been hard at work devising the plans for "The World's Most Extraordinary Puppet Theater." They have even had it tested by experts (children!) and have discovered that this amazing space possesses the power to sweep its inhabitants off to the enchanting realm of their imaginations!
However, such a journey is not possible without a modicum of adult enthusiasm to set things in motion. And building the stage, as you may have guessed, is only the beginning of your parenting part in this family adventure. Of course, you could simply present your PVC-velour creation to your youngsters and hope that they'll figure out something to do with it. And maybe they will. But chances are that without guidance they won't. And the theater that could've been "the world's most extraordinary" will become, well, merely ordinary and thus easily dismissed.
Are you game to lend another hand? Well, all you'll have to do is learn enough about puppetry to be able to nurture a genuine interest and respect for the art (and its tools) in your offspring. The rest will be up to the kids. OK?
And don't worry, you're going to be a terrific puppetry coach! Puppets and script ideas are easy to come by, and understanding what to do with them is a lot simpler than you might think. Besides, once you start exploring the hidden mysteries of the puppet stage, you just might stumble across some long-lost insights from your own childhood.
Children (Like Puppets) Need A Hand
Of course, all the knowledge in the world is useless without your first providing a gentle push (at just the right time) to inspire your child to give life to puppets: "Sure, this theater here and those limp puppets over there won't do a dern thing all by themselves. But with your assistance, Shazam! They'll whisk you off to never-never land! You don't believe me? All right, I'll prove it. Here, sit backstage. Now put Goldilocks on your right hand and old Papa Bear on your left. No, give Mama Bear and Baby to your little brother. OK, OK, I'll work the curtain, but just this once! You remember the story, right? Ready? Here we go!"
With this kind of boost, your would-be puppeteers should be off and running.
Why, before you know it, your "thimble players" will be managing things on their own, performing puppet shows everywhere: in the basement, the backyard, and all through the neighborhood. Who knows where such experiences may lead? And just think, you were the one who lent them that first (oh, and second!) helping hand. Magic? Enchantment? You'd better believe it!
Make Your Own Thimble Theater
Our goal was straightforward: We wanted to design a child-scale puppet theater that could be built by adults but used by youngsters. That meant it had to be lightweight, sturdy, uncomplicated, and perfectly portable. The stage we've come up with meets those requirements and — what's better — is so inviting that kids can't help but take a shine to it.
It's made mostly of 1" Schedule 40 PVC pipe (35 feet of it, to be exact) and assorted plumbing fittings. We've also snuck in some wood and fastening hardware, and draped the whole production in velour to give it big-time character.
Interested in making one? Study our Puppet Theater Assembly Diagram carefully before hitting the hardware and fabric stores: We've indicated the number of pieces required and their dimensions, so there shouldn't be any confusion. Once you've gathered the materials, the rest is almost a cut-and-paste operation ... except that the plumbing parts aren't glued, but are simply screwed or slip fitted together so that the entire framework can be popped apart and strapped into a neat little bundle together with the curtains (which are just as easily removed because they're fastened with strips of Velcro-type tape).
Actually, the only tricky part might be hanging and stitching those draperies so they fit correctly. You'll probably want to use a sewing machine to hem the borders (there are six yards of material in all), but the Velcro or snaps can be hand-stitched. We've put a seam at the upper outside corners of the side curtains to form slip pockets that are sealed around the rails with the Velcro. The wing curtains are sewn and hook-taped to these sleeves, but are gathered with ribbon at the center and hang freely.
The front curtain has three rows of plastic loops that guide an equal number of nylon cords. These lines pass through partially opened eye screws in the front rail and terminate at a cleat in one side. Machine nuts weight the main curtain, and a short valance — gathered and stapled to the wooden platform — helps dress out the stage. The backdrop sleeve simply slips over a length of plastic pipe hooked between the side curtain rails.
The parts for the framework, if purchased new, will set you back in the neighborhood of $50 or $60. Six yards of plain velour will bring the total to about $75, but if you don't mind losing a little bit of the magic, colored bed sheets will do. Considering the cost of "action" toys these days, we think this kid-size puppet playhouse is a small investment that should bring a great return!
EDITOR'S NOTE: For further reading on puppetry and staging, you can look forward to the publication of Cloth Marionettes: Sewing, Stringing, Staging by Lucy and Grace Morton, which should be available by the time you read this. A new do-it-yourself crafts book, it includes line drawings, patterns and instructions for ten easy-to-make marionettes.