The art of flapping gums

October 08, 2004|by ANDREA ROWLAND

From simple sock puppets to more complex marionettes, versatile puppets can entertain and teach lessons ranging from politics to oral hygiene.

Puppetry appeals to people of all ages, said Jill Kyle-Keith, who founded Baltimore-based Beale Street Puppets in 1988. Her company - which has performed 12 times at Pen Mar Park's Everybody's Day in Cascade - stages musical child-oriented puppet shows with such themes as outer space, winter, teddy bears and dinosaurs and is now preparing an adult puppet show called "Burley Q."

"I think children like puppets for different reasons than adults do. For kids, it can be a nice fantasy world, but everything's smaller than you and not scary - even when they're monsters and ogres," Kyle-Keith said. "Adults like them because you can pretty much do anything with puppets. There are almost no constraints."


Puppets can provide a fun and effective medium for communicating different ideas, she said.

"They're very visual - and we've turned into a very visual society," Kyle-Keith said.

Children's stories

Puppets will entertain and educate children and their caregivers at the Capitol Theatre in Chambersburg, Pa., on Monday, Oct. 11, and Tuesday, Oct. 12, during Mermaid Theatre of Nova Scotia's "Very Eric Carle" puppet show. Capitol Theatre Manager Linda Beckman said she booked the puppet show - which is most appropriate for children in prekindergarten through third grade - in an effort to offer more programming suitable for young kids.

"It's really hard to find things to do that are appropriate for little kids," said Beckman, mother of a 3-year-old boy.

The Canada-based Mermaid Theatre uses black light to capture the charm of three stories by favorite children's author Eric Carle - "Little Cloud," "The Mixed-Up Chameleon" and "The Very Busy Spider" - which teach important life lessons such as self-esteem, according to the theater company's Web site at

Beale Street Puppets - at - focuses on pure entertainment for children and adults, Kyle-Keith said.

"I have never figured out a happy way to use puppets to 'just say no' to drugs," she said. "We get requests for that all the time."

Kyle-Keith said she and other members of her professional touring company also have staged puppet shows in Ireland and Turkey, where puppetry is more accepted as an art form rather than simple children's entertainment. Group members create all of their own puppets, she said.

Making puppets

Puppets can be crafted from all kinds of materials - socks, paper bags, juice cans, fabric, even food. Countless books and Web sites provide puppet-making ideas, said Kyle-Keith, who recommends the book "The Muppets Make Puppets."

"You can open it up and make puppets without having to go out and buy anything," she said.

Puppet Productions at on the Web gives the following suggestions for making puppets come to life:

· Practice synchronizing the puppet's mouth with the spoken word. Save wide mouth openings for exaggerated or loud expressions.

· Avoid "flipping the lid" - moving the top of the puppet's head instead of its bottom jaw - when making the puppet talk. Practice opening the puppet's mouth by moving your thumb downward without moving your fingers upward. A slight forward thrust of the hand might help.

· Maintain your puppet's eye contact with the audience.

· Make puppets appear more natural by giving them good posture. Keep the puppeteer's arm held at right angles to the floor with the hand level.

· To enter and exit a puppet, make it appear as if it is walking up or down a ramp. The puppeteer must use the whole arm, keeping the forearm straight up and down while the wrist remains relaxed. Using a fluid motion, the puppeteer moves forward as he "bounces" the puppet onto the stage. With each bounce of the arm, the puppet comes more fully into view. This process reversed when the puppet leaves the stage.

· Practice in front of a mirror.

· Tape puppet performances, watch them, and improve upon errors.

To learn more about puppetry, go to the national nonprofit Puppeteers of America Web site at on the Web.

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