Puppets and Clowning

Some of my colleagues from this trip to Armenia.

Some of my colleagues from this trip to Armenia.

After getting back from Winnipeg, I had just a short break before leaving on another international trip, this time to Yerevan, Armenia with a group of clowns and artists led by Patch Adams. Adams, the founder of the Gesundheit Institute, is a clown, activist and speaker. He saw our show Cabinets of Kismet in 2013 and we have been in touch since then, talking about the possibility of using puppetry on one of these trips.

It was a new and different experience to be working with puppets in an entirely improvised setting, without words (I don’t speak any Armenian) and usually without story. Our group visited hospitals and orphanages in four different Armenian cities, encountering children of all ages. I found that the puppets usually worked best in a hospital setting, or where children had limited mobility. In these kinds of places, we were moving from room to room, often on our own or with just one other person. The intimacy of small numbers meant I could take the time to introduce the puppet, play and let the child try it out for themselves.

Clowning and puppetry have a lot in common. An emphasis on physicality, over the top reactions and wordless interaction are hallmarks of both art forms. Just as the children laugh at the surprise of an adult in a colorful wig or giant false bottom, they laugh at the surprise of a puppet appearing out of a bag or box. I had never worked as a clown before and so I didn’t have as many familiar ‘bits’ or planned interactions to fall back on, but I found that the puppets worked well as an introduction to many kids, especially those who were shy at first.

I brought only hand puppets on this trip–a sock puppet, basic glove puppet and tiny mouse finger puppet–thinking that they would be easiest for the kids to understand and manipulate. If I have the opportunity to do this kind of work again, I’d like to bring some object puppets (similar to what we created for Kismet) and see if kids respond to that. Part of the fun of puppetry is often taking familiar objects and turning them into personalities, with or without words. It would be great to see what kids in other places come up with using that style of puppet.

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