One Small Change

Sometimes I wonder what I would have done as a freelance art and puppetry teacher before Pinterest. Whenever I am stuck for ideas, wondering what new project three year olds can do using cotton balls, paint and paper plates, all I have to do is type a few keywords into a search box and the wonders of teaching blogs, mommy blogs and other artists are there for my perusal.

Because I’m teaching different groups of kids in different settings, sometimes I will repeat a project, and in the process, learn how to improve it. Here is a small case study: a penguin puppet.

I found this project (from the blog Confessions of a Teaching Junkie), attractive because of it’s simplicity. I also liked that it used paint, which is useful for stretching a project out to two lessons, because we have to let it dry. My students in an after school arts program, who are nearly all 6 or 7, were able to paint a plastic cup, cut out wings and eyes (I cut out the feet, as cardboard cutting skills are still a bit beyond them) and glue everything together. They turned out quite charming, as you can see. And they all looked pretty much the same, with some slight variations in the eyes.


Then I decided to repeat the project with a different after school class. These are 7 and 8 year olds, so a little older, a little more assured with scissors and glue and paint. However, I made a major mistake, which is that I didn’t realize our paint was tempera, not acrylic and in no way designed to bind to the slick plastic of the cups. I didn’t take a picture, because it was slightly humiliating, but all the paint the kids piled on the cups simply shriveled up and flaked off.

So we had to try something else, which turned out to be paper collage. In the process of re-doing the project with paper instead of paint, I noticed something interesting. Perhaps because my students felt more assured with paper, scissors and markers, they started really putting their own stamp on the project. They added hats, hair, and accessories. Signs that read ‘I Love Penguins’. Their creativity was inspiring.


I have no doubt that my students at the first program are just as creative and could have produced their own unique penguins. But instead, they followed my directions and example and made puppets that all looked pretty much alike. I am always interested in how to gently push my students to let their puppets reflect their own personalities, rather than making something they think will please me or their friends. For this project, it turned out that tissue paper was the magic ingredient.

Unleash Your Inner Artist at Woolly!

Genna and Cecilia demonstrate the Personal Puppet Show.

Genna and Cecilia demonstrate the Personal Puppet Show.

For anyone in search of puppets this upcoming weekend, Saturday June 1 will be a busy day for us! From noon to 2pm we will be performing our Personal Puppet Show at Fenton Street Market in Silver Spring and then we will move to Woolly Mammoth Theatre in DC for their Unleash Your Inner Artist event from 3-6pm. If you’re in Silver Spring, stop by to see our latest 1-minute show ‘Jabberwocky’ while also finding some fantastic handmade items at the market! If you are hanging out downtown in the afternoon, get out of the heat and indulge your imagination with our show, the gigantic string instruments of Michael Verdon and the poignant love letters of the Love Collective.

You need to reserve free tickets for the Woolly event, so please come out and support us, our fellow artists and our supporting organization, FIGMENT DC. We had an awesome time playing with our friends at FIGMENT last fall and we are looking forward to partnering with them more in the future!

Puppet Workshop Announcement!!

scrap logoThe Amazing and Marvelous Cabinets of Kismet is a project that happened because a group of artists all read books by Shaun Tan and were inspired to create a new story. We hope that watching our puppet play inspires other people to create their own stories as well. To help that process along, we are thrilled to be able to present a PUPPET-MAKING WORKSHOP on Sunday, May 12 in collaboration with SCRAP DC.

Directly after the 2pm show, Karen Klein and Heather Bouley from SCRAP will lead a workshop on making puppets from recycled materials. This workshop is for all ages and is a perfect activity for families to do together. There are only 25 spots in the workshop due to space limitations, so buy your tickets today!

Unicorns & Rainbows

While the performance part of the Smithsonian Shadow Family Night was fun and successful, we had just as much fun working with the many children and their families who came to our table to make shadow puppets and try them out on a simple screen. Shadow puppets are one of the simplest kinds of puppets to make–all you need is some thick paper, scissors, tape and something to be a control rod. We had very small children whose parents cut out their fish or bear puppet and older kids who insisted on doing everything themselves. The screen and lights were enough to keep some participants busy the entire time, as the picture below shows, you really only need your hands and a light to have a good time with a shadow screen!


Most kids stuck with the stencils that we provided, and made their own adjustments using scissors to make (among other creatures) a fish with circular scales, a bear with jagged hair or a ‘dolphin-butterfly.’ However, we had two older girls who decided to leap past all of those and instead create unicorns, grass, a huge butterfly and a rainbow, to tell their own stories. We were blown away by their creativity and meticulous attention to detail and remembered once again how perfect puppetry is for letting people accomplish as much as they like through imagination.

The lovely unicorns and green fields designed by workshop participants.

The lovely unicorns and green fields designed by workshop participants.

What DOES a shadow of a rainbow look like?

What DOES a shadow of a rainbow look like?

The girls who designed the puppets above, with a young admirer.

The girls who designed the puppets above, with a young admirer.

Shaun Tan & Paul Klee

The Bird KingIn the introduction to his latest book The Bird King, Shaun Tan quotes the artist Paul Klee, who once said something along the lines of “Drawing is taking a line for a walk.” Klee, if you aren’t familiar with his work, was an Swiss painter who lived from 1879-1940, taught at the Bauhaus school, and was part of the Expressionist and Surrealist movements. I love that Tan references him, because Klee was also interested in puppets. Using a rich combination of color and texture, he created a set of hand puppets for his son, many of which can be seen in these excellent photos on Flickr.

Tan also quotes a second Klee metaphor, imagining the artist “…as a tree, drawing from a rich compost of experience–tihngs seen, read, told and dreamt–in order to grow leaves, flowers and fruit. Art, following the laws of horticulture, can only make something out of something else; artist do not create so much as transform.” Both of these quotations strike me as being entirely appropriate to The Amazing and Marvelous Cabinets of Kismet. Many times during this building process, I feel like I have been ‘taking my materials for a walk’–arranging and rearranging and seeing what shapes and characters emerge. So many of these characters have been created without a real design in mind, that it has felt both terrifying and liberating all at once. As a piece of theater, this is very much an example of Klee’s tree; it is art that draws from many different sources in visual art, story and film, and combines them into something new. This is reflected in the hodge-podge of materials we have been using to create our puppets and set, from paper scraps, to bottle caps to empty wooden spools.

Tan comments in the same introduction that he is often “…wary of using the word ‘inspiration’…” and that “…it sounds too much like a sun shower from the heavens, absorbed by a passive individual enjoying an especially receptive moment.” I understand his hesitation, but for me, inspiration is less like a sun shower and more like a flash of lightning or a moment of recognition; something that makes me go YES. That is TRUE. Now DO something with it. Inspiration for me isn’t passive, it is active, a call to act and create. Tan’s books give me that moment of recognition often; so do Klee’s paintings. I feel so fortunate that I get to spend my time turning the inspiration they give me into my own art.