Puppets of Old
Puppetry is not a passive art. Puppets engage the audience and challenge the puppeteers. Their enchantment reaches out to all people. Puppets have touched the hearts of royalty, peasants, sages, and fools. They have brought their magic to street comers, palaces, theaters, churches, splendid cities, and simple villages across the world. Originally, puppets were probably used for religious reasons, not for entertainment. At one time in India, it was believed that puppets were holy—little divine creatures.
Archaeologists have discovered marionettes in Egyptian tombs, and in the ruins of Greece and Rome. The very first marionettes, which were terra cotta dolls with moveable arms and legs, may have been made in China. Centuries later, when the explorer Cortez arrived in what is now Mexico, he brought a puppeteer along, but he discovered the indigenous people there were already using puppets in religious ceremonies. Puppets have played a part in storytelling and theater in countries as diverse as Java, Spain, Burma, France, Turkey, Japan, Persia, Russia, India, Germany, and England.
Puppets and the Church
Puppets have entertained, passed down legends, and poked fun at political figures for centuries in the secular world, but they also have a long history in the Christian Church. Before reading and writing became common skills. Scripture stories were frequently acted out, and puppet shows were often performed in churches for those who could not read. In the ninth century, there were crosses bearing figures of Christ that could move, and whole scenes from the Passion were acted out with puppets. The story of the Nativity was also done with puppetry. Puppet shows in Sicily told of conflicts between Christians and Muslims. For more than three hundred years, puppeteers in Poland have created religious shows. Even the word “marionette” has a religious connection: it was inspired by small statues of the Virgin Mary. During the Middle Ages, many people had extremely beautiful statues of Mary in their homes. They would compare the statues to puppets they saw, thus the word marionette, or “Little Mary,” came into being.
How-to for Puppeteers
You can carry on the tradition of teaching Scripture and other religious stories through puppetry. Here is a selection of short scripts for puppet plays based on stories from the Old and New Testaments. Simple black-line drawings are provided for easy puppet making. These can be used in religious education programs, Catholic schools, parish retreats, summer Bible school programs, home settings, after-school daycares, and even birthday parties.
The shows are designed with the skills of kindergartners through fifth graders in mind. However, they are not at all limited to these age groups. For example, middle schoolers have enjoyed performing them for preschool and elementary children. You will find that the scripts vary in skill levels. This is so younger children can perform some without frustration, and older children can enjoy the challenge of those that are more involved.
Whatever age the puppeteers are, they immerse themselves in these tales. They will touch on aspects of history and geography through the clothing of the puppets and by drawing the backdrops. The more contact children have with a story, the more it becomes their own. Whether they create puppets and scenery, or perform as puppeteers or narrators, children invest themselves in the characters and stories. They will always remember them. Each story also includes a short prayer that you can use before or after the story.
**All puppets figures are the work of illustrator Tessie Bundick
Creating Basic Puppet Shows
These puppet shows are devised for very simple performances with stick puppets and poster board backdrops. Each play is divided into scenes; the information about which puppets and what kind of backdrop are needed precede the script for that scene. You, the stage director, need to decide how many puppeteers are needed, since older children can handle more puppets than younger ones, some stages are larger than others, and so on.
Along with each script are illustrations of the story characters done In black-line drawings. These will make excellent stick puppets, the simplest puppets of all.
- Copy the puppets onto stiff paper
- Have children color them with markers.
- After cutting them out, attach a stick with adhesive tape onto the back of each puppet. Chopsticks work especially well because they are slender and long. A wide puppet may need two sticks
- If the audience is to be fairly large, enlarge the puppets so everyone will be able to see them.
- Use paint stir sticks as the “backbone” and handle for these larger puppets so they do not flop over in the middle of a scene.
- The puppet figures in this book can also be used as paper dolls
- Any of these puppets can be used for flannel board stories if they are back with sandpaper or felt
While these are simple performances that you can do during religion class, you will need to practice a few times before you invite an audience in.
- Help children understand that they must have the puppets face the audience at all times.
- After they have run through the story the first time, have someone else act the puppets while your puppeteers watch. They will better understand the audience’s perspective then.
- It is inevitable with young puppeteers that they may be seen by the audience some or all of the time. That’s fine. These shows are designed so children can have creative fun. The results may not be very professional, but the stories will be shared, and the audience will delight in the spontaneity and creativity of the puppet troupe!
All the puppet scripts are written with only a narrator having a speaking part. This keeps the plays particularly easy to perform. Puppeteers need not learn lines or project their voices, so they can concentrate on having the puppets in the right place at the right time. An adult can narrate if none of the children are fluent enough at reading to do so. The role of the narrator Is an important one. It is imperative that this person be an expressive reader.
- should stand near the puppet stage and read from the script
- gives cues to the puppeteers. All of their movements depend on the narrator’s reading
- sets the tone at different parts of the play, making it dramatic, funny, exciting, or quiet. For example, when reading that Noah and his family are working very hard to build the ark, the narrator can sound and appear to become exhausted during that paragraph.
- can invite audience participation and gently end it when necessary. If the audience includes particularly young children, the narrator may choose to define certain words, or further explain a circumstance that will help them better understand the story.
In addition, the narrator is the wise person, the sage who passes on knowledge: for example, that we are all descendants of Abraham and Sarah; or who applies the lesson to us, as in the Jonah story.
It would bring dignity and delight to the plays if the narrator dressed as the wise storyteller, perhaps in clothing from biblical times.
While some children are coloring the puppets, others can be creating a stage.
Keep in mind these factors:
- the height of your puppeteers
- where the audience will sit
- the width of the surface the puppets stand behind. A wide surface, such as a table or desk top, makes it difficult for the audience to see the puppets’ movements.
Perhaps you already have access to a puppet theater. If not, here are some simple suggestions for creating one:
- Place a square or rectangular folding table on Its side, the table top facing the audience. The two bottom legs should be extended to hold the table up, but the top ones can remain closed to give the puppeteers more room. Hang a sheet or blanket over the table top. Puppeteers sit between the table legs. This will work well for stories that do not need props sitting on a wider surface (such as the ark would need In the Noah story).
- A long bench or a board laid across two chairs, with a sheet or blanket covering the flat surface, can easily become a theater that even the youngest children can “construct.”
- Large, cardboard boxes can be decorated with paint. A box that is as large as a table top but only a foot wide makes a good stage. Small puppeteers can even stand behind it, and It offers enough of a ledge to fasten props.
- Make the more traditional box theater from a packing box for a refrigerator. Stand it upright, cut a “window” in it large enough to accommodate your puppet show, but leave the resulting “shutters” attached to it. Keep the shutters closed until the show starts.
Each script has suggestions for backdrops, which help set the scene. They are not absolutely necessary, but do enhance the storytelling.
Poster board will work well for backdrops because it is light but stiff enough to stand up.
Backdrops are backgrounds, so they must be colorful enough to be seen by the audience, but not distracting from the puppets.
Some backdrops will require a small amount of research for the artists. Through picture Bibles or encyclopedias, they can see how Bethlehem looked in the days of Jesus, or what type of tent Abraham and Sarah lived in, etc. Other backdrops, such as the Shadrach story, invite imagination and the use of lots of color!
To display the backdrops:
- for the folding table or bench type stage, place a flip chart stand behind the puppeteers and attach the backdrop.
- If there is more than one scene, attach every backdrop and just remove them as each scene is completed.
- For a traditional theater found in libraries or schools, or for the refrigerator box theater, the backdrop can be taped to the back. Another method would be to fasten the backdrop to a dowel with long strips of strong tape. Then lay the dowel across the top of the theater.