Day Three…PUPPETS!!!

Originally published Oct. 9, 2008

Our third session with Dr. Jim’s students (and the 15 or so visitors who come in and out, depending on their class schedule) focused on the use of puppets in educational theater and the introduction of some basic puppetry skills.

We began with identifying how we had used the Coyote and Bear puppets in the drama we’d demonstrated on our first day. In “Coyote’s Surprise,” Coyote uses her puppets to tell Bear what she, herself, can’t say. In fact, at one moment her Coyote puppets says to the Bear character, “Talk to the puppet!”

Coyote and Bear, from the story about new sibling jealousy, "Coyote's Surprise."

An interesting side note: because the story draws on some of the Oneida Indian Nation traditions, we wanted Spica Wobbe, our fabulous puppet creator, to make the puppets in a more folk art style. As you can see, with their glass eyes, the puppets are quite striking and so are sometimes somewhat  startling to the children. To help defuse that problem, we began using them as narrators to review/introduce each day of the drama. Besides, they were so beautiful, we wanted an excuse to use them more….

Anyway, back to our puppet session in the UAE. Today we focused on what first brought puppets into the Early Learning Through the Arts’ work: Intervention and Role Replacement.

Based on Augusto Boal’s Forum Theater from his Theater of the Oppressed work, the basic premise is that a scenario is presented during which a serious conflict occurs. Audience members are asked to assess the reasons behind the conflict and see if there were points along the way where those in conflict could have made different choices. The scenario is re-wound and replayed, and audience members are then invited to step in are REPLACE one of the characters and see if they, themselves, can enact different choices and resolve the conflict.

We’ve had to make several adjustments to make Boal’s work developmentally appropriate for the early childhood classroom, but the overall thrust is the same. For instance, in the selection we demonstrated today from the drama “Feria de Sevilla, the puppets Luna and Sol go on a “friendly” picnic that ends up in a Punch and Judy-esque fight because SOMEone forgot to picnic basket.

Sol: "I can't believe you didn't pack the picnic basket!"

Luna: "What?!? it was YOUR job!" (Fishy: "Sheesh, someone get me outta here!")

In the photo below (thanks to John, UAEU Skills teacher and freelance photographer extraordinaire), a student has “replaced” Sol — she’s become the voice of Sol — and is trying out her suggestion.

Her goal is to solve the problem Luna and Sol are having, without fighting. My role as puppeteer, is not simply to say “okay, fine!”, but to, in the moment, challenge or, as we say in Applied Theatre, “problematize” the situation.

For example, we did a second session this afternoon for Dr. Leon’s Social Work class. During the intervention, “Sol” suggested we go fishing for food. I/Luna asked, “Do you know how to go fishing?”

Sol: Yes!

Luna: Well, what do we need?

Sol: A fishing pole.

Luna: Where can we get one?

Sol: (a pause) Here! She picks up the end of her abiya to use as a fishing pole/line. Sol grabs it in her mouth and Luna and Sol go over to one of the audience members. They “drop” the line into the audience, and a member grabs it and tugs.

Luna: (Yells) “FISH! We’ve caught a fish!”

After the demonstration, we asked the students to identify what skills the “children” would be learning through the work and why we were using puppets. We then asked them to consider what skills Steve and I had to have in order to execute the scenario/intervention. Steve had to act as a facilitator throughout the process, gathering ideas, focusing the questions, clarifying the options, and guiding the process. I had to be able to work two puppets and be able to match the puppet movement to the voice of the intervening student.

Our first step in training, then, was to build the student’s puppeteering skills. We started with the most basic of puppets: pipe cleaners (better known to early childhood people as fuzzy sticks) and focused on hand position and coordination of voice and hand movement.

We then distributed some members of our sock puppets collection.

Man, the pillows in this hotel are REALLY nice!

We love sock puppets because 1) they are so scrunchable, they can really show emotion and 2) they’re so simple to use and create.

The students worked with their puppets developing a character voice, practiced always keeping THEIR eyes focused on the puppet, and experiment with different movements and actions. They then paired up, came up with a name for their puppet and something their puppet enjoyed doing. Then my sock puppet, “Rathbone,” interviewed all the puppets, asking them to introduce themselves and demonstrate what it was the enjoyed doing. We got swimming, eating, playing basketball and dancing. (Yes, puppets know how to waltz.)

Steve and I were both so impressed with their creativity, their improvisation skills, and the enthusiasm with which they attacked the puppeteering work. It was great to have the session run longer than usual (8-10:45 vs. 10:00) but now I wish we had a day for them to create their own sock puppets… Maybe next time. (hint, hint).

As I mentioned, after the morning session, Steve and I led a 2:30-3:30 session with Dr. Leon’s Social Work students. What a bunch of pistols THEY are. Of course, now I wish we had a whole series of workshops just for them…. Maybe next time. (hint, hint).

Later in the evening, Steve and I led a professional development for 25 or so teachers on using drama activities to support the development of the University student’s English language skills. They were a diverse bunch and graciously energetic, considering they’d been teaching all day and it was a 6:00-8:00 pm session.

Some of their post-workshop comments:

What was the most useful aspect of this workshop?

To be reminded that I can use more creative “things” in the classroom.

Working with colleagues in a different format.

Emotive participation. Team work.

Maybe no new ideas, but new thoughts about putting students on the spot.

To get students involved in much less threatening activities.

Have you learned any new ideas in this workshop?

The activity types are familiar, but the set-ups were a bit different – and useful – to review and re-energize. I really needed some fun this week – thank you.

How to motivate and involve all members of the class.

Yes; How to put more teaching games/ideas into practice.

Do you have any questions or comments?

Really want more drama in education here. It would work well.

This was an interesting presentation. I think I’d like to do/attend some more presentations like this one.

It was so useful to hear other teachers’ ideas about how to adapt the activities for UGRU classes.

Great stuff – worth coming in at 6:00 for.

The day ended with dinner with Dr. Jim, his wife Tatiana, and Barbara, a friend and one of the teachers who attended our workshop. Have I mention how amazing the desserts are???

Oh, I almost forgot. Wanted to send out a quick thank you to the University’s Provost, Wyatt R. (Rory) Hume. He, too, was breakfasting in the hotel bright and early this morning (6:45AM. Ouch), and somehow identified us. (And no, it wasn’t because the puppets were eating with us). An Australian who moved to California and worked at UCLA and the California Unversities, he had recently retired. Rather unsuccessfully, it would seem, since he was now in the United Arab Emirates.

We chatted about what he was up to and what we were up (he knew that the Australians in our field are doing great research on Applied Theatre). We, of course, bragged about Dr. Jim’s students (and all the others who have dropped in to our sessions) and innocently mentioned how wonderful it would be to return for some follow-up. (hint, hint)

What can I say, Wheelocks are subtle by nature….

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