Thursday, July 28, 2011

Calling "Dr. Puppet!"

Teachers are our greatest resources. They don't get paid what they're worth. They don't get the celebrity status that's due them. Yet these are the people entrusted with our children's minds and spirit. And THAT'S what makes the job both rewarding and daunting. Let me explain.

I've been puppeteering and (casually) puppet making since I was really little. When I was in the sixth grade, I got to "teach" puppetry to first graders in my school. That was my first experience in "teaching." I used one of my favorite puppet books from the school library, took the really simple ones, and taught the kids how to make them. Then I graduated and didn't get back to "teaching" until adulthood.

For several years, I've been auditioning and training (aka "teaching") puppeteers for the various co-productions of Sesame Street in other countries, such as Nigeria and Pakistan. And that was something I had never done before; take what I take for granted, that comes automatically to me and "teach" it to someone who 99.9% of the time has never, ever done this before. I had to break it down to the bare essentials, namely your "bare" hand and how it should move. Line up the candidates in front of the mirror and see who can "lip-sync," add a pair of eyes to learn "focus," move onto an actual puppet, and the..... shock-to-the-system....... doing everything now in front of a camera and watching the monitor. And it's all backwards. It still amazes me who "gets it," who doesn't, and who could, given more time which, for these circumstances, I never have to give.

With the release of my book, I have done appearances across the country at book shops, kid museums, and schools (including my son's, plus my old school in Central Harlem). I showed folks, young and old, how to make puppets instantly. After all, that is what the book does. So, that was my entry back into "teaching" puppet making. However, I've just now completed my latest and ultimate "teaching" experience.

For four weeks this summer, I was the puppetry teacher for OOMPAH. Now before you start making Wonka references and singing the song, this particular OOMPAH referred to the day camp arts program in Huntington L.I.


I still have no idea what it stands for (and neither do a few of the people in charge). But they had a puppetry course last year (headed by a local who had the kids slap on plastic eyes and work in front of the camera. It all got recorded but never edited together. Pity.). They were still interested in having puppetry again and we ended up talking about it. I had a reasonable idea of what I wanted to do: divide up the four weeks into two weeks for TV puppetry and the last two for on-stage puppetry. They liked the idea and the course was titled, "Puppetry: On TV and On Stage!" I filled out my list of materials needed. And I was all ready to go.

Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha..........

I had four classes per day, of, not families, not adults, but kids. K-I-D-S. Kids aged between nine and eleven years old. "Tweens" as they are labeled by advertisers and media programmers. I have never taught this age before, nor this many. One class had twenty-two kids in it. Would these kids, constantly exposed to (really good to really cheap) 3D animation, actually like to, let only want to, make puppets out of socks, paper bags and boxes? Well it didn't take me long to realize.... YES!

It also didn't take me long to realize that these kids needed and wanted to make something every day. Every class. I know how that sounds but kids need something to "do." Something to focus on. They used the sock puppets they made for the first video project; teams doing the classic Beatles song, "Yellow Submarine." It's hard enough trying to get grown people to do the infamous Muppet choreography of "right-left-right-left." Try teaching this to kids. And, again, it was amazing how some "got it" (a lot quicker then those grown ups I've trained). One class even made a "Yellow Submarine" from post-its! Then the following Friday, was another song and choreography of their own choosing. Yes. THEY got to chose the songs. This was the most entertaining and bizarre morning I have had in a long time.

In four weeks they made sock puppets, origami puppets, paper bag rod puppets, hand puppets from bath towels (the most popular), paper plate bunraku puppets, and finally, working in teams, the box bunraku puppets and Chinese-style dragons (for the last day's big show on stage). And they all got to take home a video montage of the course. Plus, I got dubbed the title "Dr. Puppet."

As I started out saying, I've "taught" for a while but this was an incredible experience. Why? Because of these kids. I've worked on many kids series that "teach" kids the alphabet and how to get along, among other childhood basics. But when you work on these shows, you rarely, often never, are exposed to your audience. No kids to interact with. What I learned from this experience is how kids, on their own, can be absolutely astounding in how they think and then how they execute an idea. The variations and sometimes improvements to these puppets blew my mind. I often thought, "You did THIS!?! And you're how old!?!?" Incredible. I learned so much from these four weeks as a teacher. And aside from my new nickname and my copy of the video montage, what else did I get?

Kid (on last day, leaving): Thanks "Dr. Puppet."

Me: You are welcome.

Kid: Are you coming back next year. You should totally come back next year.

Me: I hope so. (beat) Will you?

Kid (calls back to me down the hall): I am TOTALLY taking this again next year!

What teacher couldn't ask for more than that?

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