Three Hearts: Puppets Come to Life in the Lower Kuskokwim School District

Puppets bridge the uncrossable chasm between what’s alive and what’s not; what’s sentient and what’s not. They allow us to physically inhabit a reality that’s a reality of the imagination. 
— Eileen Blumenthal, Rutgers University Theatre Arts Department

The puppet is a synthesis of reality and illusion. It is at the moment when I believe in the figure’s autonomy and yet remain aware of its theatrical mechanics, that I experience the power and transcendence of the puppet.
—Richard Termine, National Puppetry Conference, Eugene O’Neill Theatre Center

Students from Bethel Gladys Jung Elementary perform their story ‘Raven’s Secret Ingredients’. (Photo by Greg Lincoln)

“A puppet is an object to which we give imaginary life!” Over one hundred young people from around the Kuskokwim River delta stand in a circle, moving and chanting. They’re reviewing key terms and concepts in visual arts, digital arts, and puppetry—and, I hope, they’re building a sense of collaborative trust at the same time. It’s early April, the culminating week of a year-long arts integration project in the Lower Kuskokwim School District’s Project Pilinguat. Here in Bethel, Alaska—the hub community of this Yup’ik and Cup’ik Native region—these students have gathered from various remote schools to piece together the finale performance of the year: Qanemciput Piliaput-llu: Our Stories and the Things We Made.

A puppet is an object to which we give imaginary life. In my role as puppetry teaching artist in Project Pilinguat, I opted for this short-hand definition of the central figure of our art form. As I visited various schools, we illustrated the power of our imaginations to invest anything with life: a piece of paper; a classroom stapler or dry-erase marker; fabric; some sculpted clay. We also experienced our own creative capacity as audience members to accept a performer’s fantastic proposal that the inanimate object they’re holding is, in fact, alive.

Select students at each school have integrated our arts project with writing by creating stories for their puppets. There are rod puppet wolves with heads of felted wool, telling the story of “The Naughty Wolf,” written by a student at Akiuk School. Newtok high school students collaborated to write “How the Stars Learned to Fly”; the stars are made of papier-mâché in the fanciful “blatch” puppet design of Jim Henson. Mekoryuk School students wrote a story called “Allaneq (The Foreigner),” about a non-Cup’iq visitor to their village who learns traditional dance from three Cup’iq elders. Each character in the story is represented by a four-foot-tall bunraku puppet, operated by three puppeteers. The puppets are painted white, and they glow under blacklight

A student from Akiuk School with his felted wool wolf puppet. (Photo by Katie Basile)

High schoolers from Newtok perform their story ‘Agyat, How the Stars Learned to Fly,’ using three blatch-style puppets and one bunraku-style bear puppet. (Photo by Greg Lincoln)

Mekoryuk School students practice movement with their in-progress bunraku puppet.

The puppet performances are coming together this week in Bethel. They’re woven together with stop-motion animations created by other school sites under the leadership of media Teaching Artist Katie Basile. As we rehearse, I’m reflecting on our shared definition of “puppet.” What is a puppet, really? Are we, the performers, really doing the work of giving life to these objects? Are these objects really the energetic heart of these performances, or is there some other force at the center?

Kwethluk School students rehearse a green-screen puppet film with Teaching Artist Katie Basile.

I think back to my first memorable experience of live puppetry. I was a junior high student at a summer fine arts camp, called Firespark, near my boyhood home in north Georgia. I filled my two-week schedule with creative writing and drama classes. I remember that when I registered, I noticed the class “Creative Movement/Puppetry” on the course listing. I imagined a studio where students explored elementary movements and then used socks and stuffed animals to tell kids’ stories. I wasn’t interested.

When the puppetry students performed at Firespark, I was transported. A pitch-black stage was suddenly illuminated with glowing black-lit worms made of flexible plumbing hoses. Primal-sounding music filled the space. A huge dinosaur skeleton appeared, made of pieces of foam carved into the shapes of interlocking bones. Each foam bone was supported by a long dowel, and each dowel was carried by a puppeteer. I could see the performers, black-clad figures in the void. There must have been six or ten of them collaborating to perform the dinosaur. To me at the time, it seemed like there were dozens of them. I loved the beauty of the visual craftsmanship, and I was enthralled with how the actors animated their puppets with motion. I was thrilled, too, by the fact that I could see how the magic was happening. There was no attempt to hide the puppeteers here. It was as if they and their instructor were saying to us in the audience. ‘Here we are. We want to show something to you, and we dare you not to be impressed.’ Because those performers were visible to me, I could see their investment, their intention, and their collaboration as an ensemble.

I realize that that experience of puppetry as a kid initiated my eventual impulse to explore puppetry as an adult. I can even see the direct influence of the dinosaur piece on our design of the Mekoryuk School performance here in Bethel, with its glowing black-lit bunraku figures. In fact, none of our puppet performances this week include puppeteers who are hidden from view. The power of a puppet performance for me is less about the “object” and more about the human performer’s effort and intention of “giving imaginary life.” I’m interested in creating events in which the audience sees the mechanics of performance, and accepts the illusion even still—events in which we witness the focus and cooperative energy of young people telling stories.

Students from Tununak rehearse with a large Yup’ik mask-style puppet, designed with teaching artist Tina Harness.

Akiuk School primary students perform ‘Pissurqta Pissurqta’ (‘Hunter Hunter’) using shadow puppets.

In an article in this spring’s journal Puppetry International, puppeteer-scholar Robert Smythe suggests a different central player in a given puppetry event. The most important element, he says, is neither puppet nor puppeteer, but audience member:

The process of constructing a [puppet] narrative is a shift away from representing the real world by showing everything, and toward constructing limited and therefore imperfect descriptions of reality, such as moving shadows on the wall or a wooden figure of a person, that prompt [an audience member] to build a rich and personally fulfilling world in her imagination, beyond the immediate scope of her senses. (Smythe 4)

Smythe bluntly calls the puppet “imperfect” in its limited, unrealistic portrayal of an actual living being. He compares the puppeteer to a novelist or filmmaker, who presents an “edited reality” (Smythe 4). By choosing puppets, the puppeteer invites the audience to play a more active role in creating the imaginary world of the story. Our wolf puppets from Akiuk School are mere balls of wool with bodies made of fabric. When the students rehearse at their table-top, I can see their arms reaching up into the puppets. Near the end of the piece, the students stand and reveal themselves fully as the controllers of these objects. All the while, the audience must create the full imaginary world of the wolves: the snowy tundra,  the dark den,  the herd of caribou fleeing the hunt.

An object to which we give imaginary life. Both the puppeteers and the audience members do the work and magic of investing these objects with life.

This definition worked well for most of the year. However, at a visit to Bethel elementary school Mikelnguut Elitnaurviat, a first grader pointed out that there’s a third force at play in a creative puppetry event.

It was my first visit to Ms. McDaniel’s classroom, where the students were creating a morality play about two bear cubs who disobey their mother. We planned to tell the story with shadow puppets, using cut-outs designed by the students after lessons on form line, silhouette, and contour line. For my first day with the students, I used a Peeper Puppet—a plastic set of eyes that hooks onto a finger like a ring—to illustrate basic concepts of puppet movement.

Students at Eek School manipulate Peeper Puppets.

I chanted my now-established definition for the students, and I asked them to repeat me: “A puppet is an object to which we give imaginary life!”

A round-faced boy at the middle table raised his hand. His name was Mehmet (MEH-tee), though it took me some time to learn to pronounce it properly.

“Yes, sir?” I gestured toward Mehmet, inviting him to speak.

“No, you don’t give it life,” he said. “It’s your heart.”

“I’m sorry?”

“It’s your heart. Your heart brings the puppet to life. Your heart, and the puppet’s heart. Two hearts!”

He spoke these words matter-of-factly, as if this were a commonly accepted truth and he was gently reminding me that I’d forgotten it.

I looked to Ms. McDaniel to gauge her reaction to this nugget of wisdom. I was unsure whether Mehmet might be a student who parrots obscure movie or video game sources, or who spouts conceptual ideas without really knowing what he’s saying. But Ms. McDaniel was looking at him intently, her mouth open a little.

“Wow, Mehmet,” she said. “Wow. That’s really good.”

“Yes, thank you,” I offered. I put my palms together, following the gesture Mehmet had demonstrated as he spoke. “Thank you, Mem-tee.”

“It’s MEH-tee!” he said.

And so the puppeteer and the audience members might be important factors in bringing puppets to life, but according to Mehmet, the objects themselves bring a creative force to the process as well.

I like this idea, and I’m eager to consider its import as the finale puppetry event takes shape in Bethel. I note the different tonal energies of each piece—simple, serious rod puppets from Nunapitchuk; playful fabric marionettes from Kwigillingok. Certainly, several factors contribute to these variations in tone: the music, the narrative, the audience’s feedback, and the performers’ movements and intentions. But as Mehmet suggests, the objects themselves must bring their own particular energies into the space. Perhaps some mystical circuit of “heart” plays out between audience, puppet, and puppeteer to make each performance its own unique experience.

Students from Kwigillingok in rehearsal with fabric marionettes.

Ryan Conarro with a student from Nunapitchuk School and his rod puppet. (Photo by Katie Basile)

My next puppetry residency will be this fall at an elementary school in Juneau. When I meet those teachers and students, I’d like to revise my standard definition of the term “puppet”: “An object to which we give imaginary life, in order to spark a story.” This addition will bring our attention back to the audience members, giving them the right and the responsibility to create an imaginary world. Perhaps I’ll add even more to the new definition, incorporating Mehmet’s profound perception:

“An object with a heart, to which we bring our hearts, in order to spark a story in the hearts of the audience.”

Nunapitchuk rod puppets in progress.

Opening puppet quotations from:
Malkin, Michael. Puppets: The Power of Wonder. Atlanta: Center for Puppetry Arts, 1995.
Smythe, Robert. “Peculiar Possibilities: Narrative Theory and Puppetry’s Ability to Edit Reality.” Puppetry International, Issue 31. Atlanta: UNIMA-USA, 2012.

Leave a Reply