May 31, 2011
Puppetry course challenges students’ performance, problem-solving skills
MARYVILLE, Mo. - A unique course at Northwest Missouri State University this summer is expanding 12 students' knowledge of puppetry, theater performance and problem-solving.
The students in the special topics course, puppetry, taught by Amanda Petefish-Schrag, assistant professor of communication, theatre and languages, will present a showcase at 7 p.m. Thursday, June 2, in the Studio Theatre at the Ron Houston Center for the Performing Arts. Free and open to the public, the showcase will feature several short puppet shows based on a variety of puppetry traditions. Family-friendly plays will make up the first half of the showcase; after an intermission, plays containing some mature language and content will be performed in the second half.
In addition, all of the puppets students made during the course, including those not used in Thursday's showcase, will be displayed in the Studio Theatre lobby Thursday evening through Friday.
Growing up, Petefish-Schrag performed as a puppeteer in her family's puppet theatre troupe and taught a puppetry course at a previous institution. She wanted to teach the class at Northwest after several students expressed interest in learning more about puppetry.
Petefish-Schrag noted puppetry provides good training for theater students because a single person is usually in control of the performance as well as the technical aspects of the artform. Students are challenged to find ways to make the puppet do what they want it to do.
"The goal is that they not only understand something just about the theory and history of this particular end of the theater form but that they are able to think more holistically about the way they practice," Petefish-Schrag said. "In more familiar forms of theater there's more delineation, but that awareness of how the whole fits together is always helpful. It's also really good training for movement and vocal production, figuring out how do you create the impact on the audience you want when you often have multiple people creating a single puppet's movement. So it's a really good exercise in collaboration and team building."
Dana Masters, a sophomore from Independence who is majoring in theater performance and psychology-sociology, said she took the class this summer hoping it would be a creative outlet to balance with a chemistry class she is taking.
"It's been really fun," Masters said. "It's good for acting as well as getting to build things and create your own story and characters. It's an integrated art. You're the designer, the builder and the performer."
Each project the students took on included slightly different parameters. One assignment was to construct a puppet in 10 minutes. Another challenged the students to construct puppets that were smaller than 6 inches or larger than 3 feet and compose a performance influenced by an Eastern puppet tradition.
As students constructed their puppets, Petefish-Schrag also required that at least half of the students' materials were recycled or repurposed objects. One of the puppets students made had to be made entirely of objects not intended for building a puppet, such as newspapers or scrap fabrics. One student constructed a puppet using seeds she found.
"Part of that is to train them to think differently about objects and how we can use objects and really sort of train creativity and problem-solving," Petefish-Shrag.
During a class session last week, students shared performances that ranged from more traditional fare featuring the Big Bad Wolf and bickering television anchors to more abstract tales with monsters and dancing.
"This gives us another way to use all of the collaboration we learn within theater as a whole and then push it out into the performance, so it's incredibly beneficial to learn to do everything," said Kelsey Matthias, a senior theater performance major from Blue Springs, whose Big Bad Wolf puppet comes in the form of a wire skeleton and enjoys lying by a lake while fanaticizing about becoming a comedian.
During the course, the students also participated in various community engagement projects, teaching or using puppetry to community groups locally and in the Kansas City area.
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Northwest Missouri State University
215 Administration Building | 800 University Drive | Maryville, MO 64468