It’s a form of entertainment that spans centuries, cultures, and continents. Nancy Smith, founder of the Great Arizona Puppet Theater, talks about her early experiences with puppetry, changes in audiences she’s observed over the years and how to prepare small children for a first performance.
For more than 25 years, you’ve created performances that entertain young children and encourage them to tap into their imaginations. Talk about what entertainment for kids consisted of when you were growing up.
We lived in Germany. My father was in the Army. We did not have television and there was only one radio show on Sundays. We could listen to “The Lone Ranger” and somebody read the funnies on the radio, but other than that we really did not have anything to entertain us. We had to entertain ourselves.
What do you remember about your first encounter with puppets?
I got a puppet theater and some puppets from Santa Claus and it was very exciting. I was a very shy child, so I would hide behind my mother if people came over. So I really took to the puppets. But they didn’t speak at first. I would put on records, which we had back then. I would have the puppets do the songs on the records.
Puppets truly seem to help kids express inner feelings and fantasies.
I have found that if I’m working with kids, sometimes I’ll go around with a bunch of puppets and let the kids separate them into smaller groups and let them make up their own stories. They’ll come up with things that you never expected. If there’s a child that’s maybe having trouble at home, they may not tell you about it, but if you give them a group of puppets as a family, they may start acting it out.
You have created a career’s worth of puppets. Do you have a favorite?
I usually really like the puppet that I’m working with at the moment. I like the puppet that we built for “Little Red Riding Hood.” There’s one named Baby Water Monster that I just love because he works really well.
The Wolf and Little Red Riding Hood have been around a long time.
They’re not our oldest puppets. We actually have some puppets that I made when I was in college that predate those.
Is there a place for puppetry performances in future generations of high-tech kids?
Even with all the technology and everything there is today, I think there’s something about people that they like seeing something that’s happening right now, in front of them. A very low-tech kind of thing.
How have audiences changed since you started Great Arizona Puppet Theater?
There are so many puppets that you can see now in movies and commercials and on television. It’s really gone into the popular culture. Particularly, the young adult audience is much more accepting than they used to be because a lot have grown up with the Muppets.
And watching “Sesame Street”…so puppets were a daily part of their lives.
Now we’re finding that we have an eager audience among really young children and then again when they get to be about 18 years old. We are involved in national organizations. We’ve gone to international festivals, and puppetry is very much alive.
What are some tips for parents who want to take a young child to a puppet show, or any other age-appropriate live performance?
Prepare the children for what the experience is going to be like. Read the story ahead of time. Talk about it a little bit. “Oh, we’re going to see it, and we’re all going to be sitting down and there will be other people there.”
Puppet shows, in particular, often serve as a young child’s first experience watching a live performance.
Many of our shows—but not all of our shows—are appropriate for preschool children. They’re getting that social interaction and learning how to behave as an audience. We sit quietly, we clap our hands, it’s okay to laugh, that kind of thing. In that respect, it’s a wonderful way to introduce the kids to theater. RAK