How to Put on a Children’s Puppet Show

Puppetry is one of the oldest forms of entertainment, and has been amusing young and old alike for centuries. Puppet shows performed for children, however, need to be specifically crafted in order to grab and keep their attention. Following a few basic steps will help you string together an enticing and exciting performance.

As many puppeteers will tell you, the first and most important step is knowing your audience.

“Kids deserve a creative show with a beginning, middle and end that entertains them,” said Stephanie Johnson, a freelance ventriloquist and actor who has been performing professionally for five years. “It’s good to know the age group and the venue so you have some idea about creating what you will perform. You work your show from there.”

Children are of an especially tricky demographic; much time and energy is needed in developing an engaging show. The first step in actual show production is the script. You can use an already existing puppet play, but most puppeteers develop their own stories.

“I always writes my own shows. It allows you to know your puppet character best,” said Johnson.

She suggests that first-timers practice off existing scripts to nail down timing and pace. Once you obtain these rudimentary skills, start throwing some ideas around.

“The Complete Book of Puppetry” (Plays, Inc, 1975), one of the foremost handbooks of many puppeteers, states that writing a puppet play should be similar to writing anything else: You first need a basic outline. Beginning, middle, and end, a climax, some action-these are all requirements crucial to an entertaining plot.

“Most of my shows are educational,” said Johnson. “I have a hard time not writing lessons or morals in my stories. A storytelling scenario works well for the kids. It is what they are accustomed to, and it’s a good way for them to interact with the puppet.”

Dialogue comes next. Although you should write down a basic idea of what your characters will say, feel free to ad-lib. It will bring life to your performance.

Writing the script will give you a basic idea of how your puppets should look and act. Remember that since your performance is for children your characters need to be kid-friendly – nothing obscene or too scary. You want them hanging on your every word, not clinging to their mothers’ skirts.

Building your puppets or buying them is a decision each individual puppeteer has to make. The advantages to building are that you have a unique, hand-made puppet that will be the closest manifestation of your ideal character that you can get. However, this is a time-consuming task and could possibly add months to your planned performance time. Buying your puppets is, of course, quicker, but they may feel impersonal and bland.

“I buy my puppets,” Johnson said. “I’m not a puppet builder. It’s a totally different art form in my mind. A lot of puppeteers make their own puppets, but it takes a lot of work.”

Chicagoan Dave Herzog of Dave Herzog’s Marionettes said that he, along with an apprentice, make individual puppets for each show.

“It takes about one month for each puppet,” said the 30-year industry veteran.

Although this is probably a much longer period of time than a beginner will need, it is a good idea to give yourself more time than you anticipate in case problems arise.

There are many types of puppets to choose from-rod puppets, hand puppets, shadow puppets and marionettes.
“Most people start with hand puppets,” Herzog said.

This doesn’t mean you have to use a pair of old socks; hand puppets can be purchased at almost every toy store and can be crafted easily with things you’d find at a fabric or hobby shop.

The next step is rehearsal. Rehearsing is possibly the longest and most involved part of the process. You have to coordinate your puppets’ movements with your script, making sure your timing is precise.

“It takes at least two months of practice to get my shows ready,” Johnson said, “not counting making costumes and writing the story. An entire show from start to finish takes about six months all together.”

A good way to practice is to perform your show to children that you know, whether they be your sons and daughters, nieces and nephews, cousins or neighbors. Let them give you feedback and insight as to what they enjoyed and understood.

Finding a venue should coincide with the end of your rehearsal period. The best places to look, of course, are places where children go.

“I send out fliers to libraries and schools,” Johnson said. “I also have an agent, but most of it is word of mouth. That helps me out the best.”

A standard performance is usually half and hour to an hour. It is the puppeteer’s decision whether or not he or she leaves time after the performance for discussion.

“I’ll usually leave some time for questions, or even mini-lessons when I bring the puppets back out again and show the kids how they move,” Johnson said. “I’m not big on keeping everything a secret. It’s a fun part for the puppets to answer their questions.”

Other puppeteers opt for the secret and magical aspect of the puppet show.

“I don’t typically do a question and answer period; most of my shows are performed [publically] where there’s no time for it,” Herzog said. “I like to keep it short and sweet.”

When performing, you can either use a taped performance or live. Taped performances are a great way to eliminate script mistakes, but your performance will have little variety. Live shows can be partially ad-libbed, but not so much that you get stuck on your lines. If something goes wrong during your performance, remember: The show must go on.

“In a worst-case scenario you can stop, but you should only use that as an absolute last resort,” Herzog said. “My advice is to always keep going, no matter what happens.”

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