Just as if a child was snuggled in a blanket with their favorite book, flipping one colorful page after another, Heirloom Puppet Theatre mimics an innocent and traditional storytime.
Only its tales have been brought to life with added scene changes, puppets, props and even recorded sound effects.
“We try to bring something to children they haven’t seen,” said Peggy Parks, Heirloom puppeteer and director of the former Old Salem Children’s Museum, “like a real puppet, for one.”
“Many children today don’t see a lot of puppet theater. They certainly are too young to know about Lamp Chop or remember the puppets from ‘Mr. Rogers Neighborhood.’” The theater started about 14 years ago when the puppets were merely poster board pasted on a tongue depressor. “We’ve come a long way,” Parks laughed.
Now the productions, which are mainly based on historically significant stories, include 3D cloth puppets, lighting, scene changes, set pieces and props, and even pre-recorded voicing and sound effects.
The backdrops behind the stage are brightly colored scenes drawn on fabric that can be quickly slid to the side for a set change. In action, the backdrops mimic the familiar action of turning a storybook page.
“Even a child 2 years old, even if they don’t know what’s going on, they like the colors,” Parks added.
However, the plays are still contained in the traditional “window view” of a puppet stage.
“We’re sort of purists, so we like to keep it simple and in an intimate space,” Parks said. “it’s very difficult. When you are [behind the stage] you are on little mechanic’s stools that roll. It is a choreographed dance back there, moving behind and in front, and there isn’t much space back there.”
The theater just finished running their first show with all animal puppets, Cherokee Folktales, which contains three stories derived from Cherokee folklore that explain how animals came to look like they do today.
The show, which was actually in response to a grant’s request, begins with the familiar beating of a Native American drum, which helps to both set the scene, as well as capture children’s attention. Adding to the story’s authenticity is the pre-recorded narrator, who herself is of Cherokee decent.
“The voicing is very important and has been challenging,” said puppeteer Camille Abbott. “[The voice] also has to have the proper pacing and intonation.” Abbott added that finding the right voice for the story is crucial because it is the driving force.
“Because the puppets don’t move, we have to make their expressions from what limited movement we have, and the voice helps with that, too” Parks added. “We have to think about a child’s ear and their reactions.”
Parks said the theater chooses stories from children’s literature that are usually historically significant. Their stories used to be based in the 18th century, but over the years they have come to include more eras and themes.
The theater has also performed shadow shows in the past, in which the entire story is told by shadow puppets. “It’s absolutely mesmerizing,” said Betty Russle, a substitute puppeteer.
This summer the theater will also present the new opportunity of a puppet camp, To Be or Not To Be with a Shakespeare Potpourri. For grades five and up, the puppet-making workshop will create Shakespearean character puppets, paint scenery and learn the art of puppetry. At the end of the week, campers will perform three famous acts from three of Shakespeare’s plays.
The five-day program will run from 1-4 p.m. Monday through Friday. Call 721-7378 to register. There is a maximum enrollment of 10.
Heirloom Puppets performs on Wednesdays and Fridays with showtimes every 30 minutes, 10-11:30 a.m. and 12:30-1 p.m. Their production calendar is as follows:
Eggs on Marvel Mountain — Friday, March 27, 29. Watch Olga and Granny Ninsky as they turn an unfortunate mishap into a magical Easter-time surprise.
Yellow Star — April 3, 5, 12, 19, 26. Follow the story of people standing against injustice during World War II.
Cherokee Folktales (returning) — May 1, 3, 8, 10, 22, 24, 29, 31. Enjoy three magical and mystical tales from Cherokee folklore.
Heirloom Puppet Theatre performs in the Frank L. Horton Museum, 924 S. Main St., Winston-Salem. Tickets are $2 or free with the purchase of an All-in-one museum ticket. For tickets or more information visit oldsalem.org or call 336.721.7300.