Theater class creates puppets for upcoming production

March 13, 2012

"I certainly never thought I would be taking a class like this," said Indiana State University senior Megan Peterson as she applied a layer of paper mache to a larger than life size sculpt of Benjamin Franklin's head. "I never even took an art class in high school."

Peterson and five other Indiana State students are enrolled in the theater department's puppet-making class created puppets and other props for an upcoming production of "The People's History."

"It's my last semester and I'm done with my requirements, so I wanted to take something fun," Peterson, who is majoring in history, said.

"This is a different way of learning than many of my other classes," she said. "Instead of listening to someone lecture you are actually doing something. It's relaxing to sit, listen to music, and do my work."

While "The People's History" features puppets, the production is for mature audiences only due to language and adult humor.

Each student created a large paper mache head representing a political or historical figure to be worn by actors in "The People's History." Instead of looking to realistic images of the figures, most students have designed the form of their heads from caricatures of the individuals, including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and an astronaut, among others.

To create these heads, the students first create an armature by carving the general shape of the face from layers of foam. The armature is then covered in plastic wrap before paper mache is applied to the surface. This ensures that the hardened paper can be removed from the foam armature to create a hollow form. The paper mache heads can then be painted and finished. Beach balls are used to create the rounded backs of the heads. The finished piece will be worn with elastic arm straps and an adjustable head strap will be fitted inside.

Peterson was afraid of taking an arts-based class because she never thought herself to be artistically inclined and believed the arts to be elite. This class has shown her differently.

"I've learned that there are art forms for everyone," Peterson said, "Art is not exclusive."

Linda Janosko, associate professor of theater, agrees the class is unique.

"It is a craft type of experience meaning that it is hands-on," she said. "This is a chance not everyone gets, and the students are feeling much more artistic. A lot of people don't do much art after elementary school. As people get older, they get too worried about making things look realistic, and they get discouraged and quit making art. Paper mache is a cheap art, something anyone can do. I tell them they need to remember it's not going in an art gallery."

The ISU theater department is performing "The People's History" in association with Quest Theater Ensemble of Chicago. Quest's Andrew Park, who earned a bachelor's degree in theater from Indiana State, is director of the production.

Back in December, Quest brought several puppets to the class so that the students could get a close up view of what they would be making. Also prior to puppet construction, the students watched videos of Bread and Puppet Theatre, a Vermont-based theater with which Andrew Park has worked. Bread and Puppet Theatre visited ISU in 2007. The company has a unique production style that is high on spectacle and low on dialogue, similar to the production style of "The People's History."

"This is a whole new world to me; it's nothing like I've ever done," said Jenna Kelly, a junior theater major.

Kelly, who has a design and tech concentration, has never felt very confident with drawing but said working in three dimensions has given her a better understanding of form, especially of the human face."

She said the skills she is learning in the class will be beneficial for theater design as designers often need to be familiar with a lot of different materials that may be used for props, scenery, or other construction.

Emery Becker, a sophomore theater major, worked on the puppet head of Thomas Jefferson. As he applied a fifth layer of paper mache, Becker explained, "The sculptures need six layers of paper. The layers are needed to develop the strength to withstand the performance without ripping."

Becker, who also finds the process very relaxing, said the most difficult aspect is getting the paper to conform around the nose and eye sockets.

"There are so many angles in that area," he said, "You need the surface to be smooth but flat paper doesn't like to bend around all the curves and angles of the face."

The paper also is "really dirty so you have to not care about getting glue all over the place," he said.

As a class, the students crafted a puppet of the villain of the play, Moloch. Moloch is a large puppet, around 10 feet tall, that, due to his size, will be controlled by four actors using a rolling platform. This character is also being constructed from paper mache, and is being created in pieces- torso, legs, arms, and head. Each student has been working on various components of the puppet during the down time from their individual projects.

The students agree that one of the largest challenges they face is time.

"It's more work than you expect. You are working with a wet and malleable material that can rip and set you back," said Kelly, who is also stage manager for the production.

"The work must be finished before the production," Janosko added. "You can't just hand props to actors and expect them to jump right into it. This type of performance is a unique experience. Actors are so used to using facial expressions, but with their faces covered they have to rely on working bodily and vocally."

The ISU theater department will present "The People's History" March 21-24 in association with Chicago's Quest Theater Ensemble. The show is for mature audiences only due to profanity and sexual humor. The performance begins at 7:30 p.m. each evening in the New Theater. Tickets may be reserved by calling 812-237-3333.

Contact: Linda Janosko, ISU Department of Theater, 812-237-3338 or linda.janosko@indstate.edu  

Writer: Kari Breitigam, Arts Marketing Assistant, Office of Communications and Marketing, 812-237-3773