AMES, Iowa – Generations of children have grown up watching Sesame Street and learning from its cast of puppets about issues such as bullying, diversity and divorce.
Amanda Petefish-Schrag, an assistant professor of theatre at Iowa State University, says the show is an example of how puppets can help educate and bridge the divide when tackling difficult issues. While puppets are often associated with children’s programs or theatre, Petefish-Schrag says they are also an effective tool for social change.
That was evident during the recent Women’s March on Washington and similar events held around the world. Among the many signs on display were a variety of puppets, Petefish-Schrag said. Protestors also used puppets in several Occupy Wall Street demonstrations. Throughout history, puppets have helped bring “the voice of the people to light,” Petefish-Schrag said.
“There is something inherently strange about puppets that forces us to pay attention in a different way,” she said. “Puppetry raises questions which makes it a really useful tool when we’re trying to build bridges between communities. Certainly, some puppeteers may use symbols that are divisive, but the intent is to create a focal point that is the start of a discussion. It asks us to engage in our communities.”
Puppetry a family business
Growing up in Minnesota, Petefish-Schrag started performing with her parents’ puppet troupe at the age of 4. The family not only performed in schools and theatres across the state and regionally, but they also designed and built their own puppets. Petefish-Schrag says they developed shows and puppets to address specific aspects of school curricula and various social issues.
“It was an exciting way to grow up. I didn’t realize that other families didn’t travel around performing. I remember going over to a friend’s house and wondering why they didn’t have rehearsal after school, and why there were no puppet heads hanging from the ceiling,” she said with a laugh.
It was far from a typical childhood, but Petefish-Schrag says the experience instilled a sense of curiosity and awareness of what was happening around her and in her community. This attention to community is vital to the art of puppetry. Throughout history, puppets have reflected voices and perspectives not always heard or recognized by those in power. Petefish-Schrag says even puppets such as Punch and Judy, which have been highly objectionable at times, remain popular for bringing attention to issues in an interesting way.
The fact that puppeteers do not require large theatres and can perform at any time or any place speaks to their appeal as a tool for social change. Puppets are also relatively inexpensive to produce. In a paper published for the Mid America Theatre Conference, Petefish-Schrag explains that puppeteers have traditionally had a strong connection to the materials used to build their puppets. By using indigenous materials, puppeteers create a cultural connection with the community they serve.
One man’s trash
The tradition of using native materials is an important component of Petefish-Schrag’s work. She is constructing a series of puppets made from trash and other discarded items, specifically plastic. Petefish-Schrag plans to incorporate the puppets to tell creation stories from the female perspective.
Her decision to use plastic was inspired by images of dead zones in the ocean polluted with plastic waste. Petefish-Schrag says she saw a connection between an everyday product that is easily discarded and how women are often discarded or simply not included in creation stories.
“The act of creation is transformative and garbage has an interesting relevance. My focus is to use materials that allow voices typically underrepresented in traditional puppetry to emerge,” Petefish-Schrag said.
Watch the above video to go inside Petefish-Schrag’s studio and see her at work. She talks about the challenges of achieving the right look and feel for the puppet when using a non-traditional material such as plastic.