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Tired of taking math and science classes? Consider this course on puppetry

Students are re-interpreting a historic play and grappling with hot-button issues using puppetry

What does puppetry have in common with conversations about the removal of Confederate monuments? At first glance, nothing. 

But ask students in mainstage production, a 300-level theater studies class, and you might get a different answer. 

The class is taught by Torry Bend, associate professor of the practice of the theater studies, and involves the five students working with local playwright Howard Craft to adapt “Little Nemo in Slumberland"—a 1905 comic that includes scenes with undisguised racism—into a puppet show for modern audiences. 

Although the class will be staging the show this Spring, premiering in Schaefer Theater April 13-15, don’t walk into the theater expecting a perfectly polished production. The finished product will be an amalgamation of three or four scenes the students choose to adapt from the comic, along with several others adapted by Craft. 

Each scene will explore alternatives to the structured process of creating theater. Bend noted that this was part of the reason why the class was created. She particularly wants students to examine the concept of unprocessed work. 

“[The goal is] allowing the freedom to not finish a work, but to take time in investigating the making of work through a different process model," she said. 

Bend was already working on this project for her research, prior to the creation of the class. She was chosen as one of 14 recipients of a workshop grant from the Jim Henson Foundation nationwide, which prompted her work. According to the organization's website, it is the only foundation in the United States that gives grants to advance the art of puppetry. 

After the first proposal for the production in the Spring fell through because of lack of turnout for auditions, Bend was permitted to turn her individual project into a mainstage production for the semester. While working, she has found that the comic brings up a lot of questions about theater and about adapting historic work for current times. 

“Thinking about historic art and monuments and trying to contextualize and think about it in contemporary context—all of the questions swirling around those ideas really made it timely and something that felt like a valuable investigation with students,” Bend said.

She hopes that the class gives students a space to ask questions and openly discuss difficult issues. Bend also wants to provide students with the tools to look at historic stories and be able to re-contextualize them in a meaningful way, so that history is not ignored or shut down but understood. 

And Bend navigates all of this through the most unlikely of lenses—object performance and puppetry. 

From puppeteering to current hot-button issues, the class has a range of students just as diverse as the topics it covers. Sophomores Katelyn Gochenour and Cassie Martin joined the class partly to get over their stage fright. Martin also enrolled to more deeply involve herself in the arts scene at Duke. 

Ashley Ericson, a senior studying mechanical engineering, said she sees the parallel between her major and theater—both are results-oriented and involve creative problem-solving. 

“For me, it boils down to what I can use theater for in the future, and this class specifically is a lot of pulling together small pieces,”  Ericson said.

Pulling together those small pieces will only last for the first phase of the semester, since the seminar is structured into three separate parts—research, development and rehearsal. 

The class is currently transitioning from the research into the development phase. Weekly three-hour sessions are held on Wednesday nights, and usually begin with students sitting in a circle and relaying their research for the week. Despite the sometimes touchy topic of conversation, the professor always makes sure students are comfortable with what she calls “temperature checks,” during which students can talk about how they’re feeling in regards to the topic, which is often racism or sexism. 

Students—especially Ericson—appreciate Craft’s input when transitioning their research into concrete ideas to explore through puppetry. As an award-winning local playwright, Craft is working to adapt several additional scenes from the comic for the students to perform. He also helps with the students’ development process and contributes ideas on how to give diminished characters more agency.  

The last half of the class is spent learning how to work with the puppets themselves. Even though the students are free to decide whether they want to be a performer or a creator at the beginning of the semester, Bend makes sure everyone knows how to work the puppets. 

“When you’re puppeteering, even when the puppets aren’t doing anything, you have to make it look like it’s breathing. You have to match its breathing patterns with your own," Gochenour said.

Junior Reilly Johnson noted that if anything looks dead for a single moment on stage, the illusion of the fantasy space that the class has worked so hard to create together is broken. 

That illusion is formed through three separate mediums—three-dimensional puppets, two-dimensional puppets and projectors. The projectors are used to show background and slow scenery changes that would be hard to portray otherwise. 

Most students find puppeteering to be the hardest part of the class.

“We definitely have goals with the class, and we do want something that is finished to a certain degree, but I think the idea is that we’re all figuring it out along the way,”  Johnson said.

Bend added that part of the class is not knowing what the final product will look like, but that she has loved the process, which is what she calls a “big experiment."

The students said they want to recruiting more people for the class. In order to make the show a success, additional puppeteers are needed. Although several people not actually enrolled in the class have already committed to doing so, the show is still in need of more. 

“People who didn’t take it are for sure missing out,” Gochenour said. “[Bend is] just a really cool person."

Ericson and Johnson especially appreciate how Bend tailors her teaching style to each student to help them be their most creative. 

That creativity is being utilized by the entire group to create a puppetry performance that is highly entertaining, but also forces the creator to truly learn from even our most recent history. 


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