Monday, November 23, 2015

Getting Ready for the Discussion on “Child’s Play”

The 63rd National Puppetry Festival of the Puppeteers of America at the University of Connecticut on August 10-16, 2015 offered its participants the series of critical discussions, “Critical Exchange.”  I had the  privilege to be a panelist for the discussion on the state of puppetry for children called “Child’s Play.”  Before we met, our moderator had sent us an e-mail with a few questions and the suggestion that we exchange ideas to warm up before the meeting. This inspired me to record some thoughts.

I would like to share them here.  I made some cuts and edits to the letter I sent to my co-panelist, and I asked two of my friends to give this text editorial attention.  I am grateful to Margaret Moody and MaryBall Opie.

The discussion was introduced in the program by this short paragraph:
“In the United States and many other countries around the world,  puppetry has primarilly been seen as an art form addressing children. But how does it address them? What possibilities exist for children’s puppetry that have yet to me mined?”
And now the sketch of my thoughts.
I was motivated to sign up for our discussion in large part by the  popular American view that puppet theatre for children is a lesser art form.   Children are defenseless against bad art.  They want to like what parents or teachers want them to like, and when parents or teachers take them to see a poorly made show they may enjoy and applaud it despite its inferior quality.  Nonetheless, we have  many examples of the most amazing puppetry created for children, just as we have fine art, music, literature, and theatre for children of the highest artistic standards."  There is not much sense in doing or aiming toward something lesser when working for children.  To approach the work for children with agreement on producing shows  of condescending mediocrity would be self-destructive and degrading for an artist.
All possibilities, those well known and those yet to be discovered need to be mined 

This is so different in U.S. than in my native Poland.  In Poland, well-supported, mostly municipal, puppet theaters, most of them with their own buildings and ensembles of

20 to 70 highly skilled artists, administrators, managers and technicians serve children in schools on a daily basis and the general public on weekends. They have actor puppeteers, director puppeteers, artists designing and artists building puppets, and other separate categories of professionals such as carpenters, set builders, seamstresses and specialist in papier-mâché, so I guess the productions look a little more like those on Broadway.  In Poland,  puppeteers are actors.   When they get their jobs in the theatre they are often set for life. There is not much reason there to ask questions about practical possibilities. They are mostly there, in these well-supported institutions.  Artists can focus on exploring artistic possibilities instead of trying to figure out where, with whom, and in what kind of circumstances to do what they want to do.  Public recognition of the value of puppetry for children is strong.
In the United States, a puppeteer is a very different artist than in my native Poland where I grew up, was educated, and spent 20 years of my professional career.  In the U.S.,  a puppeteer has to figure out how to be a puppeteer.  Here we are often artists, designers, builders, directors, performers, managers, administrators, marketing specialists and technicians.  We have to find or create our own place in the universe.  American reality is much more flexible, maybe much more challenging, but also more open to our new ideas.  A single prevailing national standard for practicing puppetry does not exist.  Each of us has to carve his or her place in a fast-changing reality.  We seek practical opportunities;  in parallel we explore artistic possibilities.  The practical conditions we confront  often influence theatrical language and artistic choices in our work.
Each of our new projects and productions brings an opportunity for searching for our place, and seeking new practical and artistic possibilities.
I  could only speak about puppetry as a theatrical form, but of course American puppeteers work also in settings other than theatre, among them in film and television.
With Dream Tale Puppets, which I founded on Cape Cod 10 years ago, we, like many American puppeteers, perform for libraries, art and cultural centers, schools, after school programs, fundraisers and parties.
We are fortunate in Massachusetts to have Puppet Showplace in Brookline. I am inspired by my friend and performing partner Margaret Moody,  and by Liz Joyce, founder of Goat on the Boat Theater.  Margaret organizes a puppetry series each year and invites others to perform.  Goat on the Boat presents shows all year long.  Dream Tale Puppets presents other performers on the Cape during summer.  We call our summer series Cape Cod Puppet Gam. 
The most natural audience of puppet theatre in Poland – schools - is not one which works well in Massachusetts.  Dream Tale Puppets performs very little in schools.
I do workshops and often work as a teacher using a variety of forms of puppet theatre. Often I conduct after-school or vacation projects.  Dream Tale Puppets is listed on the performers and teaching artists’ roster of Hartford Performs – an organization devoted to bringing arts to Hartford Schools.  From contact with them, I've learned that schools are more interested in artists working with children and supporting curriculum than in supporting work of the artists for art's sake.  They want artists to help teachers.  They are less interested in teachers helping artists who are  seeking to achieve artistic goals.
On Cape Cod,  theatrical workshops as an after-school activity organized by schools, cultural centers, and after school programs exist side by side with community theatre productions which involve children as actors and which are addressed to family audences. Community theaters sometimes use puppets in productions.   A similar project  model staffed in part by professionals and in part open to volunteers and children is used by Peter Schumann, Missoula Children’s Theatre, Sara Peattie and The Puppeteers' Cooperative and, I believe, many other puppeteers.
In performing in or for schools puppet theatre meets with education. But in seeking practical possibilities we could also explore areas where theatre meets other societal realities, where we serve additional purposes and border with other areas of life.
Some puppeteers incorporate puppetry in social therapy and work with disadvantaged communities, inner city children and youth. I worked with inner city children and communities in Poland.
I view the theatre more as a group and community of artists creating the culture and more particularly theatrical culture than just shows. If such a group has its locale, a home base, this kind of theatre would be operating as a culture center with many programs addressed to various audiences and constituencies. Programs for children and families could be developed simultaneously, in parallel or alternately to programs for or with youth and more mature audiences and participants; also programs, events, celebrations for bigger community where separation between children and adults loses its meaning could be created.  Since a work of this nature would require support from many sources, such a theatre would need to be developed with strong connections in the local community and organizations with similar values and beliefs.
The puppet theatre center supported by its local community could serve as a venue for developing its own programs, and as a presenting organization, a hub for collaborations, explorations, education, center of work with children, youth, adults, lovers of the art and professionals. I believe that this way we could serve our communities, help each other, and strengthen our puppetry community and its place in the broader community and culture. We are saving the world with each little step of goodness, and as artists we have powers and missions very different from military units or a national education system. In developing Dream Tale Puppets, we are working with the vision of theatre as a community and center of creativity in mind.
Every choice we make directs our actions.  Each age of the children may be addressed with a very different style of the shows. A few years ago, I saw the video recording of shows for very little babies up to one year old. They were masterpieces. There was very little spoken language, but amazing visual forms with a lot of dramaturgy in motion, action, shapes, and colors. There was not a trace of condescending paternalism in actors’ actions; instead they employed rich and elegant aesthetic enjoyable for babies and satisfying for adults.
For me, ideally a show would be addressed to any age, which means it would have to be comprised of many layers to be appealing to diverse spectators. When I work on a show, thinking about the age of the children I am creating for is not the first thing I do.  I think more about how I shape the process. Asking about “how” brings a style. Material used, field of pre-production studies and research determine this also. If I use a fairy tale or a text by a particular author who writes for children as a jumping board, as inspiration, or material for adaptation, this points to possible directions the work may take. I look for the interesting literary material, compelling fields of research, and an enjoyable and inspiring company of artists of notable talents, abilities and passion. The production process may lead toward the show addressed toward a more or less age-specific audience.
Usually I don’t know in advance what kind of show I will produce. I don’t limit myself. My work for children is like a dialog with the child, also with my own inner child. Do we limit ourselves when we speak with the child? Do we limit ourselves speaking with anyone? We listen to the person we talk to and with, and we try to find, or we are open for the words which will have substance for our listener. The process of finding words is to some extent automatic, or perhaps it would better to say spontaneous.   We see or imagine a person and the language emerges. We see how she reacts to our words, we re-imagine who she is and the process, and the dialog continues. This occurs through listening to our interlocutor and letting our voices emerge as we create. I wouldn’t call it limiting. I could say that my listener in some way directs my talk. The language emerges between us.
I shape the language of theatrical expression to be interesting and to command attention. I don’t have lessons to give. I share with my audience my own joy in digging into the material, story, stirring sources of inspiration, asking questions and shaping the pictures, actions, characters, rhythms, and language. I create the universe which is often multi-layered, with a number of characters, each with its own life, opinions and motives for actions. I create texture, colors and architecture of the environment. Elements of the production have their sources of inspiration, and they derive their forms from meetings, conversations, reading, seeing, and listening. The show comes into being molded from elements and universes, and is open to audience interpretation. Song, picture, poem and puppet show could provide experience and opportunities to associate, understand and feel, and to expand understanding and the ability to associate and to feel.
Jack Zipes in “Fairy Tales and Art of Subversion” writes about how fairy tales were and are still used to educate, to socialize, and to program socially desirable children’s behavior. I am far from considering myself an educator whose mission is to teach children proper manners. I consider myself rather someone who brings to children language, questions, rhythms, shapes, colors, elements of narration, characters and their stories, as well as my own and my colleagues joy in explorations and orchestration of theatrical universe.
I don’t care if my audience is not able to read, see, and decipher all I put into the show. The show is rich because only this kind of work could provide an opportunity to share the passion and curiosity that I have. I am saying rich, but this does not mean complicated or overloaded.  Intensive research could lead to elegant, but simple effects. A lot of stuff is thrown away just as a writer throws away words, pages, paragraphs, or chapters of an earlier draft that are not needed.   Also, the richness of theatrical language could be understood by an analogy to poetry. Poetry and children’s rhymes are also good examples of this understanding. Many children’s rhymes deal with the richness of language beyond its semantic level of literal meaning. Rhymes speak through their sonorous, musical, rhythmic, melodic, and associative levels of expression, all of which address the senses and mind.
To bring puppetry for children and adults together we have to have time and space for togetherness, even if this would be metaphorical togetherness.
We may need space of shared aesthetic and methodological explorations, shared communal space where children and more mature audiences meet. This concept of shared communal space is pretty easy to grasp.  Considering that children when not in school are usually with parents or guardians, this sharing is unavoidable.  I think we can’t ignore that parents and grandparents are part of the audience. They should enjoy the show as well.
In my native Poland, puppet theatre serves mostly children, but many theatres also produce shows for mature audiences. I would say that children’s audiences support to some extent productions for adults. I mean that theatres are established and secure in their work thanks to their mission of serving children. Ensembles are created. They could practice and polish their mastery in working for children. This potential could and is employed in producing shows for adults.
When you work on how, on the language, methodology, aesthetics, your discoveries in this field for children could inspire and inform work for mature audiences. Similarly techniques used in puppet theatre for mature audiences could be used in creating performances for children.
We work in visual arts.  The broad scope of this art is universally appealing to adults and to children. The puppeteer as an actor could be compared to a dancer. Watching a dance, watching a circus act brings satisfaction to a child as much as to an adult. It is the beauty of the form and extraordinary skill of the performer which attract.
Most traditional and many contemporary puppet theaters are not interested in making the relationship between puppeteer and puppet a part of the theatrical expression. Whether an artist decides to take this aspect of puppetry into consideration or not, this relationship exists and could be and very often is of significance as a part of the expression. When we acknowledge this relationship as having expressive potential, we are acknowledging also that the puppeteer is an actor, and his body is also a vehicle of expression. This approach broadens the scope of creative explorations which could be interesting for the adult spectator and matches the natural tendency for children's affirmation of any language as long as it is possible to decipher or project meaning into it.  An aesthetically and semantically complex theatrical act could satisfy sophisticated adult spectators as much as a child for whom the theatrical act could represent the world analogous to that of make-believe play.
Dream Tale Puppets addresses its programs to children, but we believe in developing multiple dimensions in our work. We do workshops, and we are building relationships with other organizations. We explore where and how we could better serve the community by practicing our art.








Monday, August 17, 2015

The Joy of Creating with Children: Differences in the roles of teachers and teaching artists

On August 10, 2015 I participated in Professional Day of Teaching Artists & Therapists at The National Puppetry Festival at the University of Connecticut. I shared my thoughts on the differences between an artist and teacher; I spoke a little about my Polish theatrical education and experience; and I presented an example of my work with children and teachers. The presentation was accompanied by handout material that explained my thoughts in writing. Below is an unabridged version of this text.
 Professional Day of Teaching Artists & Therapists 
National Puppetry Festival,  
University of Connecticut, August 10, 2015 

The Joy of Creating with Children: Differences in the roles of teachers and teaching artists
Jacek Zuzanski
Contact Email:

Let me explain how I see differences between artist and teacher.
A teacher teaches. She passes on her knowledge to students.
An artist creates. She connects with the mysterious universe of inspiration and brings a new reality into being. When working with students she does this with them.
A teacher and a school initiate into social norms, they both represent order and obedience to the expectations of a society.
An artist serves as a liaison between people and their primordial, intuitive and instinctive source of vitality. She represents and revitalizes the world of self which is free of societal restrictions.
A teacher inhabits the center of society with its norms and customs.
An artist resides on the borders of society often contesting its norms.
A teacher knows. She knows facts, laws, rules, she classifies objects and categories, and has language and names to describe reality.
An artist is on a perpetual quest exploring and examining reality perceived by her senses, inner reality of the mind, and known language, and she creates language to convey and give an expression of her explorations.

Much of what I am saying here follows how mythologist Joseph Campbell writes about these matters. Also psychology of creativity has a lot to say about this and how important the arts are for the well being of an individual, sanity of a society, and development of the creative faculty of the mind.
There is also the art teacher in schools, and of course teachers use hands on and project development in teaching, but for the purpose of this presentation I would like to make a strong distinction between a teacher and artist.

Artists and teachers can work together. Let me delineate two models of cooperation artists and teachers working together in school.
In the first model an artist adheres to the needs defined by the school, educational system, teachers, curriculum standards, norms and culture of the school.
In second model artist is invited to the school because of originality of the culture, world, norms and standards he or she represents by his work, art and life.
In first model artist could be instructed by school authorities on procedures and may even be trained in pedagogical techniques of controlling class dynamic or discipline.
In second model artist’s experience in work with children, methodologies she or he developed or lack of such an experience is recognized and valued.
In the first model artist serves teachers in their work with children.
In the second model teachers support and help the artist in his work with children.
At this point you may notice that these models may be seen as complementary and that in a real situation of cooperation between artists and teachers both approaches could and should coalesce. Sure, but it would also be beneficial for all sides involved if teachers are aware of these models, and of the difference between teachers and artists.  They would better understand what conditions makes artists work most enjoyable, efficient, creative, enthusiastic and beneficial for children. Children will benefit and grow into better human beings when they learn from great teachers and work with wonderful artists. They have teachers in school everyday. When they meet artists they benefit from an experience very different from this one they have with a teacher.


I am a visual artist, puppeteer, actor, and stage director. I am also a teacher, but when I work as a teacher I allow myself as much as possible to be an artist.  Most often I work with children as a director. I design and conduct the creative process and then I embody and demonstrate the application of my own creative self, and I make possible creative dialog between myself and my young actors and collaborators. I teach them acting skills and other skills needed in setting up a theatrical creative process and producing a theatrical presentation, but after they learn skills, we all launch into a creative adventure.

I am a Pole. I grew and obtained my theatrical education and experience in my native Poland, where the education of puppeteers is very different from that in the United States, and where theatrical culture--ways theatre is practiced and present in society--are also very different. In Poland two theatre academies educate actors/puppeteers and directors of puppet performances to work in over twenty very well subsidized puppet theatres, each employing from 20 to 70 artists, administrators and technicians. Actors/puppeteers intensively study acting techniques of the live theatre, theatre of mask, pantomime and a variety of puppetry techniques. All the time from the very first days in the Institute students work in teams, they learn techniques, and they learn how to cooperate, work with the director, and direct their colleagues .

I obtained my directing certificate by directing shows in Wroclaw Puppet Theatre theatre. Early, straight after my study, I started work as a theatre and acting teacher, but it was primarily by training my young actors and directing shows with them that I learned to teach. One of my teachers from the Theatre Academy, Jan Dorman, whom I also assisted in his directing work in Lublin Puppet Theatre, was particularly important and influenced the style of my directing work and work with children.  Dorman developed a unique style of theatre using patterns, forms and rules of children’s play. Actors were in full view of the audience when “playing” with puppets and visual objects which were not used to physically represent characters, but rather to signify the characters. His shows revealed the mechanics of puppet theatre and exposed the process of creating theatrical language resembling children’s fantasy play. This display of narrative and theatrical techniques created a rich tapestry of associations loaded with metaphors and a wealth of poetic pictures.

I came to United Stated from the world where puppet theatres most often operate in their own buildings and where schools regularly visit theatres. A school field trip to the theatre is celebrated and valued. Puppet theatres play an especially important role in offering programs for elementary schools and their students. Polish schools themselves offer much less theatrical activities and programs than the schools in Massachusetts that I know best. In Poland most theatrical classes and activities for children are offered by culture centers or organizations  as after school programs. At such programs children and youth have chances to work with artists. My experience as an artist working with children began in such a settings. I continued this work parallel to my work with youth and adult professional performers and artists. My methodology of working with children was shaped by this rich and diverse experience. It emerged by trying and adapting techniques and approaches I learned from my teachers and was developed when I worked with youth and adult professionals.


One principle was and reminded fundamental. No matter if I worked with adults or children, I always considered them to be, and approached them as, partners. Dialog between me as a director and teacher and them as actors was fundamental. I taught 7 year olds and I taught 50 year olds professional actors. Most of my shows were and still are explorations. I gather knowledge and experience from many sources and I bring this experience to my actors. Often teaching techniques or developing techniques of acting were and remain a part of my productions, no matter if I work with professionals or children. This is especially apparent when in a project new kind of visual elements, performing objects, or puppets are introduced, and where actors first have to find ways to act with such objects. So some kind of training is placed at the beginning of the project and when technique is developed and internalized it is implemented into the creative process of building the show.


As a director I use my rational intelligence and also I trust impulses and inspirations coming from within and from the process itself. My actors, collaborators, writers, co-writers, artists, musicians, teachers, technicians are all part of the same organism that I build to work and create as one.  My job is to guide everybody be creative, reach his or her highest potential and surpass what they know about themselves while enjoying the process. I have to build clear and strong guidelines to make this happen. How to keep open my own sources of creativity and inspiration is a part of this work. Without keeping access to my own resources open, I can not lead others into a new reality beyond the borders of the known.  Over the years I have developed ways to do this, but I can only do it when I am trusted and given the freedom to use my own methods, and when my actors and my collaborators want me to lead.

When I direct I bring my techniques, methodologies, and my culture. Schools have their own cultures, regulations, dress codes, and ways to move around and to behave.  Inviting an artist to school to teach is one possible way to give children an opportunity to know something about the arts. But inviting artist to actually create with children is something very different and much more significant. When an artist creates with children, she not only teaches techniques and leads children to create, she leads a process where she and children create together. When the artist is a puppeteer, actor, acting coach, and director, the process involves many facets of creativity and provides opportunity for unique intensive experience where everybody learns by exploring and integrating multiple levels of cognitive, physical, sensory and emotional, and joyful experiences.

A good example of a project where I was invited to a school to work with teachers and children as a puppeteer and director was the after school enrichment program at Hyannis East Elementary School on Cape Cod, which I conducted in 2005. The following year I directed a similar project at the same school.  After that I worked as a teacher, I directed school productions, I conducted summer or after school workshops, and I performed independently; but I haven’t had a chance to work with children in schools as a visiting artist.
A puppetry format in which the actor is visible for the audience, as in Jan Dorman’s style, is very good when working with children. When children play with a doll they project an imagined character onto the doll and do not care if they have an audience.  In puppet theatre they switch from using the puppet as a doll to presenting it to the audience. Artists and teachers can help with this important element of children’s puppetry experience.
Manipulating techniques are not easy to master, but for the purpose of creating inspiring experiences for the child there is no need to master them.   It is more important to ensure that a child is actively involved in the process, and that the puppets, as well as other aspects of the process, motivate and stimulate his/her imagination and creative experience.
The first Hyannis East Elementary workshop was exemplary in its use of the strategies I mentioned before, and for creating an environment where teachers supported the artist’s work with children. 
About 40 children and 5 teachers were involved. We worked on the production of a play, which was an adaptation of a Polish folk tale transcribed by renowned Polish writer Gustaw Morcinek. In our adaptation three families present in Morcinek’s tale grow in numbers to accommodate the number of participants of the project. The project lasted 7 afternoons from 4:30 to 6:00. I was visiting the first, third, fifth and seventh days.  In between on the second, third and fifth days, teachers worked with 4  groups following guidelines we prepared together, practicing texts, and scenes, designing and building sets and creating masks.
During my first visit we met in the gym, introduced children to the project, and played initial warm-up, expression and name games. Then we read the play. Next we split the group into two halves and we continued playing games. This time the games were chosen for their usability for the production. They served to develop expressiveness in physical acting, introduced patterns and rules of organizing scenes. This all was done in a big gym, split in two, one side for each group. I was moving from group to group, initiating games and exercises and watching children for their natural skills and talents. This part of the work served also as an audition, giving me and the teachers some clues for casting. Then we gathered all the children in a big circle and announced the cast, creating 5 groups for further work. Then each one of these five groups read its own part of the script.
We had a group of Storytellers whose task was to read narrative parts of the story. The second group was a family of the Poor Shoemaker: The Shoemaker, His Wife and Children. The third group portrayed family of Poor Shoemaker’s brother – a rich Miller: The Miller, His Wife and Children. The fourth group was cast as an allegorical figure of Poverty and her children. The fifth group was responsible for designing and creating sets for the production. One remaining character, Wise Man/ Beggar, worked interchangeably with two groups.
The second day teachers worked in four groups practicing lines, drawing, designing and paining masks, discussing and designing costumes, designing sets and priming cardboard.
The third day, work in groups was continued. I was visiting and I worked with each group, blocking actions and helping in shaping expressiveness of the actions and voices, and advising and praising designers and painters.
The fourth day teachers continued work in groups practicing, what we developed during previous meeting and painting scenery on prepared sheets of cardboard. Designers continued work on painting scenery and they started work on posters, invitations, and program.
On the fifth day I again joined the process. The actors started together, checking costumes and warming up. Then we continued rehearsing scenes in order and practiced transitions between scenes. Designers continued their work.
The first part of the sixth day children worked in groups practicing their parts. Then they gathered together and did a run through of the entire play.
The last, seventh, day I was leading the dress rehearsal. Then parents and friends were invited and children presented their work to them. The short party followed.
This project was exemplary for cooperation between a visiting artist and teachers. I brought an idea backed by years of experience in the theatre and creative theatrical work with adults, youth and children.  I came with enthusiasm toward the project and received wonderful support from teachers and trust and enthusiasm of children. Teachers helped on every level of the work. They helped adapt the play. They participated in designing the schedule and planning work with groups and facility usage, so transitions from room to room, activity to activity, and teacher to artist were smooth and energizing. My task was to provide my expertise in building a dynamic creative process and team to inspire, coach, introduce techniques, ignite creative energies, and lead toward the final experience.
This was great and I was happy to see children perform.