Puppets with a Purpose

by Kelly Mantick

Peoria can boast of the only puppet troupe in the nation that provides hand puppet shows for K-3 musical education.

Only in central Illinois can you find such classic characters as Peter and the Wolf, Hansel and Gretel, and Peer Gynt…as puppets. Used to foster music appreciation in youngsters from kindergarten to third grade, the performances of the Peoria Symphony Guild’s Puppet Troupe have been playing in Peoria for more than four decades.

Mary Pratt, the Troupe’s original chairwoman, an experienced puppeteer and continued supporter, recalls its birth in 1967. In charge of the Peoria Symphony Guild’s music education program at the time, Pratt jumped on the idea of establishing a live interactive show to incorporate classical music into area schools.

Pratt explains that the Puppet Troupe arose in response to the elimination and reduction of music programs in the public schools. “We wanted to fill a void in the musical education of children in Peoria,” she reveals, “and introduce classical music in a very fundamental and fun way.”

The Troupe inherited the stage used by the Junior League for its strictly entertaining “Punch and Judy” style show.  After adding two wings to the stage, Pratt’s group of prospective puppeteers created the remainder of the props, sets and puppets, including a wolf with jaws that moved and soldiers who could really march. Many of the original puppets, such as the Wolf and Sonya the Duck, have survived the decades and continue to delight grade-school children today.

The Learning Curve
Around the time the Puppet Troupe began to gain traction, Pratt’s musical education initiative included two other programs. “We also did a high school pops concert and…in-school chamber music,” she explains. “The only thing that has really continued over these 42 years has been the puppet show.”

Pratt attributes the Troupe’s success to several key factors. “It continues to be relevant. It doesn’t cost anything. It doesn’t take up that much time, and it affords itself to a lot of teaching opportunities.”

Prior to the shows, the Troupe passes out packets of information to teachers. These include pictures for the children to color and cut out, and laminated fold-out posters pertaining to each performance. “Each of the kits now has a series of posters that explains what the teaching elements are of the particular puppet show,” adds Pratt.

The Puppet Troupe performs Peter and the Wolf, Hansel and Gretel, and Peer Gynt on a three-year rotational basis, each playing for a single season, which runs from September to February. Each of the different shows teaches students about specific musical concepts. Pratt explains, “We decided the first show should be Peter and the Wolf because that’s introducing children to musical instruments.” 

Children are taught to associate Peter with the violin, Sonya the Duck with an oboe, Ivan the Cat with a clarinet, and Grandpa with a bassoon. Hansel and Gretel, an opera, exhibits the range of vocals from baritone to soprano and terms such as solo, duet and trio. Meanwhile, Peer Gynt incorporates mood music, teaching students about the dynamics of loudness and softness. Pat Rice, puppeteer and Puppet Troupe board member, attests that giving children the materials in advance teaches them what to look for on the day of the actual performance.

A Peek Behind the Curtain
Bringing these shows to fruition is a bevy of dedicated volunteers. In addition to the puppeteers, Lakeview Museum houses the puppet supplies, and Peoria Park District employees assist with loading the hefty stage and equipment. Both Pratt and Rice firmly agree that the final result is worth all the work.

“My favorite part is working with the children,” Rice affirms. “We talk to them before and after the show, and it’s a delightful experience.” Laughing, she adds, “The funniest parts are the kids’ reactions. Sometimes, they will say, ‘Oh no!’ or warn Peter that the Wolf is behind him.”

Pratt, too, emphasizes the importance of the children to the volunteers. “When the puppeteers get tired, as we all do, and you see those 200 faces looking at you and smiling, it buoys everyone…you know why you are doing it and why you are working so hard.”

Put a Puppet on It
Despite all the puppet praise, Pratt and Rice are uncertain where the future will take the Troupe. Many of the puppeteers who joined when they were mothers are now grandmothers and even great-grandmothers. And while this level of experience is beneficial for teaching tenderfoots the ropes, the Troupe seeks new members. “We are trying to get younger people without hip replacements!” Pratt laughs.

Hip replacements or not, Rice doesn’t see the Puppet Troupe slowing down. “We plan to keep going as long as we can, as long as the schools are willing to have us come,” Rice exclaims. “I don’t see any reason that it shouldn’t continue forever!” And with 42 years to its name, Peoria’s Puppet Troupe certainly seems to have the wherewithal to last decades more. For more information, visit psoguild.org/troupe.asp. a&s

Puppets By the Numbers

3—Number of counties the troupe performs in: Peoria, Tazewell
and Woodford
6—Number of months that comprise one season, September to February
18-22—Average minutes of one performance
100—Approximate number of annual volunteers
1969—Year of the troupe’s first show
1976—Year the educational kits were first created
2000—Year the troupe received an award from the american symphony orchestra league for providing the only k-3 hand puppet show for musical education in the U.S.
3,300—Approximate number of live shows given by the troupe
13,000—Approximate number of children attending the performances
each year.