Children can benefit in many ways from seeing and using puppets. Raymond Ross reports
Puppets have a magical kind of attraction for all children - as proved by the success of the 15th annual Puppet and Animation Festival, which finished this week. What began as a local enterprise at the Netherbow Arts Centre in Edinburgh is fast becoming a national event.
With 17 companies from Scotland and England performing 22 productions in more than 50 venues (125 performances in all), the festival has spread beyond the Lothians and Fife to include performances in Dumfries and Galloway, the Scottish Borders, North and South Lanarkshire, Paisley, Glasgow and Stirling.
Richard Medrington, a festival veteran who also appears at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and the International Children's Festival, sees the "magic" of puppetry as something intangible but real.
Edinburgh-based Medrington, who has visited thousands of schools in the past 15 years, says that "there is a magic about puppets that no one has really explained".
It is a phenomenon that needs to be analysed, he says. "No one has yet done a proper psychological study of why and how puppets can have such an extraordinary effect on children," he says, giving a startling example.
"During one show of mine a child came bursting through the audience to speak to a puppet, Casper, a kind of German Mr Punch. Addressing the puppet, and obviously aware that it was only a puppet, she began telling Casper how her grandfather had died while she and her sister were present.
"She told Casper that they had been unable to do anything to help the grandfather. She was upset, clearly, but not crying. It just came spilling out. She apparently felt Casper could or would understand."
Similar experiences with his own children underline this communication facility which puppets seem to inspire in children. "When my own kids were small, they used to come into the room where I kept the puppets. They would say 'I want to talk to Casper' or whoever, and then relate all the things they'd been doing recently. They knew I knew what they'd been doing, so it wasn't for my benefit. They also knew these were only puppets. But children want to talk to puppets."
Medrington, who works largely with four to 11-year-olds, believes the power of puppetry can go largely unrecognised, and says too many schools only want puppet shows for Christmas or end-of-term celebrations. "Puppets can be used across the curriculum for language development, problem-solving, technology - including sound and lighting - artwork, making puppets and working with fabrics, as well as developing voice and movement. And they can also be used in religious or moral education."
Medrington has six shows based on New Testament parables such as the Good Samaritan, which he performs for church groups and school assemblies as well as in classrooms.
"I use parables because they have strongly-defined characters and a neat dramatic form. I perform them without actual reference to Jesus or the Bible. They're not preachy and they're good for promoting discussion about moral issues."
At this year's puppet festival Medrington was performing "Tiggers Don't Climb Trees", a new show based on the works of A A Milne. "Milne is good for language work, because he deliberately draws in big words to develop a child's vocabulary and you can develop this further by getting the pupils to do their own shows after the performance," he says.
"Two things need to be stressed here. One is that you don't bash puppets together. And the second is that silly, squeaky voices you can't really hear are not enough. You get pupils to work on clear voices, with different accents, which is fun.
"Puppets must be seen and heard, so you can work with pupils on simple voice techniques or show them how to use a microphone. You also show them how to move a puppet in keeping with what it's saying.
"It's not only about co-ordination," says Medrington, "but with booth puppetry, where the child-puppeteer is hidden from his or her audience, it's amazing how expressive a shy child will prove to be - often to the astonishment of teachers."
Medrington works mainly with glove puppets and toys. This enables children to develop their own skills at home or in the class. "If a child has a Winnie the Pooh soft toy and a story book, they can learn to mime through a story as it is told to them by a teacher or parent. It's about tapping into their imaginations," he says.
"When I begin a show, there is an unspoken bargain the children have to buy into. You suggest if they use their imaginations then a story will develop before their eyes. It's really communal.
"You have to involve the audience. You get them singing or tapping out a rhythm in the story and this helps pull them back if, say, there's a particularly wordy part you have to go through.
"You can use panto techniques of 'Behind you!' or get them to guess where certain animals are on the set by pointing to ears or tails sticking out from behind the scenery. But I never whip them up into a frenzy. I don't see that as achieving very much."
Medrington has worked with blind and deaf children as well as those with a handicap. "I've seen a child with a handicap respond vigorously to puppets, to the amazement of a teacher who has already told me the child does not respond to any stimulus. Puppets do have that effect. They become characters in their own rights.
"Blind children are, believe it or not, the closest audience I've ever performed to. They may not see fully, some none at all, but they know stories - it's their medium - and they hear every rustle and audible movement. They're experts at listening to every nuance. They're so close, they're with you all the way.
"With deaf schools you have to concentrate a bit more on the visual dimension to your story and design, but you would be amazed at how adept even profoundly deaf pupils can be at picking up a story when puppets are involved.
"Ideally, a good puppet show should communicate simultaneously to deaf and blind children, to children with a handicap and to so-called 'normal' children."
While admitting that puppetry is "not everyone's cup of tea", Medrington believes it can have a place in teacher training because the drama of puppetry communicates so clearly, especially to younger children.
"There's nothing worse than a teacher coming into a school performance with a pile of marking. If they do that, I pick on them - well, the puppets do - in the nicest possible way. If the pupils see the teacher is enjoying it as much as they are, they can go off the scale altogether!" And the magic of puppets is not reserved for children only, according to Medrington. "Look at how many times Kermit the Frog has been interviewed on TV. Or Miss Piggy. And what about Rod Hull and Emu? Everyone remembers Emu attacking Michael Parkinson. Parky still talks about it. But he doesn't say 'That bloody Rod Hull!' He says 'That bloody Emu!' Now, that's interesting, isn't it?" "Tiggers Don't Climb Trees" and other Medrington shows are on offer to schools throughout the year. Contact 0131 452 9372. For details of the annual Puppet and Animation Festival, contact the Netherbow Arts Centre, tel: 0131 556 9579.