Puppets help children work as well as play, says Sylvia Troon. Raymond Ross looks at a small but perfect world.
Sylvia Troon is Kenspeckle Puppets and, as such, she has made upwards of 1,000 school visits since she founded the company in 1987. She has also performed in theatres, town halls, community centres and at teacher in-service courses from the Shetlands to the Borders.
"If you want children to be entertained and involved; if you want to stretch the imagination and emotions; if you want to be stimulating, creative and positive, then book Sylvia Troon," says Donald Smith, director of the Netherbow Arts Centre in Edinburgh and of the annual Puppet and Animation Festival. Individual teachers' comments consistently ring out these or similar praises.
Troon herself is more modest. "I'm a mixture of a mum, a teacher, an actor and somebody mad," she says. It was being a mum that first got her involved with her own two children in making puppets, animating them and inventing stories. She and her puppets followed the children to nursery and then to primary school where she discovered her metier.
Having trained at Edinburgh College of Art and Moray House, and having taught for two years prior to starting her family, she decided to take up professional puppeteering.
"The lynch-pin of my approach," she says, "is the workshop. I always give a performance if the school wants one, but I begin by making puppets with the children, then show them how to manipulate them, to animate them. Bringing them alive through movement leads to the development of communication through language. It was the initial reaction of teachers to my work that gave me the confidence to go further."
Her approach is "firmly in the teaching mode", covering making and manipulating skills, communication skills and listening skills, and such themes as child and road safety, folklore and fairy-tales, history, space, racial differences, environmental studies, bullying and feelings.
"While working with puppets, children discover things about themselves, feelings and how to express them on their own or in an interactive learning situation. With a puppet they can discover ways of expressing thoughts and feelings they might normally keep under wraps and, just as important, how to resolve them."
Her approach is very much pupil-centred. "The creative process must come from the pupil or learner. I think everyone can create, but the enemy is lack of time. After a school visit I always leave a book with all my ideas in it, so that the teacher and pupils can carry on developing the work. After all, in a crowded curriculum, teachers can't be experts in everything."
Kenspeckle Puppets' list of shows is aimed at 3 to 11-year-olds with titles like Pigs Can Fly, Scottish Fairy Tales and Pirates!. Troon is also one half of Whistlestop, a puppet company she co-founded with musician and story-teller Douglas Kerr. Their list of shows includes Greyfriars Bobby, Assipattle and the Stoorworm and a Scottish Medley, including Tam O' Shanter. As the titles of the shows and the name Kenspeckle imply, Troon performs a lot of work in the Scots language.
"The Scots language is an important element in a lot of the shows, but I'm interested in all dialects - from Shetland to Devon and Cornwall. In workshops I'll often encourage the children to imagine accents they hear on TV to give character to their puppet. Children, especially boys, are great mimics, " she says.
Troon works mostly with hand and rod puppets, sometimes using string puppets. She also teaches shadow puppetry a lot "because it is so easy to set up in a classroom".
Her educational approach is aimed as much at teachers as at pupils. "I want to stimulate and to pass on skills, knowledge and motivation. Bringing in an outside artist adds a certain spark and helps with the motivation of pupils and teachers alike.
"The art and craft side is obviously strong - with the pupils creating something original and personal to them. They get very excited by this, because they bring the puppet alive. It moves! It's not something to be put on a wall. It's something to be played with. And this is relevant to developing language skills by devising stories, and their language develops in discussion and through creation."
Sylvia Troon, Kenspeckle Puppets and Whistlestop, can be contacted at 15 Crawford Avenue, Gauldry, Fife DD6 8SG, tel: 01382 330399