Catskill Puppet Theater

(Reprinted from Dr. Cohn's column in The Washington Times)

 

Amidst escalating concern about the gratuitous violence and dubious role models which media entertainment offers young people, there is a counter trend which is getting stronger and stronger.  This trend does not require v-chips or ratings systems, yet it is responsible for entertaining, delighting and inspiring millions of our children.  This particular kind of entertainment, more than most, requires a certain suspension of belief, a connection to one’s imagination, and an ability to surrender to an innate childhood innocence. 

The name of this trend is children’s puppet theater, and two of its most honored and creative practitioners are John Potocnik and Carol Mandigo, co-founders of the Catskill Puppet Theater.  Over the past twenty years, their theater group has performed in thousands of schools, churches and theaters of every race, religion and socioeconomic group, entertaining more than a million children throughout the country.  Their thoughts about this unique form of children’s entertainment—and how it has the power to not only delight children, but to also gently impart important life lessons—will be of interest to parents, educators and clergy.

John Potocnik points out that puppet theater, in various forms, has existed since the dawn of man.  “Puppetry has always had a universal appeal for both children and adults,” he reminds us.  “There is a very magical quality about bringing inanimate objects to life, and this evokes a unique response.  That’s why, through the ages, puppetry has been used in religious and cultural ceremonies in virtually every country in the world.  It’s only relatively recently, actually, that children have been considered the primary audience for puppet theater.”

Today, as children’s lives become more and more complex and pressured, and dazzling hi-tech special effects (often involving some form of violence) are considered almost mandatory for children’s entertainment, puppet theater is faced with new challenges, and is creating a special niche.

“It’s important to our theater group,” says Carol Mandigo, “to teach children a moral lesson, and give them tools for good behavior.  This has always been the goal of children’s literature and children’s theater.  Luckily, we’re equipped to do that in very special ways that even the most resourceful parents cannot, by using magic, enchantment, special lighting effects, original music and scenery – all tricks of the trade of good theater.  We make a point of trying to avoid violence or ‘put down humor,’ though we love to make children laugh.  And the children really respond.”

John and Carol, along with many others, have been troubled by the themes which nowadays run through children’s media entertainment.

“The kind of work we do,” says Carol, “along with others in our field, is in counterpoint to the gratuitous violence and wisecracks and insult humor that’s so pervasive today.  Oftentimes children are as admiring of the villains in movies and television shows as they are of the heroes.  It’s no wonder, since so many of the bad guys today have fashion model looks, brawn and muscles, and possess super human powers.  Kids think, ‘Well, he may be a bad guy but he is pretty cool.’  What is that teaching them?”

Interestingly, being constantly exposed to that kind of entertainment does not make children too jaded for the kinder, gentler pleasures of puppet theater.  Quite the contrary.

“There’s been a lot said about the shrinking attention span of children today and their growing taste for hi-tech violence.  And that may be so,” John concedes.  “But we find we can depend on the magical nature of puppetry to draw even the most ‘jaded’ children in.  Most of our productions are geared for pre-school through fourth or fifth grade.  And we find that even the fourth and fifth graders can suspend their disbelief and become transfixed by these hunks of wood and foam and material.  There is something about live theater that is electric.  We find as we interweave art and music our audiences become deeply involved in a way that does not happen with television or movies.  That’s why we can be effective in teaching children lessons – because the main focus is always on the puppetry.

The Catskill Puppet Theater productions run about forty-five minutes, and each production features unique puppets, “shadow puppets”, music and scenery to tell a story.

The Catskill Puppet Theater has now dramatized Dr. Cohn's book, The Christmas Menorahs: How A Town Fought Hate.  This new production, entitled The Town That Fought Hate, was created by Carol and John to dramatize the power of goodness, the power of community, and the power of each of us – including children – to make a difference.

“Most of our productions start out as a kernel of an idea,” explains Carol.  “In this case we based the production upon a book because the book itself was based upon a true story.  When confronted with acts of hatred by a group of skinheads, the town of Billings, Montana acted in a way that can be an example to every community, and every child within that community.  We wanted to help make that happen.”

Like the theater’s other productions, The Town That Fought Hate features almost life size puppets and shadow puppets, masks, animated figures, original music (as well as, in this case, town buildings which come to life).

The Catskill Puppet Theater tours nationally.  For information about their productions, readers can call (607) 263-5820 or visit their web site at www.catskillpuppettheater.baka.com