Puppet theater inspires imagination in kids young and old

The young audience is riveted to the action on Stage. —Susan Safford

Marsha Winsryg and a crew of talented, inspired puppeteers have been turning the upstairs stage of the Grange Hall in West Tisbury into an enchanted puppet theater this summer.

Two Monday morning double features during July were filled with color, excitement, mystery, and humor. While the summer shows are geared to the youngest crowd, the artistry and intricate, uplifting stories are equally enjoyable for older youngsters and grown-ups too.

Most of the stories have a message, delivered in the meandering style of a traditional fable or fairy tale. But others are meant to simply delight with zany fun and laughter.

Along with the bright African crafts for sale on the front porch on show days, the productions help raise funds for a good and meaningful cause. Proceeds from craft sales and a modest $5 ticket price help support the Mama Bakhita Home for Disabled Children in Livingstone, Zambia, a charitable project begun by Ms. Winsryg.

July’s performances drew audiences of many ages, from toddlers to school-aged children, their parents and friends, all thrilled with the magical shows. Children snuggle on a parent’s lap, sit on the floor, and sometimes run to the stage for a closer look at the mysterious little figures, both human and animal, that cavort about and seem to actually talk. There are giggles, gasps, and bursts of applause as the puppets go through their antics.

Along with Ms. Winsryg, several other puppetry artists are pitching in this summer for a variety of colorful offerings.

Justine Cassel, a regional high school senior, created a cast of personality-packed puppets from several of her own childhood toys to tell her charming fables. In “The Adventures of Sasha,” a skunk, an owl, the tooth fairy, and Sasha’s grandmother appeared to teach the young girl about the value of friendship, caring for and helping others.

On the same program, Ms. Winsryg gathered a mixed herd of carved wooden jungle animals from her African crafts display to present a captivating shadow puppet story.

The following week Audrey Van der Krogt crafted delicate cut-outs for a shadow puppet piece about a grumpy gecko and a tiger. Based on a Balinese folktale, it had a haunting traditional flavor.

Vibrant energy filled the room as Jeannie DelGiudice and Scott Crawford’s Calypso Puppets offered a joyfully rowdy tale, finishing the upbeat show with a limbo contest. Youngsters scrambled out of their seats and lined up to bend low beneath the stick then joined the jolly puppets in a free-wheeling dance.

Shows resume Tuesday, August 9, with the original Spindrift Marionettes in a West African folktale titled “Unanana’s Beautiful Children” in which a clever mother rescues her little ones from an elephant. “Me and My Puppet” features song and dance routines with Bella and her puppets followed by a reprise of “The Grumpy Gecko.”

The puppetry season concludes Monday, August 15, with a pair of favorites: “Unanana’s Beautiful Children” and “Limbo Dance Party.”

According to Ms. Winsryg, Spindrift Marionettes, begun by April Thanhauser, has always adapted folk and fairy tales from many sources “from Grimms to the Arabian Nights.” Other puppeteers in this season’s shows perform original work.

“Never underestimate the power of storytelling to stir the soul,” Ms. Winsryg said. She has been telling fairy and folk tales to children and adults for some 30 years. As a master’s degree student at Bank Street College of Education in New York City, she took her new storytelling skills into a local preschool and was gratified to see how positively the children responded.

Puppet shows incorporate storytelling in a unique format that is intensely engaging for audience members, Ms. Winsryg said.

“All of us are attracted to puppetry, a form that is one step removed from reality, and several steps away from the hyper detail-driven cartoon style popular in animation these days.” Ms. Winsryg said. “There is space to breathe and give the imagination time to work its way in. It is a simpler way of engaging with other cultures and universal themes that lift us out of the quotidian and into magic and truth.”

Ms. Winsryg began her charity, African Artists Community Development Project (AACDP), after travelling to Africa in 1999 and meeting local artisans who wanted to sell their unique products. She also learned about the nearby Mama Bakhita Home and its need for support.

Soon, she began bringing the crafts home to the Vineyard to sell, with revenues providing support for the artists and the disabled children as well. In addition to selling at various events and private showings year round, Ms. Winsryg has added guided group tours in Italy and Africa as another source of revenue for the charity.

Puppet Shows: Tuesday, August 9, and Monday, August 15, 11 am. The Grange Hall, West Tisbury. Proceeds benefit Mama Bakhita Home for Disabled Children, Livingstone, Zambia. $5. Info: 508-693-4059; visit aacdpafrica.org.