Students hadn’t yet made their way into Union Memorial School (UMS) last Friday, but art teacher Amanda Vella and visiting puppeteer Barbara Paulson were already at work laying out felt, foam and beads. It was the third day of the triennial “Artist in Residence” program at the school.
This year, students in grades K-2 had the chance to work with Paulson of the Randolph-based No Strings Marionette Company crafting puppets and holding a school-wide performance, Tuesday.
UMS educators’ hoped the event would get students engaged with their coursework and teach them how to express themselves through movement, words and sound, Vella said.
“Making something and then being responsible for bringing it to life and having that be a reflection of yourself, it really triggers something inside kids that is joyful,” Paulson said.
During the week, Paulson helped students make puppets that tied directly into their studies. Kindergarteners made self-portrait puppets as part of their self-and-world lessons. The first graders created puppets representing international people for a show about dances around the globe.
Second graders worked on two pieces based on books they recently read: “Once there was a Tree” and “The Great Serum Run.” The first show involved making bugs and plants to examine how various flora and fauna aid in a tree’s decomposition. The second, saw students making mushers and huskies to reenact the true story of a 1920s dog relay that brought sorely needed serum to sick children in Nome, Alaska.
“[It’s] a fun theatrical performance, but at the same time it ties back into curricula that the students are working on in their classes,” Paulson said.
Paulson never imagined she’d be a puppet master. Growing up she delighted in art but assumed it would be a “passionate pastime.” However, upon seeing a marionette performance at an IBM company picnic, she was hooked. “I just fell in love with what they did and started working with them and never looked back.”
Paulson toured with different companies before meeting Dan Baginski with whom she eventually partnered to create No Strings. The duo tours around New England, New York and New Jersey with occasional shows in the Midwest.
They handcraft their own puppets. Making marionettes draws on experience in woodwork, car repair and general tinkering, according to Paulson.
“So many puppeteers just use unexpected items as puppets or for puppets,” she said. “It’s an art form that gives you the freedom to really play with different materials.” She especially likes to use bubble wrap for lightweight puppet faces and strands of beads for teeth.
UMS unified arts teachers found Paulson while researching a grant-covered troupe to fulfill the residency. “We called Barbara and she was amazing on the phone and we just knew it was right,” Vella said.
While the school didn’t obtain an arts grant this year, they were able to bring in “No Strings” with the support of the parent teacher organization.
The event broke from regular classroom routines, Vella said. Last Friday, first graders sat with their attention on the felt and foam before them as they accessorized their multicultural characters. Some students zipped around the room seeking advice from Paulson and combing through craft supplies.
“There’s a great collaborative spirit,” Vella said. “It’s just fun to have all the adults helping all the kids.”
According to Paulson, the UMS atmosphere was a welcoming one and, as a teaching artist, was an ideal place to practice her trade. She hoped the residency would have a lasting impact on students.
“My biggest hope is that they take the joy and the pride that they have in making their puppets and just let that settle in their lives,” Paulson said. “Hopefully they can use that when they’re doing something that they don’t love as much.”
Tuesday’s performances were videotaped by the district and will be made available to parents and guardians.