Staging TRUE SHOES — with puppets?
|Notes from Doug|
Can a realistic young-adult novel that deals candidly with cyberbullying, homophobia, multicultural tensions, and drug use be turned into ... a puppet show?
Obviously not — unless were to ask nearly 600 fifth through eighth graders from three Vermont towns who gathered in a high school auditorium this Monday morning to watch “True Hats.” The 23-minute stick-puppet drama was adapted by a high-school class and two local puppeteers from my YA book True Shoes. I was sitting in a back row, and here’s how it went:
Earlier this fall, an elective class at Randolph (Vt.) Union High School called AWESOME (A Wonderful Exploration Semester of Me), with students from various academic levels, read True Shoes and talked about it. The main storyline centers on a social rebellion in a middle school: A motley group of eighth grade friends rises up to challenge a super-popular clique that has amassed frightening power by spreading harsh rumors, via text message and other cyber-means, throughout the student community.
Working with a script by Barbara Paulson of Randolph’s No Strings Marionette Company, the class made stick puppets with big, colorful felt heads for each character in the show (which is “True Hats” because, see, stick puppets don’t have shoes. Or feet. So footwear that is key in the novel becomes hats in the show). The students also collaborated with Paulson, her partner Dan Baginski, and health teacher Deborah Lary to create props and scenery, build backdrops, record the soundtrack — and then perform the show, for all the fifth through eighth graders from Randolph and the neighboring towns of Braintree and Brookfield.
I had no idea how this would go. In my story, after two boys in the motley group embarrass the most popular girls with a prank, the retaliation is a rumor spread through school that the boys have been caught kissing. This sparks a violent response from one of the boys, who is black. And when the conflict between the groups rises to envelop the school, the popular girls recruit a Filipino classmate to plant a bag of pot in a the locker of a boy from the motley group, who has a crush on her. Would a puppet show take on all of that?
Amazingly, it did — and the kids in the audience got it. They laughed in the right places, they leaned into the suspense. And when the story culminated, the positive buzzing upswell in the crowd told me the show had gone over. Very, very well.
On stage after the final scene, each player shared a factual finding from the annual Vermont Youth Risk Behavior Survey. For example, “56% of students have felt some sort of bullying in school.” “Nine out of 10 LGBT youth reported being verbally harassed at school in the past year because of their sexual orientation.” “Thirty percent of RUHS middle school students have been electronically bullied.”
Before I joined the cast and crew onstage to take questions, RUHS guidance counselor Kara Merrill came out and told the audience: “Every week I, as a school counselor, feel the actual pain of these statistics as kids come to my office to ask and process, ‘Why me? What did I do?’ My response is always, ‘Nothing. It’s not your fault!’”
RUHS associate principal Elijah Hawkes told the audience that this could be a lifetime turning point for each one of them. I said I’ve learned that bullying always says more about the person or people doing it than about the target. The playbill listed local resources and types of people — trusted adults, Safeline, RUHS Gay/Straight Alliance — to whom a struggling young person can turn for help.
“But ultimately,” counselor Merrill said, “remember that it is you — the KIDS — who have the power to create change.”
True, yes — absolutely. But what about those puppets? How could it be appropriate to portray rumors and their impacts that call one girl a slut, two boys gay, and a third a drug dealer ... with felt-head stick figures?
Right after the play finished, No Strings puppeteer Paulson came out on stage and explained.
“The reason you can deal with really serious issues with puppets is that puppets are funny and silly, and people like to look at them,” she said. Puppets hold people’s attention, she explained. And once you have someone’s attention, you can take it somewhere. As “Sesame Street” has for years, and as “True Hats” did on this day.
Honestly. It was something to see. Here's cast member Libby Papp, with her puppet character Elliot: