Launching a Puppet Ministry in Your Sunday School
Pastor Tim Watson
My wife and I started our puppet ministry with very humble beginnings in 1996. I had never held a puppet, my wife had previous experience with the Baptist Student Ministry in college, and my kids had been in a ministry for a couple of years. We stepped in and helped with that ministry in 1994 to provide crowd control when one of the leaders became ill. We helped them develop and perform a script called ‘The Samaritan Dude” and then dropped out for another year when the other leader came back.
When they retired in 1996, we decided to step in and help build a ministry that would be more mission and service oriented. This blueprint for “Creating a Puppet Ministry” is based on the success and failures that we experienced. I get a lot of questions on how to go about starting a puppet ministry from scratch. Hopefully, our experience will help those of you that are just getting started or maybe wanting to take your ministry to a higher level.
Creating a Mission Statement
It is important that you determine what you want to accomplish with your team before you put the team together. This will set expectations for you and your team and will help you establish goals that meet those expectations.
When we first started helping out with the puppet team that was already established, the team met on Wednesday nights after mission activities like R.A.s and G.A.s. Its purpose was to provide another activity for kids to go to on Wednesday night while their parents were in choir. As such, it had no goals beyond what needed to be accomplished each Wednesday night. They would occasionally perform songs in doorways during Sunday School as well. This is fine if that’s what your ministry is intended to accomplish.
We established our ministry specifically to give kids a place to experience being a servant. The hope was to instill in them the desire to serve in leadership roles when they got older.
Here are some of the questions you need to answer when creating your mission statement.
Who do you want to reach with your ministry?
Who will participate in your ministry? What goals do you have for those who participate?
How will your ministry fit within your church organization? Will it stand apart from any existing organization?
What boundaries do you want to set for your ministry?
Building your team
Decide up front what age group you will allow into your ministry. If you have a lot of youth (6th grade and up) that want to participate, you probably won’t want to use kids younger than the 6th grade. We started our ministry with 4th grade and up. 4th graders were basically used to do props and help behind the scenes. We rarely let first year puppeteers use puppets in live performances. The first year was used to train them and get them comfortable with how things worked. We did tryouts one year because we had too many kids trying to come in at once. You may want to set limits to the size of your team so that it remains manageable. If there are too many puppeteers, there won’t be enough parts to go around and you’ll have more of a control problem for those that aren’t doing anything during practices.
We also put together a Puppet Team Agreement which set expectations for what it means to be a member of the team. Include things such as behavior expectations, practice schedules (including extra practice sessions outside the normal sessions before performances), attendance requirements, and any consequences of not following the agreement. We had both the parents and the kids read and sign the agreement.
If you plan to record your own scripts sometime in the future, you will also want to have each parent sign a release form so that you own the recordings. I get into this in more detail in the section “Writing and recording your own scripts”.
Get training for your team
The best place to start is to find a One Way Street puppet festival in your area. You will get a ton of ideas there plus they have beginning and advanced puppetry sessions that will get your puppeteers up and running pretty quickly. Your puppeteers will learn all of the techniques I have listed below. You will also get to see a lot of performances in both the skit and song competitions. This will give you and your team ideas for songs or skits that you can perform. There are also sessions for leaders that cover many of the aspects of leading a puppet ministry.
Expect to see some good and not so good puppetry in these competitions. Some teams have been doing this for a while and some may be pretty new to it. Allow these performances to give you an idea of what you should and should not do in a performance. Good technique is critical to a good performance.
We performed in the song and skit competition every time we went to a One Way Street festival. This gave our team a goal, something to shoot for. We performed our own original pre-recorded scripts and received gold medals in all but one of our performances. Practice, practice, practice. The song competition is much tougher. There are a lot more entries and most teams are really good at this. But, it does give you experience, challenges your team to become better, and gets you noticed. We received a lot of invitations to perform at other churches because of these performances.
One Way Street’s festival website is: http://www.onewaystreet.com/events/fest/location.html
Practice, practice, practice
Work on your techniques. One of the keys to a good performance is perfecting your techniques. A skit or a song should have two purposes: entertain and educate. Your message will be lost if the audience is spending more time critiquing your puppetry skills rather than listening to your message. When your puppets behave with believable action, they will come to life for the audience and you will be able to get your message across.
Here are a list of techniques you should work on:
• Entrances and exits. Puppets should enter and exit from backstage. They should never back-in or back-out or pop-up or pop-down unless the script calls for it. They should appear to be coming up stairs (not too steep) and when they walk, they’re head should bob slightly to the left and the right to give the impression of stepping from the left to the right foot. Observe real people walking up the stairs or a climbing a gently sloped pathway and mimic this with your puppet.
• Lip sync. Make sure your puppet opens its mouth with every syllable. New puppeteers tend to close the mouth with every syllable. This is known as “biting your words”. If you’re using pre-recorded scripts or songs, say the words along with your puppet. That way the puppet can open its mouth when you open yours. Also, make sure you know the timing of your pre-recorded song or skit.
• Mouth action. There is a tendency for new puppeteers to raise the upper jaw of the puppet rather than lowering the bottom one. This is called “flipping your lid”. When you and I talk, we lower our bottom jaw to open our mouth. Try it the other way and see how awkward it is. A puppet should mimic real people if it is to be believable. The technique I use is to cup my hand slightly with the thumb touching the middle joint of my first finger when the mouth is closed and flatten it while pushing down with the thumb to open the mouth. This keeps the upper jaw in the same position while lowering the bottom jaw. Don’t move your arm though or your puppet’s head will dart forward and look unnatural; use your wrist instead.
• Eye contact. Your puppets eyes look wherever your fingertips are pointing in the upper jaw. If you fingers are pointing up, your puppet will be “star gazing”. Point your fingers at the puppet or audience that you are talking to or looking at. If your audience’s eye level is below your puppets, point down at an angle toward them. If you look straight ahead at your audience, you will stare out over them.
• Arm movement. This is tricky stuff. Try patting your head and rubbing your stomach. It takes practice to move the puppets mouth while having believable arm action. The tendency for new puppeteers is to hold the rods up so that the arms go straight out from the body toward whatever the puppet is looking at. Try standing and talking to another person with your arms straight out in front of you. The other person will look at your arms and say “what are you doing?” It’s not natural so why should your puppet do it. Rod arm techniques are something you should learn in a training session and then practice until it works.
• Puppet height. One of the common problems in puppetry are puppets that start to sink when your arm gets tired. Puppets should be at bellybutton height (puppet’s bellybutton, not yours) to the top of the curtain when performing. You need to get your puppeteers to build up their arm strength and then always remain aware of their puppet’s position while performing. You should always watch what your puppet is doing during a performance. This is easier to do with pre-recorded scripts and songs. It is very difficult to do with live scripts, especially if you don’t have them memorized. Make your puppeteers sit around in practice with their arms in the air for up to 5 minutes. This will help them strengthen their arms.
• Emotion. Learn to show emotion with your puppet. Since puppets can’t smile or frown, you have to use body language to do this. For example, when you are sad, you tend to look down and your shoulders slump as your arms hang at your side. When you are sleepy, you put your hand up to your mouth and yawn. When you’re happy, you have an extra bounce in your step, your movements are excited, and your arms and hands exclaim your joy. You can spend half a session practicing these techniques and getting puppeteers to become familiar with how their puppet should react. Think of several emotions and practice each one of them with your puppeteers over and over.
• Puppet movement. When a puppet needs to go across the stage, it should walk or run. Walking requires a slow bouncing movement as your puppet moves; running requires quick bouncing action (but don’t overdo it, remember, look believable). New puppeteers tend to move their puppets across the stage without the little bounce in their step as if they were just gliding across the stage; it’s not very believable.
There are always exceptions to these rules. Using elevator or escalator entrances may be appropriate in rare occasions and can be comical. Puppet movement tends to be exaggerated anyway to emphasize emotion or action. Don’t be silly unless the script calls for it. Comedy is very appropriate for teaching; it prevents boredom and surprises your audience. But, use it wisely so that it doesn’t detract from the message.
Practices should produce professional looking performances and you should insist on this. Make them do it until they get it right. Record your practices on video and then let the puppeteers critique the practice and point out errors and unnatural puppet movements in a non-critical way. This helps the puppeteer to focus on the areas that need the most work. And never forget to do a dress rehearsal. This will ensure that you have all the props, costumes, and transitions practiced and ready for the real performance.
One technique I didn’t list above, buy long black socks and cut finger and thumb holes in them. Use them on the arm you place in your puppet so that your arms are not visible. Black does not attract much attention, arms do. Technically, your arm shouldn’t be high enough to be seen but these things happen and the black sock will cover you on this one.
When performing in a competition, always strive to meet audience expectations. Our performances usually included surprises and, sometimes, we held the audience in suspense rather than meeting their expectations right away. For example, in a story of Jonah, what does your audience expect to see at some point? A whale of course. Our script Jonah included a sequence where music resembling the Jaws theme played setting the audiences expectations. We used the snout along the top of the curtain to look like a shark fin as it approached Jonah to create anticipation (and a few giggles) and then all of the sudden it leaped out of the water revealing the recognizable shape of a whale and swallowed Jonah, followed by a surprise belch and lots of laughs.
The above article, “Launching A Puppet Ministry in your Sunday School” was written by Pastor Tim Watson. The article was excerpted from www.baptiststandard.com web site. May 2016.
The material is copyrighted and should not be reprinted under any other name or author. However, this material may be freely used for personal study or research purposes.
This article may not be written by an Apostolic author, but it contains many excellent principles and concepts that can be adapted to most churches. As the old saying goes, “Eat the meat. Throw away the bones.”