Stage hands: Production offers benefits with no-strings

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By Robert Villanueva

Students active in performing arts might be accustomed to conveying emotion on stage through their body language and facial expressions.

But when the performance is a puppet show, that body language and those facial expressions must be communicated through an inanimate object.

That was part of the challenge for drama students at Elizabethtown High School as they presented “Panther Tales,” a collection of short plays in the form of a puppet show. They performed for younger students.

Senior John Nichols described his carpenter character, Mr. C., as quirky and silly. Using the puppet’s body language was crucial.

“I would make him fidget a lot,” Nichols said.

The student made his character smile by opening its mouth a little, he said.

Likewise, Kaitlyn Cruft, a freshman, said she had to adjust to the same limitations. She learned to make the puppet move in ways that suggested certain emotions.

Cruft portrayed a mom, for which she has no real experience, but she was able to draw from a similar real-life role.

“I have a 4-year-old little sister,” she said.

The most challenging aspect, Cruft said, was not the acting itself but writing the script. Because the play segments were supposed to impart lessons to children, she and others in her group had to create the script that accomplished that in a way children would respond to.

EHS students broke up into six groups to create segments for “Panther Tales.” Each group was responsible for presenting a short play based on specific themes.

Drama teacher Candice Elliott said the production helped students develop performance skills, learn teamwork and take responsibility for various tasks. The performing arts in general benefits students, too.

“They learn to see the world in a new way, develop a sense of confidence in their abilities and learn to work as a team with people of various backgrounds and interests,” Elliott said.

While being unable to use their own body language and facial expressions created a challenge, being unseen except for their puppets had advantages for the drama students.

Because senior Chelsea Brown belonged to an all-girl student group, it meant she could take on the role of a young boy, at least to the extent of using a boy puppet. That did not erase all obstacles, though.

“It was a big challenge,” Brown said.

The role forced her to focus on how guys move and speak, including inflections, she said. Ultimately, she felt she pulled it off pretty well.

Alan Gilstrap, a freshman, played a chef’s assistant who was full of energy, unlike his shy personality. He realized he hadn’t put his potential into action until he took drama.

“You find a different yourself there,” Gilstrap said, noting the production work also made him more organized.

In fact, Gilstrap said, he got involved in the performing arts because he wanted to go “out of his comfort zone” and get involved with others. He felt the class gave him a new outlook on others and, because drama class is first period, set a happy tone for him for the rest of the day.

For senior Zach McCombs the play presented an opportunity to experience various aspects of production.

“I got to learn a little about everything,” he said, noting he played a doctor character as well as helped backstage.

“Panther Tales” was the first drama production for McCombs, who said it improved his public speaking and social skills. The biggest benefit McCombs cited, though, was the sense that he was a “part of something.”

On top of that, he said, when the play was performed at Panther Place it made people happy.

“The kids really enjoyed it,” he said.

Robert Villanueva can be reached at (270) 505-1743 or rvillanueva@thenewsenterprise.com.