Language Learning and Public Performance: Part V
The Art of Puppetry in French Language Learning
Deborah Walther, Whitefish Bay High School

As I prepared these remarks on the use of puppets in the language classroom, I thought back on the countless oral presentations I've presided over in the past few years. I'm certain the list will be familiar to you, since these are all effective and interesting scenarios: radio and television shows, interviews, sketches, dramatic readings, historic reenactments, etc.

In the final analysis, then, it is largely a question of what kind of presentation best answers the needs and talents of a particular student population at a particular time. For my group of third year students, "Les Guignols" seemed to offer a recipe for success. In 1986, French in Action, now a quasi-legendary language-instruction program underwritten by the Annenberg Project, brought home to me and my children the simple power of the ridiculous. We looked forward to the coda of every show, featuring Guignol. This and other performance experiences prepared me to argue that simple, short playlets, using found and constructed puppets and a student-constructed theatre can encourage 1) artistic development of each student 2) a collective participation in a performance-based project 3) interdisciplinarity: in terms of plastic arts, living language, communication and the engagement of multiple intelligences. In the experiment I have found that there is, happily, something for every student in this setting.

foundation of puppet box Our theatre was conceived as a portable theatre in order to be transported to the middle school. Our first theatre was booth-style (a large cardboard storage box 6ft tall by 4ft wide on its front face) large enough to conceal three to four students. A smaller version, consisting of a shorter box set on a table is a light-weight alternative. We found that a 40" by 24" opening allowed room for two to three puppets and an appreciable backdrop. We soon learned that a technical director backstage was de rigueur in managing props and script continuity. Our second theatre is constructed of three hinged wooden panels and is more sophisticated. Both theatres were decorated with exterior cloth hangings both for simplicity of design and portability -- we saved our artistic efforts for the backdrops.

The Curtain: We didn't need one! We preferred the three traditional loud cracks of a baton -- toc! toc! toc! -- to signal each change of scene.Once the audience is in tune,this becomes a seamless part of audience participation. When more appropriate, as for example with a young audience, one or multiple narrators can also play the role of scene-changer, director, or guide.

finished puppet theatre

Lighting: Direct downlighting is all that is really necessary in classroom performances. We have found that stationing the theatre directly under one track light and turning off the others in our ceiling lighting system is a very sufficient lighting focus.

Backdrops: are one of the unexpected pleasures of sounding the depths of student talent (multiple intelligences have always been there). Basically, any poster-style backdrop can be mounted on a transverse bar using clothing hangers and duct tape.

Puppets and properties: we enjoyed collecting them and making them. This is an enormous subject, and since we lack the space, it is better to explore the subject using the bibliography and via email. Students in my class created a videotape describing

*how to build a basic puppet *how to build a basic puppet theatre

Finally, I would urge you that there is no down side to this enterprise. Students find their strengths as a matter of necessity, including writing original scenarios. Improvement in pronunciation, which was my prime-mover, comes as a matter of course, since repetition and spontaneity is an integral part of the scenario.

Guignol and Hortense

Bibliography: Currell, David. The Complete Book of Puppetry

Schneb, Deborah. Puppet-Making.

Green, Evelyn C. Guignol et ses amis


mail author: DMWalther

Deborah Walther

|Index|  |Introduction|  |part II|  |part III|  |part IV|  |part V|  |part VI|