Puppetry in the United States underwent exceptional growth and popularity as an art form in the 1970’s and ‘80’s. New ideas in staging, materials, scale, and subject matter plus media attention in television and film encouraged that surge in interest and creativity. My commitment to puppetry began and grew in that period, and I was fortunate to have a number of mentors who helped me. No mentor, however, prepared me for a new and unexpected situation that challenged my perceptions of the art and its functions: in 1981, I began a residency as a puppetry artist at Chicago’s Children’s Memorial Medical Center.
My employer was the Child Life Services department at the hospital, headed in those years by Myrta Perez. Child Life, as we called it, assisted and supported young patients and families adjusting to the hospital experience, which may be stressful at the least. The uncertainties of hospitalization can confuse and frighten children. Professionals trained in child development address the patient experience to minimize stresses by using play, relaxation, and special events and activities. Another puppeteer, Marilyn Price and I supplied special events and bedside activities at Children’s for six years. A grant covered our fee and the cost of creating puppets and programs for the hospital.
Every few months Marilyn and I would set up our stage in the hospital’s lobby. Our puppets performed short sketches or a longer one-act story prefaced by interactive puppetry-related games designed for a population of young hospital patients, while acknowledging their concerns. I enjoyed adapting Leo Lionni’s stories for these occasions, especially “Alexander and the Wind-Up Mouse,” “Frederick,” and “Swimmy”—all tales of redemption, persistence, and facing adversity.
Since our audience consisted of patients, staff, and caregivers on couches, in armchairs or wheelchairs, occasionally on a gurney, almost on top of our set-up, the lobby shows challenged Marilyn and me. We did not have the advantage of distance characteristic of a conventional theater setting nor did we really want it. In that necessarily intimate setting, we aimed at relaxing and entertaining our audience. We knew that, away from their beds and procedures, the children and puppets could build a connection through humor and fantasy. Puppet programs suggested a somewhat metaphysical alternative to the children’s hospital experience, but all we hoped for was the sound of giggles and comments freely expressed, separated from “upstairs’ where children and families had little control nor few certainties.
Although the lobby shows reached a bigger audience, my bedside puppet interventions better met my objectives targeting relief, control, and humor. I accomplished this in two ways, indirectly and directly. For the former, Child Life commissioned Marilyn and me to craft a set of easily manipulated hand puppets with attractive neutral features, textures, and hues. We used jewel-tone velour in forest green ruby red, and dark sky blue for the bodies, yarn hair in contrasting fantasy colors, little round noses, and shank-button eyes. Child Life volunteers animated them to explain upcoming procedures to patients. The puppets permitted children to express their concerns in direct conversation with the puppet.
I also worked one-on-one with patients, usually bedside. I would bring a special puppet with me, Orange Julius, so dubbed for his bright orange hair. He is still in my collection of puppets I crafted over the years, a gentle clown with a big red nose and sweet smile. Although mute, he would take over those bedside encounters with a sort of pantomime. Although I often acted as interlocutor, his gestures were eloquent, implying receptivity and compassion.
Orange Julius had a routine. He would hide in a lightweight box I’d built for him out of foamcore, slowly push its lid, pop up, see the patient and—overwhelmed with shyness—retreat into the box. I would encourage the patient to help me coax him out again. With every pop-up, Orange Julius grew more confident and trusting until at last he’d linger and offer a timid wave before—oops!—covering his eyes. Emboldened by our encouragement, he would would peek out from behind his mittens. By then the connection between puppet and patient was complete.
The memory of one bedside encounter will stay with me all my life. A few years into my residency, Myrta Perez invited me to work with a patient for whom she had special concerns. Although correctly she kept the patient’s diagnosis to herself, she told me the condition was chronic and Angela, the patient had been hospitalized often over her lifetime.
When asked about the puppet I’d brought that day, I pointed to Orange Julius’ box and Myrta nodded in satisfaction. Pulling him out of the box’s bottom, I slipped the puppet onto my hand, the hem of his plaid suit reaching my elbow, and I demonstrated his “shyness” behaviors to Myrta.
We walked through the old hospital’s corridors, recently redecorated with bright, cheerful murals. Reaching a room with four beds, we stood in its doorway and greeted Angela and her mother. Angela was sitting up in her bed. Myrta let Angela know she had a little visitor. No other patients were there at the time.
Myrta watch me develop Orange Julius’ routine as I sat with Angela who showed interest in my puppet from the moment he popped out of his box. About twelve years old, dark blond, and slender, Angela leaned into Orange Julius and whispered a string of secrets to him. I glanced at Angela’s mother; she was dabbing her eyes with her sleeve as Angela and Orange Julius carried on their conversation.
After a while, a coughing spell interrupted the conversation. I gave my seat to Angela’s mother who began to pound her daughter’s back. Myrta suggested we say good-bye until the next time. As we left the room, Orange Julius waved then retreated into his box.
Many weeks later, Myrta passed me a note from Angela’s mother. The child had died, succumbing to cystic fibrosis. The note thanked me and Orange Julius for giving Angela such pleasure. Her whispers in Orange Julius’ ear were the first words she had spoken in days, and when Angela was able, she chatted about him during her remaining time at Children’s Memorial.
The art of puppetry has many guises and unexpected outcomes. Although the grant supporting our project ran out, my experiences at Children’s Memorial Medical Center inspired me to expand my art’s possibilities, to reach and help people in ways I’d not imagined before, and to enrich my ideas about and appreciation for the ways both my audiences and I respond to the art form—one of the many reasons I am grateful for my years in puppetry.