When I was seven, I found the extract of a novel in an old magazine. Four sisters, all in their teens, were rehearsing a play as they planned to put a home performance for their friends on Christmas. One of them had written the play, and together they had made costumes and decorations. The oldest, being sixteen, was worrying that the next year she will be too old to perform, and the tomboy of the family was taking great delight in playing a male villain. They were having a tremendous fun. Here the extract ended, and I was never able to find the subsequent edition of the magazine.
Some of you may recognize the beginning of Little Women by Louise May Alcott, yet for years I had nothing but this chapter from a magazine to pour over. It captivated my imagination because I liked writing stories, playing pretend games and participating in performances at school. Alas, I did not have any sisters. Finally, at the age of twelve I found the book and had a chance to accompany the girls through the rest of their story, but it was the beginning in the old magazine I still remember best.
When I met my husband and we started talking about children, we always dreamt of a long list of things we will do together. Camp in the backyard, build snowmen in the winter and tree houses in the summer, have treasure hunts with maps and real pirate chests… At some point I would always add, “And we will have a home theatre!” The picture of the March sisters would loom brightly in my mind at that moment.
That’s why when Budster turned one, I decided that it is time to get a theatre. A puppet theatre.
Benefits of a puppet theatre
Depending on the age of children, they can either enjoy the shows, stage them, or both.
With a parent as a director, show time can start as early as the first year. Research shows that contrasting images attract most attention from infants, and shadow puppets make beautiful black silhouettes against the white background. There is also light involved, which always attracts babies’ attention. Shadow puppets are very stimulating for the visual sense in the first year.
As soon as your toddler shows interest in books, his favourite stories can be staged – either with shadow puppets or fabric glove puppets. Gruffalo? Mitten? Bear Snores On? There are a lot of books that have a simple enough storyline. Folk tales make good puppet shows. Check our Little Red Riding Hood show! A puppet theatre becomes a powerful tool in the development of early literacy.
With a variety of puppets to make, the puppet theatre can introduce children to the possibilities offered by clay, papier-mâché, paper cutting, sewing, and other crafts. The shows will need decorations, and children can paint them. If you have a small author at home, writing a play and staging it can be a fun exercise. You can keep the theatre props as simple as you want, but you can also make them as elaborate as a royal family would. Speaking of which…
Theatre Worthy of the Royals
When the thought of making a puppet theatre first came into my head, I was staring at the empty box from a baby gate. It was big, but rather flat. Cut a rectangle in it, stretch some parchment paper across the opening, and you will get a shadow theatre. Do not stretch anything, and it will be a regular puppet theatre. I could paint it, and it would look lovely!
On a second thought, if I did the same with a piece of plywood, it would only take a little longer, and the theatre would be sturdier. Decided! Plywood it is.
I shared the idea with my husband, and he agreed to help me. It was too late to start a new project that day, but not too late to search for inspiration. So we looked for different puppet theatres. Among many we found one image of a theatre that looked very old and rather dirty, but showed the unmistakable signs of past elegance. It had a plate with the word “Guignol” on it. A bit of research showed that it came from a series of puppet theatres, made in France in the 19th century. Some of them could still be found at the auctions, and some in museums. I remember reading a story of one woman who came across a “Guignol” theatre at a flee market. The picture of another “Guignol” theatre came from Russia: it belonged to the last royal family before being acquired by a museum.
We decided to model our puppet theatre on a “Guignol” theatre. The characteristic feature of this vintage theatre was minty-green colour with gold accents. Most of them also had the same proportions. At first, I was not sure about how much I liked the minty-green colour, but as we worked on it and I kept referring to the same pictures, I found it growing on me until I was so fond of it I could not imagine my theatre looking differently. It reminded me of the old buildings of Saint Petersburg.
Since then, I have made a smaller version of the theatre for our friends and a couple for sale. These theatres can be found at our shop of hand-made toys. However, I kept thinking of more ways to make a theatre, and here is a tutorial on how to make the simplest and the most light-weight one I could think of.
The following are materials that are required:
– three 1/4″ x 3″ x 2′ boards
– one 1/4″ x 6 x 2′ board
– one 1″ x 4″ x 4′ board
– thin (1/2″) baseboard moulding
– thick (1 1/2″) baseboard moulding
– wooden decorative mouldings
– paint for the main part and paint for the accents
– acrylic varnish
– wood glue
– epoxy glue
– small nails
– sand paper
– wood filler
– frame saw, scroll saw or a jigsaw
1. Cut all the boards to the right size. After they are cut, you can see the frame we are working towards. The frame is constructed of light 1/4″ boards.
2. Cut the thin baseboard trim. You will need to get two pieces: one should be the same length of your other boards (2′), and the other should be equal the length of the boards minus the width of two boards (1.5′).
3. Cut the thick baseboard trim. These piece will mark the tops of columns, so they should have the same width as your boards (3″). Make an angle template to mark the angles and cut four pieces. Assemble the frame again to check if all the parts fit.
4. For supporting the frame, you will use a 1″ thick board. Cut a couple of 90-degree triangles with the longer side being around 7-8″.
5. (Optional) If you have a frame saw, or something similar, you can cut the tops of the columns and the top piece to the shape of your mouldings. However, if you do not have a frame saw, this step can be skipped – it is an aesthetic step.
We are going to cut a decorative edge, so we are outlining the decorations.
10. Attach the decorative trim to the structural boards. We do it with 5-minute epoxy glue, but other variants are possible. We tried it with a hot glue at first, but it did not hold well. If you leave parts of the boards unpainted, you can also attach the decorative trim to them with wood glue. It holds well.
11. Start assembling the theatre. Use both nails and glue for extra sturdiness. First, attach the bottom part to the columns. Then nail the front part to the columns as well. Last, attach the support stands to the back.
The theatre is ready! If you want to turn it into a shadow theatre, get a big sheet of vellum paper from a craft or art store and stretch it tightly across the back, securing the ends with pins. You might also want to add a curtain to your theatre for the additional theatrical effect. If your family enjoys home performances as much as we do, designing posters for plays and making tickets would add more fun to this game.
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Thank you for reading!