Puppet troupe teaches youths to be good neighbors CARROLL COUNTY DIVERSIONS

November 13, 1992|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,Staff Writer

A 3-foot-tall, bespectacled and gray-haired puppet introduces herself as the next-door neighbor to the audience of children.

"All of us are neighbors, not just of each other but of the planet Earth," says Helen Oakley, as she prances on stage in her pink pantsuit and matching sneakers.

In a grandmotherly tone, she invites children to talk with her. She stops several times during her performance to ask, "Do you want know anything more?"

Barbara Aiello pulls Helen's strings. Dressed in black, Ms. Aiello appears to the audience as a shadowy extension of her puppet. She moves back and forth with her character in Bunraku, a Japanese style of puppetry.

"The style allows minimal but important contact between the puppeteer and the audience," she said. "It is especially important when children are asking questions."

With lively banter, Helen spurs the children to environmental awareness, assuring them that everyone can do something to care for the planet.

"Treat the Earth like you would treat your own house," she says. "Treat it like you would a baby, not like a mother who takes care of you."

Helen is one of the dozen puppets that comprise Next Door Neighbors, a traveling troupe with a mission to promote family communications and family pride. The neighbors and their scripts come alive in Ms. Aiello's Westminster home and office.

As the signature character for the troupe, Helen will star in "Adopting Baby Earth," a 45-minute play at 6 p.m. Monday at the Westminster VFW on Poole Road.

"We try to make children aware that one person can make a difference," said Ms. Aiello, creator and scriptwriter for Next Door Neighbors. "We give the children practical, doable ideas to help them establish a habit of being environmentally conscious and more environmentally aware than we were."

Girl Scout Troop 307, whose leader, Teresa Warren, helps design and sew the characters, is sponsoring Monday's performance. After the show, Ms. Warren and Ms. Aiello will let the children in on behind-the-scenes secrets about their "culturally diverse characters," who take roles in traditional and non-traditional families.

"Puppets are powerful teaching tools," said Ms. Aiello, who draws on 25 years of experience using them to teach children. "They invite, encourage and reward interaction with the child. Kids talk directly to the characters."

With the help of four operators, the troupe often takes its show on the road.

The group has performed at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, and on WBAL-TV. Next March, Franceen Foster, the newest actress to join the group, will be the keynote speaker at the National Crime Prevention Conference in Miami.

"We create programs to appeal to children from first grade through teens," said Ms. Aiello.

Next Door Neighbors, which Ms. Aiello began about nine months ago, researches topics with focus groups to find "common threads" in what children are saying about family crises, drug and alcohol abuse, AIDS and shoplifting.

Before the stories go public, the company tests all scripts to ensure that children find them dramatically interesting.

"Our next project will tackle no smoking," said Ms. Aiello.

0 For more information, call 1-(800) 225-5220.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.