Puppet shows adapted to help special-needs students Workshop expands communication techniques

April 16, 1996|By Lisa T. Hill | Lisa T. Hill,CONTRIBUTING WRITER

With a pile of junk that would delight only a pack rat, Columbia puppeteer Shirley Johannesen Levine filled Carroll Springs School's special-needs students with awe and laughter.

As her hands became catchers of magic, falling leaves and the wings of a bird in flight, and with the help of an assortment of characters made from salvaged buttons, kitchen utensils and other items, Ms. Levine and her Puppet-Dance Productions brought familiar nursery rhymes and poetry to life.

The performance workshop April 4 was the first of four organized and paid for by the Maryland Very Special Arts Program, the Artist-in-Education Program of the Maryland State Arts Council and the school PTA.

The workshops, the rest of which will be held May 23, 29 and June 3, are designed to help teachers find new forms of expressive communication for the students, many of whom are nonverbal or have few language skills.

Ms. Levine donated her own money so that she could do presentations for two groups. Carroll Springs students range in age from 2 to 21, which is too broad for the same show to appeal to all, she said.

"I work hard to adapt [the program] to be the best possible performance," said Ms. Levine.

"Colorful Characters Come Alive," a combination of marionettes, stick puppets and hand and finger puppets, entertained the students as Ms. Levine demonstrated to teachers and parent-volunteers how puppeteering is done and the puppets are made.

"I am not hiding behind the stage; I am doing things with junk puppets that the students can copy," Ms. Levine said. "I try to make it advantageous to be out in front."

After the initial presentation, Ms. Levine conducted a workshop to help teachers choose puppets best suited for each class.

"I am just the stimulus and starter," said Ms. Levine. She said the most important parts of her program are the teachers and volunteers who continue her work by helping the students create their own puppets and stories.

The puppets frequently provide a way of touching a special-needs student like nothing else, Ms. Levine said.

"Sometimes, staff will come up at the end of the program and say, 'You know, that's the first time that student has tried to talk or communicate with anyone,' " she said. "It's really amazing."

Ms. Levine said she enjoys the challenge of adapting her regular show for special-needs children.

A sign language interpreter accompanied her to the Maryland School for the Deaf, and her puppet production became a petting zoo at the Maryland School for the Blind.

On her first visit to Carroll Springs, Ms. Levine did two shows, one for middle and high school students and a second for preschool to fifth grade, shaping each according to students' reactions.

For special-needs schools, she said, "I sometimes cut it to a half-hour with much less talking, allowing the children to touch and look at the puppets a lot more."

"I think this is a wonderful interactive activity for teachers and students," said Robin Farinholt, Carroll Springs' principal. "It's nontraditional, something we haven't tried before. I believe it will open creative lines of thinking."

"Shirley really knows what she is doing," said Ms. Farinholt. "We are very fortunate to have her skills."

Ms. Levine has performed in the United States, Europe and Australia for many years.

She said most people who want her to perform at their schools hear of her by word of mouth or, as in the case of Carroll Springs, see her at another function.

"When I saw her I thought, 'I have to get her,' " said Kathy Matuszak, vice president of the PTA, who saw Ms. Levine perform in the Sykesville area.

Artist-in-Education funding is available to schools for similar workshops and performances. Interested PTA representatives should call the Maryland State Arts Council at (410) 333-8232 and the Carroll County Arts Council at (410) 848-7272.

Pub Date: 4/16/96

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