Combining poetry and puppetry to spark creativity

Howard Neighbors

March 31, 2006|By JANET GILBERT

When a puppet is animated, a personality bursts forth that is, at its best, engaging and entertaining.

This is how it feels to meet Shirley Johannesen Levine of Columbia - owner, performer and creative force behind Puppet Dance Productions. Her energy and enthusiasm burst forth, creating an atmosphere that is positively charged.

Levine combines poems and puppets to spark creativity in children and adults. "Poetry needs to be heard," she says, "and puppets need words to say. I think they make a winning combination."

Levine points out that in the current educational climate, children are neither required nor encouraged to memorize and recite poems. With a background in English from Wellesley College, Levine can't help but think that is a shame because reading a poem silently and hearing it out loud are two vastly different experiences.

Jarina Gelvin, corporate and educational coordinator for Borders bookstores in Columbia, agrees. "I think it's brilliant," Gelvin says of Levine's combining poetry and puppetry. Gelvin notes that because of a necessary focus on grammar, phonics and writing skills in the classroom, the arts have taken a bit of a back seat. She likes the way Levine brings poetry alive through her puppets, and recently signed her to perform as part of Borders' "Educators Appreciation Week."

For some children, Levine's show may be their first introduction to poetry. "Poetry doesn't have to rhyme, but it always has a rhythm," says Levine. A favorite Puppet Dance performance involves the famous Henry Wadsworth Longfellow poem, The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere. Levine encourages students to move to the rhythm of the horse's canter, evoked in the poem. Suddenly, they have a greater understanding of the poem.

While Levine always had an interest in poetry and theater, the creation of Puppet Dance Productions was an evolution of sorts. She began making small, felt finger puppets when her two children were toddlers. She kept the puppets in her purse so she could entertain the children during down times in waiting rooms or on long car rides. While living in Princeton, N.J., she walked into a small boutique one day and sold some of her creations. Suddenly, she was in business.

"I would take them to the PTA meetings," said Levine, of working on her finger puppets. As her children grew, she realized her role as a mother combined well with a role as a performer. When her husband, an engineering professor, got a job at the University of Maryland, College Park, they moved to Columbia and she attended a puppet-making class. She was hooked.

"It was a challenge, and I saw the possibilities," Levine says. She started performing in churches and at birthday parties, and then she took on a partner who incorporated dance into the program.

"I wanted to be able to use music the way dancers use music," Levine says. Music helps children feel rhythm, and she says that dance is "so adaptable to what the child needs at the time." But, partnerships are like a marriage, Levine says, and sometimes individuals have different goals. Though she is now a solo artist, Levine has kept music in her program, and she is certainly not alone in her home filled with puppets of every shape and style imaginable.

She works with children ranging from prekindergarten through 12th grade, conducting workshops that allow children to create puppets and perform for their classmates. Levine talks about the three elements that bring a puppet to life: voice, movement and imagination. Her programs stimulate the imagination, beginning with the materials used to create puppets.

"Most children don't get to make things today," Levine says. "They go and buy a $35 dress for `Barbie'. They expect things to be finished, perfected."

A puppet has one more aspect to it, Levine says. "It doesn't so much matter what it looks like, but it's, `What are you going to do with it?'"

Levine makes a point of demonstrating that puppets do not have to be elaborate or expensive. While there are a number of types of puppets she works with - from simple hand puppets up to the more complex marionettes - she insists that puppets can be made of anything. She often performs a small vignette to an original poem, Junk Puppet Poem, holding up examples of ordinary household items made into charming puppets:

A puppet can be made from anything at all!

Why not a ping pong ball?

When used as eyes, what a surprise! ...

For a simple story, take a feather duster.

Have him meet a wooden spoon.

Add a flyswatter villain

Who is crazy as a loon ...

"Puppets can say things that an ordinary person couldn't," Levine says. "You may never be a princess, but you can certainly act like one."

Levine says that as a performer she creates better in front of an audience. If you are a good performer, she says, you have the ability to "hold the audience in the palm of your hand."

When asked what her plans are for her Borders performance, she says, "I'm going to do what I've done with puppets all my life - go and play!"

"When I turn on that music," she says, "something will happen."


Is someone in your neighborhood worth writing about? Is there an event that everyone in Howard County should be aware of?

If there is, Janet Gilbert, our new neighbors reporter, wants to know about it. Janet brings a wealth of writing experience and knowledge of Howard County to her position.

E-mail Janet at, or call 410-313-8276.

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