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Lessons from a Bible Puppet Theater

I stood alone in front of the audience while they stared at me in silence. Memories of playing the lead in my second-grade Christmas play rushed back, with all the dread of performing before an audience for the first time.

What was I doing here, a middle-aged man, dressed as a Babylonian king? How did I get here and how did this happen so quickly? The memories and questions flashed by, but then I heard my own voice bellow out to the audience, “I am King Nebuchadnezzar, Ruler of all Babylon. I am here to tell you the most amazing story about three young men and how the True God who rules over all saved them from a fiery death!” With those opening lines Saint George Cathedral Church School in Pittsburgh started a new, educational adventure.

Almost every teacher regularly confronts the challenge to engage his or her students in learning. At times that challenge seems to be overwhelming. However, supportive teamwork, some creativity, and openness to new approaches make it easier to develop eager students who look forward to Church School on Sunday morning.

It was a warm Sunday evening in early September 2006 when the Church School staff met at the Cloherty’s home for the first meeting of the new school year. Our host and Church School Director, Joanne Cloherty, and Father John Abdalah suggested as one of the topics for discussion that we try dramatics to supplement the students’ knowledge of the Bible and of the Saints, Patriarchs, Prophets and others found within it. We decided that I would write and perform one-man plays as a way of making these holy people from the Bible come alive for the children.

Theater is not a new idea for teaching about the Bible. Western European drama was reborn with the Mystery Plays. These were simple dramatic performances conducted on the steps of Roman cathedrals in France, Germany and Britain during the late Middle Ages. Their purpose was to teach the illiterate about the Bible and faith in God. People become imaginatively engaged in a dramatic performance. With that in mind, the work on the first plays began.

About a week after the meeting I was writing the first script, basing it as closely as possible on the passage from the Book of Daniel so that the play would be both accurate and understandable to everyone from high school to pre-school age. Memorization became the biggest challenge, especially with the monthly schedule we agreed upon for the 2006 – 2007 school year. There are plenty of stories from the Old and New Testaments that could be used. Soon, the plays were adapted to the Church calendar so that, for example, the story of the pilgrims meeting Jesus on the road to Emmaus from Saint Luke’s Gospel was performed during the Paschal season.

As a Church School substitute teacher, I had the chance to interview the children from different classes about the plays that they had seen earlier that year to find out what they could remember and what they had learned from them. Surprisingly, I discovered that they recalled very little and could not remember a single lesson from any of the plays! The feedback made me realize that the students liked the plays as a diversion and entertainment, but they were not effective for teaching. Joanne Cloherty and I discussed the situation and agreed to change the format. We decided that we would engage the students by writing Bible plays that they would perform. By this time I had a trunk of costumes and props and, for Spring of 2007, the high school and middle school students put on a series of Bible plays. The change was an improvement, but the younger children were not always able to follow the plots or understand the performances.

An excellent idea emerged from our experience, though. At the staff meeting the following September, Father John suggested that we try puppets for the performances. The idea worked well because it engaged the students by allowing them freedom to interpret the plays more creatively. We discovered that a catalog company that sold educational materials was having a sale on biblical character puppets. We purchased a large assortment of them and I began to design and build a puppet theater that could fold flat for easy storage in the Church School’s limited space. Once the theater was completed, work began on the first play, to be performed in October. By May, the students of each class had performed an original Bible Story play, one each month, for the rest of the Church School. Performances ranged from surprisingly creative expression and interpretations by the high school and middle school classes to a simple, but engaging presentation of Noah’s Ark by the pre-school children, their teacher and assistant.

We continue to learn from our students through their experiences with the Bible Story Puppet Theater. We now present four puppet plays a year, with time off for Nativity and Pascha. The plays are now put on by the high school class, our two middle school classes and the 4th – 5th grade class. Some classes choose the topic for the play ahead of time, which involves them further in the creative process and increases their interest in performing.

The Bible Puppet Theater succeeds if the children feel included and a part of the Bible lessons taught through the plays. It was good to hear a father say that the plays must be having a positive impact, because his pre-school-aged son was asking to know more about Moses at home the Sunday of our play, “Baby Moses is Rescued.” “I can always tell when there’s been a puppet play,” he said, “because my son will ask me on the way home about someone from the Bible that day.”

What taught me that the children were engaged in puppet plays was a little event that happened earlier this school year. The high school class asked to put on a play about Joseph and his brothers. This was a challenge because the story is complicated, covers a long period of time, and has many characters. The play was completed, however, and the students put on a good show. While watching, I worried that the younger children might be lost. However, towards the end of the play the Pharaoh puppet asks, “Who would be better than Joseph to save us from the famine?” Immediately, a little girl from the front row waved her hand and yelled confidently, “ME!” The children and the parents broke up in laughter.

When the priest or the deacon lifts the Gospel Book, or when the deacon commands, “Wisdom! Attend!” we, as Orthodox adults, relate to the Mystery of the Word revealed. For most children, though, this may occur only over years. While that is happening, we want to help them to learn, understand and remember that this wisdom is conveyed through the many stories of the men, women and children found in the Scriptures, Gospels and Epistles. They learn this through their Church School class materials and their dedicated teachers. They also learn through the stories told or read to them by their parents and grandparents at home, and from opportunities like the puppet plays.

We are now sharing the duties of choosing which Bible stories will become new scripts. This year two classes chose their stories: one was about Joseph and the other was about Adam and Eve. Occasionally, however, a story is chosen for a script that is not well known. This year one of the middle school classes presented the story of Deborah the Prophetess from the Book of Judges. The other middle school class produced the story of David and Abigail. More common Bible stories also become plays, including ones about Baby Moses, Abraham and Isaac, Samuel and Eli, and others. Through them the students learn that God works with those who are faithful to Him, whether men, women, children or even babies. Other Bible puppet plays are designed to explain Gospel references the children hear regularly through the Church year, such as “The Myrrh-Bearing Women.” Demonstrating the Gospel and the Scriptures helps students relate to the readings during the services, to recall what they learned, and to see why they are important in the teachings of the Church.

Not being a very creative person, I fell back on a classic writer’s help when I started to write the puppet play scripts. To learn how to write a short story, many writers study short stories, identify the ones they like, and practice writing ones like them. Some famous writers began this way. Having never written a play for an audience of children ranging from about two years old to eighteen, I decided to check the Internet for resources.

It shocked me to find that most online “Sunday School” Bible plays consisted of irreverent works that showed disrespect to the Lord and the Bible, included degrading humor, and had little regard for the text. Of course, a puppet play, even about a Bible story, is guaranteed to get some laughs at times. Puppets are funny. During our play about Joseph, Potiphar’s wife told Joseph, “Kiss me!” Of course, everyone laughed. Yet, it was surprising to find very few good plays available either online or in franchise Christian book stores. Disappointment over the scant supply of written material became the motivation to try writing better scripts that could draw interest and remain reverent towards the text.

One good aspect of any puppet play is that the puppets can do far more than people can, and with a few simple props can take the audience into a different place and time. We anticipate something imaginative when we watch a puppet play. Jonah can be swallowed by a whale. Eve can talk with a serpent. Angels can appear to people. The next step then was to go to the source, the Bible, for help.

The plays found on the Internet barely mentioned actual Bible events or kept their story structure or taught a lesson. That was one reason to use the actual Bible stories for the narratives, plot and dialogue. As much as possible, the plays use the language of the Revised Standard or New King James versions. Speech is quoted closely while still making it understandable to the youngest in the audience. The narrator always begins by telling the audience from what book and chapters of the Bible the story comes. We want to teach that the Bible is accessible to people of all ages. The action of the puppet characters also helps to convey the story line and to make it come alive for the students. All these things establish the lesson and the story in the child’s mind, which encourages curiosity to know more, as some parents report.

There are good stories that can be transformed into puppet plays from the Gospels and the Book of Acts, but many of our scripts come from the Old Testament. Much of the Bible, however, is full of violent stories about babies threatened with drowning or being split in two with a sword, of boys being thrown into fiery furnaces, giants being slain, men tossed to the lions or swallowed by great fish, dangerous snakes, wars, imprisonment, human sacrifice and more. It concerned me that the younger children might be upset by the violence; instead, they follow the action of each performance confident that all will end well because God is in control. That is one of the most important points of the puppet plays. It is to teach the children that the Lord cares for us and is in control indeed. The plays are also meant to demonstrate how to have humble faith and hope in the Lord.

Like most things in this world, it took some money and work to make the Bible Puppet Theater happen. We purchased about a dozen puppets in order to include boys, girls, men, women, old men, old women, Jesus and an angel. However, as an amusing detail, we had to re-wardrobe the Jesus puppet because it came in a standard Protestant costume of a white tunic and a purple sash. None of the children could recognize the Jesus puppet without a red tunic and blue sash!

In fact, our biggest expense was the puppets. Together they cost about two hundred dollars, but the quality workmanship and the fact that they were half-price made the decision to buy them an easier one. Some heavy-plastic storage trunks were provided to keep them in good condition, along with the props and extra materials. The puppet theater itself could possibly be made for free or very inexpensively. It consists of three sections built from lumber in dimensions of 1 ½” x 4’ and 1 ½” x 6’, attached to frames and hinged together so they are very light weight and can fold for storage. The framework is painted glossy blue and paneled with used, heavy curtain material to give it the appearance of a theater, but primary colored cloth or any heavy, inexpensive cloth can be used. The panels are attached with a carpenter’s staple gun, but an upholsterer’s stapler or heavy-duty Velcro strips would do well, too. A felt panel attaches to the framework to become the backdrop. By using this design, the theater can be set up in less than five minutes.

Through a few years of experiments, feedback, imagination and patience, we achieved our initial goal as a Church School to provide a successful supplemental program for teaching the Bible. The students are engaged more than we imagined and enjoy performing and watching the plays. Our goals for the Bible Puppet Theater are more focused now that we have a couple of years experience with it. We are planning to generate three years worth of scripts ready for use. We determined that a three-year cycle was sufficient time to have most of the middle and high school students through Church School and to have a new audience of younger students as well. One of our future goals is to prepare some plays about our patron saint, Saint George, and to practice others that can be presented by the students for events such as banquets or for special visitors.

It is a blessing to work on a project like this that involves so many team members. Every teacher and student helps to make the Bible Puppet Theater a success, whether they perform, coach, provide feedback, or just watch. All of them help to direct and improve it. We hope it will become a permanent part of our Church School. If this program appeals to you, please contact us for ideas on how you might implement it in your situation.

Curtis Magnuson
St. George Orthodox Cathedral, Oakland