Puppet masters; Puppeteer teaches the art of theater at Manor View

Michael Lamason, a professional puppeteer, teaches students at Manor View Elementary School how to operate a puppet for their upcoming show. (Photo by Jue Wang)

The animals of the Chinese zodiac will come alive Wednesday when second-graders at Manor View Elementary School debut their self-produced shadow puppet show about the mythological story of the zodiac’s origins.

The production will be the result of six weeks of learning about the art of puppetry under the tutelage of Michael Lamason, the executive director of the Black Cherry Puppet Theater in Baltimore.

The theater is an association of artists and performers who are dedicated to “breathing life into the art of puppetry,” Lamason said. “The company artists pursue the goals of excellence in the art of puppetry, making the tradition of puppetry accessible to all audiences and using puppetry as an educational tool.”

Lamason’s artist-in-residency is funded by a grant from the Maryland State Arts Council and a grant from the Anne Arundel Arts Council. He has been working with school children since the mid-1990s.

“We strongly believe that hands-on experience and art integration like this are extremely effective for students to gain deep understanding in transdisciplinary learning,” said Jue Wang, Manor View’s Triple-E program teacher.

Triple-E is a pilot program in the Meade cluster schools that is designed to “engage students in collaborative teams to ask engaging questions, creatively solve problems and enthusiastically learn through hands-on experience,” according to the Triple-E website.

The Meade Cluster is one of three Anne Arundel County Public Schools clusters to launch the Triple-E project, which encompasses four areas: Arts and Humanities, Global Studies, World Culture and Language, and STEM in Society.

Wang said having students produce the puppet show is part of Triple-E’s emphasis on World Culture and Language.

Manor View is also an International Baccalaureate Primary Years Programme school and offers Mandarin Chinese as a language.

The second-graders have been learning how to create a shadow puppet stage and storyboards of the Chinese zodiac story. They also have started making their shadow puppet characters, which are made out of paper, card stock, fabric, leather and metal.

According to Cheng & Tsui, a publisher of Asian language textbooks and multimedia educational materials based in Boston, time is divided into 12-year cycles in Chinese astronomy. Each year is represented by one of the following animals: rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, goat, monkey, rooster, dog or pig.

The origin of the Chinese zodiac is based on mythological stories. One story is about Jade Emperor, a high deity in many Asian traditions, who summons all the animals to compete in a Great Race across a river to determine which animals would represent the 12 calendar years based on where they place at the end of the race, according to the Cheng & Tsui website.

Kaiden Smith, 7, is making the Jade Emperor puppet.

“I feel good. His head and shoulder joints are working,” she said. “He plans a big party for the animals after the race.”

Kaiden said she learned that the Chinese zodiac means a lot to the people of China.

“It’s very important to them,” she said. “People learn about it as they grow up.”

Seven-year-old Leah Ward is making the cat.

“I thought it was going to be a sock puppet, which is much easier,” Leah said. “ I really like making the puppet. Cats are my favorite animal.”

Leah said she never produced a puppet show before, but said she’s glad she got the chance.

“I think people are going to like the show,” she said.

Lamason said he hopes the students gain “an ability to creatively solve problems, think visually and work in teams.”

“I really like making puppet shows and watching the pride kids take in their finished product,” he said. “It also fascinates me to see how they apply their knowledge in new and clever ways.

“Every step of the process is a form of assessing the children’s understanding of the content taught in the classroom.”

Wang said she hopes the students just have fun.

“I also want them to see firsthand how a production comes to life through different stages and that they believe they can make it happen,” she said.

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