Arts organizations have had to get creative in how they reach audiences during the COVID-19 pandemic. Organizations like the Great Arizona Puppet Theater have tried to bring something new while staying true to their artforms.
Since May, the puppet theater has been putting on drive-in performances in its parking lot of popular shows such as “Old MacDonald,” “Little Red Riding Hood,” “The Three Little Pigs” and “Trouble at Haunted Mountain.” The staff has also presented puppets and DJ experience, and an adults-only show.
Great Arizona Puppet Theater co-founder Nancy Smith says many beloved shows been part of the company’s repertoire for years.
“These shows are really well-developed, well-rehearsed shows,” she says. “They have original music that was written just for them.”
Smith says although drive-in shows are different, they allow the puppeteers to connect with their patrons.
“We really cherish the experience of audience and performer interaction. It’s all live so that we can interact with the audience,” Smith says.
The drive-in shows also help the theater collect revenue, but a grant from the Jim Henson Foundation helped keep it afloat, too.
This has been an especially tough year for the company, as it lost Smith’s husband and company co-founder Ken Bonar in April. He helped grow the theater from a tour company since 1983.
The organization moved into its first theater space, a former fire station on Indian School Road, in 1988. In 1996, it relocated to its current location, a historic building and former church built in 1929. Each year, the Great Arizona Puppet Theater performs for over 80,000 people.
Prior to social distancing, the puppet theater was open five days a week throughout the year.
Along with adult and family-friendly shows for the public, the company also performs at local libraries, schools, summer camps and child care centers and produces educational content on topics such as water conservation.
During the pandemic, the Great Arizona Puppet Theater has produced a handful of online streams for children at Maricopa County and Glendale public libraries.
The ‘new normal’
The Great Arizona Puppet Theater has been putting on drive-in shows at 8 a.m. every other Saturday. Guests must pay in advance, as the capacity is limited. The shows are $40 per carload for nonmembers and $30 for members.
During the performances, a local restaurant will deliver food to patrons’ cars.
The performances are designed with the audience members’ and puppeteers’ safety and comfort in mind.
Prior to shows, the company’s staff creates parking charts, putting smaller cars in the front and larger vehicles in the back to ensure everyone can see. Guests listen through their car radios, as the sound is transmitted using equipment such as microphones, a soundboard and an FM transmitter.
Company members have been helping with the shows, but the puppeteering has mainly been left to Smith and her younger daughter, Gwen Bonar. They have been performing in an elevated puppet booth using large rod puppets.
When the weather cools, the troupe may offer more intimate drive-in shows with one-puppeteer productions, which will allow other members of the troupe to perform.
Right now, the four other troupe members have been helping in different ways, including setting up performances.
Rod puppets have been part of the company from the beginning,
The drive-in performances have mostly been tailored toward families and include preshow singalongs.
Audiences have found unconventional ways to respond to performances, including honking their horns instead of clapping.
“The very first drive-in we did, when people honked instead of applauded, it surprised us,” Smith says. “We are trying not to encourage too much of that because we are in a residential neighborhood, but our neighbors are very nice and supportive of the puppet theater.”
Following the performances, Smith and Bonar interact with audience members, especially those they have come to know.
“After the shows, Gwen and I come out and wave goodbye to the audience as they drive off in their cars. Some of them are kids who come to the theater all the time, so they are excited to see us, and we are excited to see them,” Smith says.
A love of puppetry
Smith has appreciated puppetry since she was a child. It started one Christmas when she and her sister received a puppet stage and puppets. Puppetry, she says, helped her to overcome some of her shyness as a child.
“It was just something that I took to. Initially, my puppets didn’t talk. My mother was always bringing home children’s records. I would put on a record and operate the puppet to that. Somewhere along the line, I started thinking my puppets needed to talk, and it just went from there,” Smith says.
Although she explored other art forms, Smith kept gravitating back to puppetry. She took puppet classes during summer camps, created a giant puppet with her husband for a production in graduate school, and taught a puppet class while in graduate school.
After Smith finished school, she and her husband began their puppetry careers in 1976. The plan was to try it for five years. Instead, they were hooked.
Smith’s background was in music, makeup, acting, costuming and directing. Bonar never acted but was an experienced carver. He later proved to be a natural at singing and acting. Together, the two of them made their own puppets and created original shows.
The couple passed their passion onto Gwen, who started puppeteering at age 8. Their older daughter was also a puppeteer for a time when she was growing up.
“It is tons of work, but we love what we do,” Smith says.
Over the years, the Great Arizona Puppet Theater has built a devoted fanbase. Some individuals started attending the shows as kids and are now bringing their children.
Along with drive-in performances, the company teaches puppet making through online videos and social media platforms. It produces its own videos and shares tutorials from other companies, such as Wonderspark Puppets.
During its in-theater shows, especially its adult puppet slams, the company often brings in guest puppeteers and companies from other cities and states.
Smith says that especially during this time, it has been important for puppeteers across the country to support each other.
“There’s this network of puppeteers across the country. We are a part of that,” Smith says. “We are trying to work with each other and share what we can.”
Great Arizona Puppet Theater, 302 W. Latham Street, Phoenix, 602.262.2060, ext. 0, azpuppets.org.