Puppets are both incredibly easy to use, and yet complex to master! The range of styles allows for every situation, and every level of skill development.
The Victoria and Albert museum, in a recent exhibition, have been sharing the history of puppetry in Britain. â€œThere are four main types of puppet used around the world: glove or hand puppets, rod puppets, marionettes (operated from above by strings or rods), and shadow puppets. There are also other special types of puppet, including jigging puppets and water puppets. In Britain we have evidence of puppet performance dating back over 600 years.â€
Many churches and Christian organisations around the country
use puppets in their mission and ministry with all ages, utilising an accessible
way to convey the Gospel to those around them. But, and hereâ€™s the catch, itâ€™s
not about the puppets themselves!
I love the way puppets can be used to convey emotion, illustrate a story, create a safe space for dialogue, bridge the gap between ages, among a load of other reasons! This is the same if the puppet is a second-and glove puppet rabbit, or a human style puppet which needs multiple people to manoeuvre it.
â€œPuppets are an incredibly powerful way to reach and connect with children from just a few monthsâ€™ old to children over a hundred years old! The truth is that anyone of any age or background can relate to and engage with puppets.â€
I visited two of the groups in Durham Diocese who use different styles of puppetry regularly in their mission and ministry:
Creative Ministry Group, Chester-le-Street
Having attended a training day by One Way UK (and hosted by the Diocese), the group gathered in the Autumn of 2017 and used some of the new ideas theyâ€™d learnt to create a short Christmas performance. Following the success of this, the group was officially formed. Susan describes their next steps as â€œgiving things a go, seeing what workedâ€!
Going from strength to strength, the group now has an age-range of 9 years old to retired (!), with each member using their individual gifts and skills in practice and performances.
Spending time with the group, it was wonderful to tangibly feel the joy the activity brings the members each week. The friendships grown span the boundaries of age and experience and the environment is one of encouragement and supportive creativity.
The desire to be great at puppetry is also not limited by age, with the children gently correcting each other and offering advice to the adults of how to improve their skills.
â€œWe donâ€™t do broken arms hereâ€ was heard more than once while some of the group were trying to get to grips with the rod-controlled jointed arms of the larger characters!
The puppeteers perform in each of the churches in the parish at least once a year, as well as specific performances linked to the season or a local event.
These performances range from singing (and dancing) along to worship songs, telling Bible stories and acting out more reflective songs â€“ which takes a lot of skill to silently convey emotion in the body language of the puppet. Each performance offers an opportunity for the Gospel to be shared without skills in preaching and teaching, for example. The puppeteers are enabled to share creatively with anyone who is watching, regardless of their age or experience.
The group meets every Monday at 3.30pm and starts with milk and cookies. All are welcome to come along and join in the fun.
Contact Susan for more details.
St Nicâ€™s Puppet Roadshow, Durham City Centre
The team from St Nicâ€™s has changed members many times in the twenty years that the group has been running but the desire remains the same:
â€œIt is important to tell the real story.â€
After the team came and did a wonderful Christmas performance for toddlers at our church, I wondered about their own story.
Alex and Helen kindly met with me to fill me inâ€¦
â€œOral tradition is part of our culture: If we donâ€™t tell the stories, who will?â€ Helen challenged.
The team convenes twice a year to practice and prepare for upcoming seasons of Easter and Christmas. In the three weeks running up to Christmas, the team (of eight, with three at each performance) visited twenty schools and groups to share the nativity story. Originally started by parents who would babysit for others on the team to enable the performances to happen, the team is mostly made up of retired individuals.
The set design has changed over the years, moving from an effective but cumbersome set to the converted bunk bed used today. Not only will it (just about) fit in the back of a Micra, it is full of individually designed mechanical aspects which allow backdrops to unroll, inn doors to be opened by a willing participant from the audience and characters to travel from place to place. Before each season, the simple puppets are lovingly cared for, and given a makeover when necessary.
The team members bring their own individual flair to the roles of narrator, puppeteer and voice over but the script has remained almost exactly the same for the twenty years!
(Going in to schools has necessitated a slight change in the way the prayer is worded at the end â€“ there is an offer for those watching to join in and pray if they want to, rather than an assumption that the whole room is praying.)
The responsibility of sharing the Gospel with families and young people in the area is not taken lightly. The church prays for the team during the three weeks, and the team stop to pray together before each performance: The team and the puppets may be telling the story, but God is working in and through them reaching the audience in new and exciting ways.
For more information about booking a visit or getting involved, contact St Nicâ€™s Church.The team are always happy to welcome new people!”
To borrow some puppets and get your puppet ministry going, get in touch with the lovely people in the North East Religious Resources Centre â€“ which is based in Cuthbert House in Durham.