The People Thus Far, The Puppets

May 19, 2018

A collection of anecdotes from the recent past

Wednesday, April 11th, 2018 - 12:30pm

It has been about a month since I first met with the Play Tectonic’s team over lunch in the dining room at Patrick Henry’s Pub. I wouldn’t say that this day was my first day meeting some of the people behind this organization but it was the first time where we reflected upon recent successes and discussed next steps.

I was both curious and excited to be in a room talking with these major players (no pun intended) and as a poet, maker, and arts educator, it was easy to connect with the importance of their mission. 

Left: Nicole Colom, Jeff Peyton, Arthur Brill, & Emily Hall, & Logan Hill. Right: Jeff and the Stomach (L) & and the Skeleton Cup (R)  

We start with the Papertalker. The Papertalker puppet is the base media that Play Tectonics utilizes as its expressive vehicle. There is the object made and then also what that object says or speaks. The language created is distinctly individual and the utility and artifice behind these puppets is infinitely versatile.

I liked that I could make something, that this object was to be made out of paper, that it would be made always being open to interpretation and improvisation, always excited to be surprised.

Sadly, as it has been for some time now, there is a critical need for the revival, revitalization and cultivation of a passion for the arts in this generation’s youth. I have been an advocate for Art Appreciation, Education, and Education Reform for some time but Jeff is the person who has given me the power and momentum to begin this thought for change with the Papertalker puppet and concepts like Play, Play Energy, and Play Language as 21st Century pedagogies.


Jeff Peyton is the mastermind behind the community activist project, Play Tectonics, primary scholarly writer for the blog, and is also author of the book Puppetools (1986): An Introductory Guide and Your Specialized Applications Manual to paper puppetry for education & beyond!

Left: Some of my personal PuppetoolsMiddle: Puppetools(1986). Right: Arthur Brill and his 3D model Hinge at The Science Museum of Virginia, 2017 RVA Makerfest


The day that I met him outside of Patrick Henry’s he introduced me to his friend and Play member, Arthur Brill, a community arts advocate living in Ashland, VA. Arthur met Jeff at BuildRVA last summer when he stopped in to explore becoming a member and instead found himself suddenly in prototyping mode discussing the means of building a giant hinge for Play Tectonic’s set up at the 2017 RVA Makerfest. Arthur is an experiential designer and performance artist who owns and operates Behind the Curtain studio in Ashland, VA where he continues to host Play workshops. He is now a key player for Pathway to Play as a contributing writer and marketing strategist. Following greetings with Arthur, we all went inside and met up with Emily in the dining room.


Emily Hall is the art director and visionary behind the Pathway To Play blog. The energy she brings to Play Tectonics is intensely present and often times seemingly unfathomable. With her years of experience, she is a huge asset to our team.

I met Emily on a summer afternoon in the cafeteria of Peter Paul Development Center at the outset of my move to Richmond. We had studied with some of the same art professors at JMU (although never in attendance together) and we discussed our love for the school, for Harrisonburg (my home town), and for the vast expansion and mystery of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

She didn’t have a puppet in hand at this meeting, however, I remember her speaking with me about some of the puppets she makes, about her 1986 truck, and the puppet shows she held out of the back of this old, red and silver and blue spray-painted Mazda.

A few months later, Emily came to a fall writing event I founded and co-hosted for a while with a former colleague of mine for Richmond Young Writers / Life In 10 Minutes.  This was one of the first times I spoke to Emily more seriously about the possibilities of puppets — particularly The Papertalker-hinge and how I could combine this with poetry, with presentation, to explore the immense power for change in our classrooms, to cultivate spaces full of imagination and wit, intuition and interpretation, improvisation, to make, to create.


I had seen Emily and Play Tectonics at their table for the 2017 RVA Makerfest but was apprehensive to approach. I circled the room, passing two or three times by the table, and for some reason couldn’t, didn’t— though I could see, and watched the magic unfolding from afar.




Sometime later, around Halloween, I managed to find myself among the mass gathered for the annual All Saints Theater parade. With Emily at the end in the procession driving,  we managed to connect for a moment, with outstretched arms, and some magic for the first time was held there — a papier mâché goddess perhaps, the carved head of a bowsprit, celestial-masked musicians playing in the truck’s bed.


After the parade dissipated, I saw the large papier mâché faces leaned up against the dark of a brick wall, tall, round sticks for bodies.  Streetlights hummed above the cold branches. I had finally seen some of what she had meant by all of this happening in RVA, and as this was my first parade, it was exquisitely haunting.



In December, Emily invited me to attend Earth Folk Collective’s Winter Market. This is most memorably the first time I learned about the paper hinge method behind the Papertalker puppet design. She had asked me to sit at the Play Tectonic’s table, talk to interested guests at the fair about the art of paper puppetry in teaching and learning, and help guests make and play with some creations of their own.


The idea I thought behind the event was to introduce, engage with, and pass along the energy and magic, intensity and emotion, curiosity and creativity this method so apparently evokes. This event is where I first met Jeff and Yoshua.  This is where I also began to see this vision, in all of its intensity and play, finally in action.


At the start of the evening I sat hunched over next to Yoshua on a bench lining the North facing wall of the brewery occasionally looking up from my work, setting down my pair of teal handled scissors, sitting further back from the table in front of me, from the stacks of paper and a basket of glue sticks, to catch the band playing atop a faux-rock, island-like structure in the middle of the room where the soprano in the band sat with her harmonium while the drummer set up his lights and kit.


By this point I had managed to create a man with a black face, long orange hair and blue eyes, a rendition of myself perhaps, perhaps the man behind the act, the physical embodiment of the puppet mind inside.


I played with it for a while before I pulled out my hole punch and packet of brads. Yoshua Adama began making a body. The body looked to me — if I used my imagination — like a paper Jester from the streets of France or a Día de los Muertos skeleton marionette.


I had managed to find some scrap from something left from someone else and saw in it a face, a three eyed bull, tired, holes in his body from the lance of the matador, pain in his eyes, slowly dying. Yoshua and I decided to join the two parts, attach this head of the body to the top of the paper hinge and glued the limbs and torso to the bottom so that the legs and feet, ready, dangled below.

It wasn’t so difficult to appreciate and enjoy this joint effort, particularly when Emily came up wearing what looked like a Mardi Gras mask, took this creation, and started giving it a life, pouring into it some of her own energy, making it talk, making it sing, making it dance.


How simply intricate this moment was to me. Ideas broken down to basic principles of communication, thinking and construction of an apparatus, how to use it to your advantage, to learn, to laugh, to experiment, to live, to play.


This is when Jeff walked up to the table. The picture is pretty dark and a little fuzzy but I think it says a lot about all of the energy there that lived then. That night I began to uncover the versatility and ingenuity of this kind of puppetry, as means for expression, a mode for learning, an effective and efficient tool for gathering and sharing information.


BLUE SKY FUND- Richmond Public Schools


I began implementing these paper puppets into my lessons at some of my jobs.  I made a batch of puppets to talk about compost and cover crops working for Blue Sky Fund. I explored more imaginative creations with some of my Peter Paul students at Fairfield Court.

Above:Me at Blue Sky with plant puppets. Litasi and his sister Monica. (I work with their older sister Furaha for Peter Paul's after school program. I met Logan through his brother Liam who I met in a second grade Blue Sky Fund trip to the Elementary School.)


There is a group of students in this school who comes and sits in the Cafeteria early, waiting to be picked up. I have been quite immediately taken by Liam and Logan, who come to the cafeteria at this time, for their interest in making puppets. Upon further conversations with them, I began sharing and playing with some of the Papertalkers I had made myself.

For the past three weeks, Logan has entered the cafeteria yelling my name “Hello! Mr. Logan!,” asking in his kindergarten voice.  “ Mr. Logan! Will you make me a puppet?”

I must say it is quite hard to resist such solicitations and so I try as much as I can to meet the demand, and make each one, by request, for every student who asks — but when I tell them sometimes that “I can’t right now”  or “No,” for whatever reason, it is still tragically heartbreaking for me to see a student sad or angry, to cry or frown, to run away, back to their seat, to so absolutely return the gift you gave him back to you—two crayons and a glue stick—to be without this object of energy and expression.  I don’t want to deprive anyone of that fertile space for interpretation, the opportunity to learn.

Because of experiences like this, I try always to say yes to anyone that wants me to make them a Papertalker puppet and I always try to teach those that are curious and interested in the methods of making these puppets and the ideas surrounding their lives.

ABOVE: Logan one day asked me to make him a Gingerbread Man puppet. This is him playing with it after adding the buttons and eyes. Later he mentioned that Mr. Gingerbread Man got thrown out with the trash but that he still had all of the bananas I made him (and a gorilla to go with them now.)


Friday, May 18th, 2018 - 12:45pm

The following days since our meeting at Pat’s — and as it continues now — were a torrent of students, each day a new face, every new afternoon another group, rushing up to my table, running across the cafeteria, yelling my name.


I have probably made and/or given out upwards of 30 or more puppets by now using this “yes-only” approach.  I have made a carrot, a toad, two turtles, six robots, a monkey, five princesses and a prince, three sharks, a talking lamp, four bananas, a spider, a gorilla, two birds, a radioactive frog, an Angler fish, a gypsy and her dog.  

I am never really certain where the puppets go after I give them away, and I am always curious about what happens to them later, if others might return or show up. Sometimes if I squint I see the birds fluttering above the vast tree line and high above the city streets dancing on a wire.  In the corner of the cafeteria, an army of robots makes precise calculations towards decluttering their lives. The lamp shade goes off and on but doesn’t say much, just illuminates the room a little more. The tortoise takes his time across the linoleum floor. The gypsy walks across the plains in search for her instrument. A dog barks at us — our hands, a hinge, they are in the world now.

A. LOGAN HILL is a poet, maker, and arts educator living in Richmond. He holds a B.A. in English from James Madison University, an M.F.A. in Poetry from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and spent his formative years touring and studying with The American Boychoir School, where he graduated in 2004.

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