Master of Puppets

By Beacon Staff

Despite dwindling state and regional participation, a small hub of puppetry – spurred largely by one woman – has stayed alive in the Flathead Valley, especially in the area’s schools and libraries.

When Kalispell resident Sherry Johns joined the newly formed Montana Puppet Guild in the early 1980s, the group boasted about 65 active members. The regional branch of the organization enjoyed hundreds of participants and a popular bi-annual festival.

Today, the state’s membership has dwindled to about 10, and Johns, who is now the regional director for the Northwest, found herself struggling to find a willing host for the four-day festival.

“People are used to flitting from one thing to another now and puppetry requires a hefty commitment of time – they either don’t have the time or don’t want to make it,” she said. “And with video games and the computer, I think people want to be entertained, not make their own entertainment.”

An Indonesian rod puppet is stored in Sherrry Johns’ home along with hundres of other puppets.

Rather than let the tradition die, though, Johns, a self-described “puppet nut,” continues to spread her love of puppets both on the local and regional level. It’s a welcome task for a woman who is so at ease with the art that she falls naturally into character when a puppet slips onto her hand.

To ensure the regional festival wasn’t canceled, Johns created a hybrid form of the event that shared the planning among guilds – a traveling festival that hits four towns, for one day each, over several months. This Saturday Johns and Bigfork resident Kay Barker will teach one of two workshops as part of the Northwest Region’s Puppetry Festival in Missoula.

Their class, entitled Two-man Bunraku Style Puppet Construction, will teach participants to create and use the Asian-inspired puppets where one person controls the feet and another directs head and arm movements. Johns said the workshop would be perfect for a parent-child team.

Other festival events include a shadow puppets workshop, which will teach the basics of making shadow puppets and how to use them on the screen, and a free afternoon puppet demonstration by Jean Mattson, a professional puppeteer with the Seattle Puppetory Theatre.

Johns’ passion for puppets began when she was a second-grader at Evergreen Elementary School. She describes sitting in awe at a school presentation as her older brother controlled the strings of Friar Tuck in a marionette-version of the Robin Hood Tales.

“He hung the marionette from his ceiling after the performance,” she said. “He must have been wise to how much I loved it. I remember standing on his bed, jumping and trying to grab the puppet. It was always just out of reach.”

Johns has found a similar enthusiasm in local youth today, which has enabled her to keep puppetry alive here in the valley. A former middle school teacher, she estimates that she’s taught almost a thousand students puppetry lessons at local school and libraries.

Puppeteer Sherry Johns demonstrates the subtle wrist and hand movements that bring puppets to life.

“From kindergarten to high school, any age group can enjoy it if you find the right style for them,” she said. “There’s so many lessons in it – literature, acting, teamwork, vocal projection. I’ve seen kids just really blossom.”

Johns currently teaches puppet theater at a local Montessori school. In August, she’ll perform a bug-themed puppet show that she created with Barker as part of the library’s “Catch the Reading Bug” summer reading program.

“Her energy for puppets and teaching is just endless,” Barker said. “It’s her enthusiasm that really keeps this going.”

More information on the festival can be found at the regional Web site, http://pnw-rolling-regional-festival.org.