Troupe creates unique cast of characters
Florida Keys Keynoter
By Alyson Matley
May 28. 2003
Most actors use every fiber of their body to deliver their art. But one group of local actors must make their bodies invisible, using only their hands and their voices to tell a story. The results are mesmerizing, judging from the rapt attention of their audiences.
Puppets in Paradise is a volunteer group of puppeteers that has been pleasing audiences of all ages in Key West the past two years.
Valerie West, founder of the group, looks a lot like one of the puppet characters she creates: A petite dynamo with sparkling eyes and a huge smile.
Exhilarated by a puppet show she saw at a nursing home about five years ago, West dove head-long into puppet life. She began attending festivals held by the Puppeteers of America. That national nonprofit organization was founded in 1937 and provides a supportive community for people who love puppet theater.
Before long, she was building puppets and recruiting friends and, finally, putting on shows.
“You have to become your puppet,” said West. “You hop right into that little body and act out your story. A lot of my friends have become puppeteers.”
But where do puppets come from? The members of Puppets in Paradise – nearly 20 of them, says West – have built a wide range of characters.
They range in size from small hand puppets to life-sized, and some, says West, are up to 15 feet tall. Seven of those characters were featured at last year’s Cuban American Heritage Festival parades. The tall ones are a little tricky to work.
“It takes three adults to manipulate one puppet,” said West. “We use long bamboo poles.”
The life-sized characters include a collection of recognizable faces, including Gloria Estephan, Jimmy Buffett, Tina Turner and Bette Midler.
A smaller group of puppets was constructed last year with the kids in the Bahama Village Music Program. The theme last year was the history of rock and roll, and the children helped make kid-sized likenesses of the old legends ranging from Buddy Holly to Elvis.
“The hips wiggle, the heads rock, the arms move. They were a smash hit,” said West. Those puppets now hang on the wall of the music room on Petronia Street.
But there’s more to puppeteering than acting. West builds her characters, using a variety of materials to create puppets that come to life in the puppeteers’ hands.
“I love making them and seeing them come to life. People love the life-sized puppets; they get right out there and dance with them – they look like real people.”
A collection of small hand puppet insects came together this past week for a performance at Glynn Archer Elementary School. After the show, West told the kids how to cover a dryer vent with green material and top it off with a ball to make Katie the Caterpillar. Then she told them the recipe for Spinner the Spider.
“But how do you make them so realistic?” asked one of the second graders, his eyes big as saucers.
“That’s your imagination,” replied West.
The next project will take West to the Bahama Village summer music program. She will help the kids create a series of characters that will make their debut at the June African Heritage Festival in Key West. The kids will build the puppet, then star in their performance, infusing the foam and wood structures with a momentary spark of life.