Black Light Puppet Theatre | Part 1

Our Education department has been very busy this year with a myriad of programs, both reinvented and brand new. One of those new programs is called the Black Light Puppet Theatre. I’m sure you’re wondering, “What in the world is that?” Well, when I first heard the title, I thought the exact same thing!

The concept of having performers in black clothing to mask them has been around for hundreds of years. In 1961, the first Black Light Theatre was created in Prague. It uses UV lighting with a darkened stage, black curtains, and fluorescent costumes to create visual illusions. The idea is that the human eye cannot distinguish black objects from a black background so everything is dark except the costumes (or in our case, puppets). This type of theatre is mostly movement based. Prague is where Black Light Theatre was first introduced to our Director of Education, Ron Newman. Ever since, he has been ready to bring this beautiful art form to life to help adults with special needs in Norfolk.

Our program is an educational and arte-therapeutic method, using theatre and puppet techniques in the development, education, and integration of adults with special needs (mental and physical abilities) and who are prone to social exclusion. This summer, we have the pleasure of working with 5 individuals from Eggleston Services. Virginia Stage Company (VSC) teaching artists and student interns will be onsite three times each week for six weeks to work with the participants to develop the puppets, prepare vignettes, rehearse, and then perform the vignettes for parents, caregivers, and the community. The entire team of instructors, interns, caregivers, and adult clients from Eggleston will be involved in every phase of the production - learning how puppets are made, developing a script, assigning parts, designing scenery, inviting people to the production, and performing.  All of these activities will increase participants’ understanding and love for theatre and the arts. 

VSC education team members will communicate using oral instruction, demonstration, music, movement, and puppets. The participants, working with the puppets, are then motivated through each activity. Self-discovery and self-assertion are supported. During the lessons, puppets are a partner for the adults. They are motivation for activities of adults with special needs, in which they are able to perform activities with the puppets that they would normally perform with difficulties. Some of the developmental skills that participants will acquire through the program include: the ability to maintain attention, develop small and large motor skills, improve their hand-eye coordination, and give them a goal to achieve together while having fun and bonding with one another.

I had the chance to catch up with three of our education team members to find out their thoughts on the program! Here’s what Michael, our Education Stage Manager, had to say: 

“My goals/hopes for the project are
  • for the participants to come together for a common goal. This will foster a strong sense of community already among their group.
  • They are able to take pride in the product they will be creating.
  • An atmosphere will be created where all are welcome to play and create art that they will be able to call their own.
  • We will help boost their confidence by working and supporting one another.
  • The puppets will allow them to have something tangible that will help them express themselves through theatre.”

Here’s what Grace, one of our Resident Theater Artists and our Tour Designer, had to say: 

“I consider puppetry and educational theater to be well within my wheelhouse as a designer, teacher, and actor. This program affords me the opportunity to apply my existing skills and strengths to new depths. I look forward to being a novice once more, both in the blacklight medium as well as having the privilege of working with a new group of artists. My hope is that I gain and learn from this process as much as I have to give and teach.
The theater community prides itself on being on the cusp of innovation and diversity in the arts. More and more it seems we applaud our own progressive attitudes and the strides we have made toward inclusion. We create art that that promotes diversity of gender, color, and body and call it a job well done. Meanwhile, we fail when it comes to diversity of ability. Those individuals who lie outside mainstreamed ideas of physical and intellectual ability are largely ignored in the theater community. I am thrilled for the program and its contribution to providing a venue and outlet for artistic expression and performance for individuals across the spectrum of ability. Theater is for everyone, and it is about time we made it that way.”

Here’s what Jenny, one of our Theater Artists, had to say:

“I'm looking forward to supporting our performers  as they learn to express themselves creatively in this new art form.
Adults with special needs and challenges often have to navigate through life adapting to the ways and means that society places on them, and often times they are left out of opportunities to perform and to express themselves creatively. It is our hope to break that barrier. I have seen first-hand the incredible joy and passion our performers have for dancing, singing, and sharing. 
There is something wonderfully exciting and challenging that we are about to undertake as we incorporate a variety of quality storytelling techniques, including the magic of black light puppetry with folk tales, music, movement, and poetry.”

Jenny de Jaager, Grace Davis, Michael Mast, and Marcus Bell have been working together over the past month and are ready to begin this very special program on Monday! I will be checking back in with them about halfway through to meet the clients and to see how things are shaping up (and hopefully will snap some pictures). Check back in July for the next blog post about our Black Light Puppet Theatre!

Madeline Dummerth is the Education Assistant in Virginia Stage Company's Education & Community Engagement Department.