Four 10- and 11-year-olds sit in a circle, so close their knees practically touch. Giggling and wiggling, they raise their arms high over their heads, reaching and stretching their knobby arms, making faces to accompany what they call a “Frankenstein stretch.”
After counting to 20, they lower their arms, gratefully. Next, they make a steeple with their hands, bending back their fingers and making sure each joint feels the burn.
After an hour of intense puppetry, they need the stretches to take care of their muscles.
These puppeteers from Ashland United Methodist Fellowship are some of the youngest in the area. (Mount Pleasant Baptist Church in Hartsburg has a troupe as well.) Twice a month, they gather at the church to practice their skills, introduce others to the story of Jesus and give the children more options in church, Angela Welch, the group’s leader, says.
The troupe’s first performance wowed the church at Christmas 2002. They started practicing last summer, performed again at Christmas and have scheduled their first performance away from the home church. The free, public event will be at The River, in Columbia, between 2 and 4 p.m. Saturday.
Because most puppet troupes in the area are junior high and high school kids, the Ashland United Methodist Fellowship troupe, all 10- and 11-year-olds, is breaking ground — and fighting tired arms.
“Their muscles aren’t strong enough to hold the puppets up for very long,” says Welch, whose son Collin is a puppeteer. “We just improvise and do what we can.”
To fight fatigue, they switched to shorter songs. They talk about constructing T-arm rests; they do exercises to build arm muscles; they stretch out at the end of practice.
Puppetry appeals to the group’s boys, who were the original members, because of the anonymity it provides. “If we mess up or something, no one knows who we are,” says Collin, 10.
“They like participating as long as no one sees them,” his mother says.
On this recent Wednesday night, the group has moved into a small side room as the church undergoes renovation. Working together, they assemble several PVC pipes that make up their stage. With a practiced swing, they drape a red, velvety cloth over the top to provide a stage for the puppeteers to hide behind.
They warm up by practicing to an older song, “The Friendly Beasts.” Crouched beneath the curtain, they stretch their arms up above the curtain. The puppet animals — a donkey and a figure of Jesus, among others — extend like evening gloves from the children’s fingertips to their elbows. The creatures are made from materials so plush you want to hug them.
“Can you see my head?” one puppeteer inquires. Welch eyes the troupe and fires off instructions: “Eyes down, donkey!” “Jaclyn, get your eyes at me!” she calls to Jaclyn Richardson. Everyone finds their place, and the song goes off without a hitch.
“Oh man, this gets sweaty!” exclaims Kelby Wheeler at the end, her arm sweating in the thick-haired donkey.
After their warm up, it’s time to get to work on their main piece, “Penny in My Pocket.” The renovations have made it impossible to find their tape of the music, so Welch hums then sings their song.
“I’ve got a penny in my pocket...”
Swoosh. A hand-drawn, cardboard penny appears and disappears above the red curtain.
“A dollar in my shoe...”
Swoosh. A large green dollar bill comes and goes.
“When you give them up to Jesus, there’s nothing He can’t do.”
And then Jesus flies by.
After two run-throughs, they call it a night and put their props and puppets away.
“We’re planning to be better,” Collin says. “We’re going to perform better than the Muppets.”
If you have suggestions for this column, please contact Libby Volgyes at firstname.lastname@example.org or (573) 882-1690. Story archives can also be found on the Web at www.columbiamissourian.com/features/boonelife.