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BLOOMINGTON — A junior-high puppet troupe at Western Avenue Community Center is giving voice — in both English and Spanish — to issues they face in their daily lives.

The idea behind the Hispanic cultural puppet troupe is to address a gap in the arts and a lack of live performances in Spanish, explained Dick Folse, managing director of the Illinois Shakespeare Festival. “Who better to be the ambassadors than these kids?”

“It’s exciting to bring the puppets alive,” said Selena Aviles, one of those ambassadors. “It’s like you’re putting life into the puppet.”

The troupe is a joint effort of the community center and the Festival, with assistance from the theater education department at Illinois State University.

Its first public performance will be 11:30 a.m. Saturday in the Bloomington Public Library Community Room.

“Our hope is that we’ll continue on to do more productions with them over time. The goal is long term,” Folse said.

Assistant professor Michael Vetere specializes in puppetry in ISU’s School of Theater. “What’s great about this project is that it’s from the students (at Western Avenue),” he said. “They came up with the ideas and the stories.”

They also designed and created the puppets, sculpting heads from clay, based on drawings they made. The clay models were used to make molds. The heads were cast in a durable neoprene, which the youths painted, learning about stage makeup techniques involving highlights and shadows.

Ten members of the troupe operate the five puppets in teams of two. Vetere called the style “table-top puppetry.”

Cesar Sandoval’s favorite part is learning how to manipulate “and do lots of things with the puppets.” During breaks from rehearsal, he had his puppet, Bobby, mimicking Michael Jackson’s moonwalk moves, turning pages in the script and high-fiving other puppets.

Saturday’s production will address issues such as friendship, bullying, peer pressure and acceptance of differences.

“These are very universal ideas — things kids are dealing with across the board,” said Sara Phillips, an ISU senior in theater education who is helping with the project. Her infectious enthusiasm had students giggling as she worked on their acting skills.

The youths are from Mexico and other Latin American countries where “puppetry is a very important part of their cultural heritage,” Folse said.

Socorro Alvarez, Western Avenue’s Hispanic outreach director, said the bilingual troupe is “a great opportunity for the kids and the community.”

“It’s something that’s going to benefit them, help them with their self-esteem and language barriers,” she said.

 

Puppet Troupe

What: Hispanic cultural puppet troupe program celebrating El Dia de los Ninos (Children’s Day)

When: 11:30 a.m. Saturday

Where: Bloomington Public Library Community Room, 205 E. Olive St.

Cost: Free

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