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Why the Great Arizona Puppet Theater art director thinks kids deserve good theater

By Mark Brodie
Published: Thursday, March 21, 2024 - 11:41am
Updated: Thursday, March 21, 2024 - 4:29pm

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Larisa May/KJZZ
The puppets of "The Little Engine That Could" production.

Thursday is World Puppetry Day and to celebrate, the Great Arizona Puppet Theater will be hosting an all-day event.

The theater recently finished a run of the show "The Little Engine that Could," based on the classic children’s book.

And last year, it celebrated its 40th anniversary, and its new artistic director is keeping the operation in the family.

Gwen Bonar is a second-generation puppeteer. The Show visited her at the theater recently and talked with her about her history there — and how it’s kind of a family affair.

Larisa May/KJZZ
Gwen Bonar, artistic director of the Great Arizona Puppet Theater, is a second-generation puppeteer.

Full interview

GWEN BONAR: Correct. My parents were the founders of Great Arizona Puppet Theater, and they started doing puppetry in 1976 and founded Great Arizona Puppet Theater in 1983. So they were already puppeteers by the time I was born. And I just grew up in this kind of weird world of having puppeteer parents. But it was a really fortunate world too because I got to grow up seeing puppeteers from all over the world perform and everything like that. And I got a chance to watch my parents backstage and watch my dad build and see them create and everything too. So it was an interesting childhood, but it's what I'm really grateful for.

MARK BRODIE: I almost as you're talking, I'm almost imagining you like living on Sesame Street or something like, just surrounded by puppets constantly. 

BONAR: Yes, I would say, you know, when I was little, we still didn't have a theater. So we had a tiny little three-bedroom house. My sister and I shared a room, one of the bedrooms was my mom's office. So she would do all of the booking from there. And then the other bedroom is where they held all of the puppets. So all of the puppets were in there and then my parents slept on a fold-out futon in our living room.

BRODIE: For real. Like the puppets had a bedroom, your parents didn't?

BONAR: I don't want to say they had a bedroom. It sounds really weird when you say that the puppets had a bedroom like we were tucking them in bed at night. I would say that there was a whole bunch of puppets shoved into a room.

BRODIE: OK. Fair enough. I see the difference. I see the difference here.

BONAR: There's a, there's a line of weirdness that I would like to firmly stay on the not as weird side of it. 

BRODIE: Fair enough. Well, so like did you know as a child that this was something you wanted to do? Like did you see yourself following in your parents' footsteps and doing puppetry?

BONAR: Absolutely. I think, you know, my mom jokes how I obviously like to make people laugh. When I was even a baby, like, the nurse came to check on her after, like, she had just had me and I'm like a newborn baby. She's like, I think she likes to make people laugh. And then I just was like, it's a newborn. Like, what are you talking about? But I did, I liked, I liked to have, you know, I, you know, I liked people to be happy and stuff. And then I saw my parents performing and I really wanted to be a part of that action.

BRODIE: What has it been like for you? Because I know that, that you're like in the process now sort of taking over here. So, like, what is it like for you knowing that not only you're continuing to do something that you've clearly loved to do your whole life, but also sort of continuing on what it is that your parents started.

BONAR: You know, sometimes it feels kind of intimidating. There was, they were, they were working really hard, and there was plenty of times where we were spending the night at the theater because my parents had a show opening the next day and we got a deadline, you know. And the dedication that they had in order to do that, it took a lot. And so there's parts of that, that are very intimidating. As far as like, OK, we've got some really big shoes to fill. And my mom has whole lot of connections and has made a really big name for herself and for this entire theater. And I mean, it's an honor to be able to step into that and to continue on the legacy and also to continue on the art of puppetry and to grow it because I'm still learning about puppetry all of the time. 

Larisa May/KJZZ
Train puppets from the Great Arizona Puppet Theater.

BRODIE: What kinds of things are you still learning about puppetry having done it for as long as you have?

BONAR: I'm still amazed at how there's still new techniques of building. I'm amazed when I go to these different puppetry conferences, and I see puppetry being used in different ways or different styles of puppetry still just using, being used in different contexts. And then you've got, you know, when I was little and I first started going to these puppetry conferences primarily, you were seeing children's shows. And right now there's a really big push for all this different adult puppetry. And one of the things that we're really excited to do, too, here is we're working on that in between audience. You know, there's puppetry for adults and there's puppetry for the little kids, but it seems like our teenagers are kind of left out of it all. So we're starting like a teen program and we're gonna try to have more programming that's for, that's not to adults. And it's definitely not for little kids either.

BRODIE: How would you say that your process of making the puppets, of building the puppets has evolved? I'm curious, like, has your technique evolved? Has your thought process evolved at all in terms of how you go about creating the puppets?

BONAR: I try not to overthink things too much. I have a tendency to build and I like to, I like to move forward with things. I think that when you're building a show, one of the things you have to think about is like, OK, what do these puppets have to do? So if they have to do something, we have to figure out how they're going to do that. And so you have this little problem solving moment of like, how are we gonna do this? Is this gonna work? Is this gonna translate? But then sometimes you have puppets that don't necessarily need to do anything and then once they're made, you can kind of figure out what they can do. And, and that's always an interesting time for how you're going to figure out what's gonna work best with these characters and what's gonna work best with these puppets and how can I make all of this translate to what I'm trying to do the best that I can with, you know.

BRODIE: I'm curious what you see from the stage, especially with the littler kids in the audience, especially as they sort of open up and, and maybe get more familiar with the puppets. Like we know, for example, that a lot of child psychologists use puppets to talk to kids and have the kids talk directly to the puppets as a way of getting kids to say stuff or talk about things or express things that maybe they're not super comfortable talking about with other people. I'm wondering if, if, I'm not suggesting you do therapy sessions at this place at your shows, but like, I'm wondering if you ever noticed anything like that where the kids really respond to the puppets maybe in ways they don't to other humans.

BONAR: Yeah. And those are like really magical moments and I don't take those moments lightly. You know, I think that, I think children have every right to be heard. And I think that respecting what they wanna see in a performance is so much of it, too. And you know, what we're trying to do is, is family entertainment. I want your parents to have as good a time as the kids are having here, and I want everybody to have a laugh moment, you know. But also I really, I really do want these kids to have this moment of believing in these characters and caring about all of it. And we do a lot of like post-show, talk backs and take the puppets out so the kids can talk to them afterwards. And there's so many times they're not talking to me they're not even looking at me and I'm right there.

It is very obvious that I am doing the voice for this character that you are talking to right now. But they're here looking at this puppet's eyes and we're having a moment and stuff and I've had some heavy times where kids are telling me things that I'm like, oh, that's an interesting story. You know, because we've developed this trust in this short 35-45 minute show and you've developed this trust with this character that you feel comfortable telling them about frivolous things to heavier things. And I think that that's really special and I'm, I'm just really, you know, I'm honored to be a part of that and I'm honored to be able to show kids what good theater is because I think kids deserve good theater. These are the kids that are gonna be the future theater enthusiasts. And so I think they should know what good theater is and I think they should know what good puppetry is and, and I'm just honored to be kind of like a part of that.

BRODIE: All right, Gwen, thank you so much for having us out here. I appreciate it.

BONAR: Thanks for coming out.

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