Master of puppets

Theater Instructor Rob Richards taps into students' imaginations in Puppetry and Props.

Patrick Garrity
December 18, 2019
A dog puppet on a table with students working in the background.

The inaugural meeting of the first Puppetry and Props class at Exeter is short but inspirational. Gathered in a ground-floor classroom in the Goel Center designated specifically for stagecraft, Theater Instructor Rob Richards, eight students and a creepy collection of characters only a puppeteer could love get started.

“Step outside your comfort zone,” urges Richards, the chairman of the Department of Theater and Dance. It’s a pep talk Big Red coaches next door in Love Gym could envy.

“Unlock your imagination. … Say, ‘yes, and’ not ‘yeah, but.’ Watch out for ‘yeah, but.’”

The first full day of a term is never overly productive, but the 26-year veteran instructor leaves his charges with plenty of motivation on this sunny December day. The topic of day one: Shadow puppets.

Explaining the simplicity of the ancient storytelling form, Richards tasks his students with conjuring up a short story — “a moment” — and some sketches of what their puppets might look like.

“So, maybe you have a man. … yes, and? What happens to the man?” he asks, coaxing a story from his students.

“A ghost appears? OK … oh, it’s the man’s wife? Good.

“What does she say? Why’d you kill me?!

“What’s he reply? … I found the love notes … OK … the love notes to his best friend?!”

Sensing a narrative darkening by the moment, Richards steers the brainstorming session back onto the rails with a laugh. “Or … maybe your story is about a butterfly!”

“There are no limits. Maybe a knight enters, then a dragon swoops in? Sometimes, you can show more in a moment than you can tell with a lot of dialogue.”

Rob Richards working with students in puppetry class.Richards sends the students off to work on their ideas and sketches for the next day’s class. Before they go, however, he reveals the secret to a successful term in THR 205: Puppetry and Props.

“Your willingness, your participation, that engagement — that’s the thing. Because, that’s when you’ll make discovery.”

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