When the curtain rises and the lights come on for the Frostburg State University production of “James and the Giant Peach Jr.,” children throughout Western Maryland will accompany James and his six loveable insect friends on their magical, musical adventure across the Atlantic Ocean in an overgrown peach.
When the insects first appear onstage, they are in the form of six puppets, a prop challenge that director Mairzy Yost-Rushton feared would break the bank.
As Yost-Rushton, a professor in the Department of Theatre and Dance, began researching the play, she began to suffer from sticker shock. One production of “James” in Ohio had used metal puppets, which she could rent for more than $1,000. Then she solicited bids for custom-made puppets.
“Two guys emailed me back, and those puppets would have been $1,200 ... each,” she said.
Those costs would far exceed the budget for a regional children’s theatre production, especially for puppets only used in the beginning of the play, before the insects are transformed into their “giant” form, performed by suitably costumed student actors. Temporarily stymied, Yost-Rushton turned to her colleague in FSU’s Department of English and Foreign Languages, Dr. Gerry Snelson.
“I contacted Gerry ... maybe he could just give us some ideas, and we could find somebody to make them here. Maybe there’d be a student who was interested or somebody local,” Yost-Rushton said. But Snelson told her he was too busy to possibly help, although he said he would ponder some ideas.
“The next thing I know, he’s emailing me a picture of one of them that was finished! And then he wouldn’t even charge us for them,” she said.
For Snelson, puppetry is a lifelong labor of love. He made his first puppet before entering first grade and has continued ever since, directing and performing in regular shows at First English Baptist Church in Frostburg and showing his creations at regional and national conventions.
“There’s no such thing as a standard puppet, because there’s so many different types,” Snelson said. “Normally, if I do a show, they’re all hand puppets, or they’re all rod puppets or they’re all whatever, but this one, it’s a real mix.”
No kits or plans exist for puppets like these, so Snelson had to answer several questions first. How will the puppets be used? How will they function on the stage? And finally, how can he create them from scratch to meet those needs?
“Building them is a process of working out puzzles, and I’ve always liked puzzles,” Snelson said, “but I wasn’t very sharp this summer, in the beginning.”
It turns out that Snelson already had pneumonia, which would hound him for the next two months. While he seeks the assistance of his wife, Jackie, for many of his puppets, for “James,” he relied on her even more than usual.
“She doesn’t like working on puppets, but she does it, and she likes the challenge. She certainly rose to it,” Snelson said. “I would work an hour and then rest an hour, because I really felt rough.”
The simplest puppet, Earthworm, came first. For the body, Gerry originally considered covering a Slinky. Jackie suggested a dryer vent hose instead. She covered the hosing in custom-dyed Antron Fleece while Gerry crafted the head, including a tricky leather aviator hat. Gerry cut up an old leather jacket for the hat and fashioned a set of goggles from some PVC piping, with cutout X-ray films for the glass lenses.
Jackie also suggested a disused cake-saver lid to form the body of Ladybug, devised the many arms for Centipede and recruited women from her quilting group to help craft the intricate costume worn by Grasshopper – the final and most time-consuming puppet in the set.
No two puppets take the same amount of time. It took several days to perfect the legs on Spider alone. Of course, the time involved was of little concern to Snelson.
“How long does it take to do anything that’s fun? If it’s fun, you don’t watch the clock. If it’s misery, you know exactly how long you’ve been working,” he said.
From the many handcrafted puppets and other creations that decorate his office to the nature of his hobbies, Snelson obviously finds joy in such intricate work. He collects 19th-century hats and all manner of pocket knives. His hobbies include photography, building model railroads from the ground up in scales small and large, building and playing stringed instruments and woodturning pens and other artistic objects.
“Yes, I like to work with my hands,” he said with a smile.
In all, the six puppets took the Snelsons roughly six weeks to complete. They eventually charged for materials, $38 for felt, wood, foam, etc. And soon their work will entertain children throughout Allegany and Garrett counties, as well as in West Virginia.
After Frostburg’s production of “James” concludes, Yost-Rushton said the puppets may get a second chance to bring smiles to theatre goers. To help other directors avoid her dilemma, she hopes to affordably rent some of the Snelson originals to other troupes looking to stage their own productions of “James.”
The public performance of “James and the Giant Peach Jr.” is Wednesday, Nov. 2, at 4:30 p.m. in the Pealer Recital Hall of FSU’s Performing Arts Center. Tickets for adults and children are $7. For information or tickets, contact the CES box office at 301-687-3137 or visit ces.frostburg.edu.
Situated in the mountains of Allegany County, Frostburg State University is one of the 12 institutions of the University System of Maryland. FSU is a comprehensive, residential regional university and serves as an educational and cultural center for Western Maryland. For more information, visit www.frostburg.edu or facebook.com/frostburgstateuniversity. Follow FSU on Twitter @frostburgstate.
FSU is committed to making all of its programs, services and activities accessible to persons with disabilities. To request accommodations through the ADA Compliance Office, call 301-687-4102 or use a Voice Relay Operator at 1-800-735-2258.