Western Premieres Puppet Play, Sensory-Friendly Performance

Mar 9, 2017

Credit John Lacko

It can be hard enough to portray real animals on stage. But how do you bring a creature to life that doesn’t exist? This weekend is the world premiere of Western Michigan University’s original play Jeremy Thatcher, Dragon Hatcher. The play runs for two weekends, March 10-19.

It’s about a 6th grade boy who unintentionally takes home a dragon egg. The play was adapted from the popular children’s book by Bruce Coville.

The dragon is played by puppets - three to be exact. One for each of the life stages of the dragon as it grows up in Jeremy’s care. The largest dragon is about the size of an SUV and needs six people to operate it. There are tons of other puppets too - playing everything from Jeremy’s pet hamster to a mysterious monkey at the local magic shop.

Don’t expect to see puppet strings though. The puppeteers are right there on stage with their creatures - controlling their movements with handles. This is Western’s second time doing puppetry with the help of Jason Potgieter from the award-winning Handspring Puppet Company in South Africa.

Handspring helped Western with their first puppet show King Stag three years ago. Joan Herrington is directing Jeremy Thatcher. She says it’s great to have a professional to teach this unique skill to Western’s students.

“There is a tremendous increase in the amount of puppetry in the field of theatre,” says Herrington.

For King Stag, Western hired a company to design the puppets. This time Herrington says Western has done it all on their own.

“Engineering, technology, costume design, fabric creation, extraordinary painting - a lot of skills coming together while we figured this out,” she says.

Junior acting major Brian Wiegand says puppetry has brought back the magic of theatre for him.

“Since coming here and really studying it that sort of changed because it was becoming like a profession, a career. But going back to this like puppeteering it really reminds me of that sense of play and that fun,” he says.

Wiegand operates the littlest dragon, just after it hatches out of the egg.

“We have to like embody what we’re feeling as an actor and then channel it into the puppet,” he says.

Wiegand says the puppeteers also researched the way their animals act and move. He says the dragon acts as a hybrid between a cat, a dog, a serpent, and a bird.  

In addition to other firsts, Jeremy Thatcher will be Western’s first play with a “sensory-friendly performance.” On March 11th at 1 p.m., the show will be designed for people with autism and other special needs. Director Joan Herrington says sometimes the surprises we look forward to in theatre - like loud sounds or dramatic lights - can cause anxiety for people with these conditions: 

“The idea for this is that we tone down. So the sound cues will be lower. The house lights will be on so we won’t darken the house so the lights on stage will be less extreme. There’ll be an opportunity for people who come to the performance to engage with the puppets and the actors ahead of time.”

Tucker Rafferty of Education for the Arts wrote the script for Jeremy Thatcher. He says it may be a children’s book, but he’s sure adults will find it captivating too.

“I couldn’t put it down," he says. "It was really just cute. It took me back to being a kid and being back in 6th grade with all those 6th grade problems and all of that. It’s just a lot of fun."

Jeremy Thatcher, Dragon Hatcher runs for two weekends at Western, starting March 10th at 7:30 p.m.