Dallas Children's Theater Blog

Astonishing Kids And Families With The Fun of Broadway-Like Plays and A Lot More!

A Conversation About Puppetry & Storytelling at DCT

RobynHeadshot'11“There’s a participatory energy that translates the symbolism of the puppet because we are filling out the full picture in our minds.”

Robyn Flatt, DCT Co-Founder and Executive Artistic Director


Kathy Burks“It’s everyone who loves a good story, not just children.”

Kathy Burks, Founder of Kathy Burks Theatre of Puppetry Arts




Nancy Schaeffer“There are times when a puppet can tell the story best.”

Nancy Schaeffer, DCT Education Director




Storytelling takes many forms in theater arts. Moving performances by live actors, visually stunning puppetry, and clever blends of both elements can create a very unique production. While puppetry has been utilized in DCT shows from the very beginning of its 29 year history, several shows in DCT’s current 2012-2013 season feature puppetry in a prominent way. DCT’s Executive Artistic Director Robyn Flatt, Education Director Nancy Schaeffer and Resident Artist Kathy Burks tell us from their unique individual perspectives what it is like incorporating puppetry into the artistry at DCT.


Photo by Peter Mathew

Photo by Peter Mathew


DCT audiences are in for a special treat when our mates from Australia, Terrapin Puppet Theatre, present their highly acclaimed show BoatsApril 19 – 21. Robyn Flatt first saw the show in Seattle at One Theatre World, and she was so impressed by their unique storytelling and artistry that she decided to ask them to perform here in Dallas, making it DCT’s very first international presentation. “It’s a marvelous family piece. You get a sense of what it is like to go out on the sea, and all of their magic is totally visible to us,” she says. Boats follows a very Australian tradition of telling tall tales with found objects and embellishing them for the sake of the story. Puppets are tied from ropes, a boat is made from a table and many of the sound effects are made live. She adds, “I think they are enchanting with the variety of ways they use the objects around them to bring their stories to life.”


Photo by Karen Almond

Photo by Karen Almond

Rumpelstiltskin and The Nutcracker

Of course, you can’t talk about puppetry without mentioning Kathy Burks Theatre of Puppetry Arts. This season, the renowned troupe performed its productions of Rumpelstiltskin, a faithful adaptation of the classic Brothers Grimm tale with rod puppets that magically come to life, and The Nutcracker, which presents a great variety of characters and moods and contains departures from realism with multiple forms of puppetry. “There’s so many ways to tell a story through puppetry,” says Burks.

After a performance of Rumpelstiltskin this spring, a grandmother and her grown daughter told Burks that they had seen the troupe’s shows at the Haymarket Theater years ago and now were bringing a grand-daughter to see it. “That’s good stuff that I have enriched all three generations,” she says. “That’s the ultimate test when you get the audience to respond.”

Photo by Karen Almond

Photo by Karen Almond

DCT’s response to the company has always been positive and the two companies’ mutual admiration for one another was made public in 1996 when they officially joined forces. Since then, Kathy Burks Theatre of Puppetry Arts has been a resident company at DCT, presenting two or three productions annually as part of the DCT season. Plus, on occasion, Burks’ master puppeteers are asked to collaborate or advise on DCT productions, too. “We frequently need puppetry techniques in our shows, and having an expert so close and involved has been a great asset to DCT,” says Flatt.


Photo by Karen Almond

Photo by Karen Almond

Goodnight Moon

This January, DCT transformed into the famous Great Green Room for Goodnight Moon, which incorporated both puppetry and live actors.  “We worked for months on the best ways to incorporate many types of puppetry into the production,” says show director Nancy Schaeffer. “And of course, I could never have done it without the amazing collaboration with Kathy Burks Theatre of Puppetry Arts. They worked so hard to make the magic happen.” Expanding upon the famous childhood bedtime story, additional characters and flights of fancy are brilliantly woven together, staying true to the nostalgic feeling of the tale while making a stunning production on stage. “It was one of the most challenging shows to put on technically – but it was also one of the most rewarding.”


Photo by Karen Almond

Photo by Karen Almond

Looking Ahead: Puppetry
in the 2013-2014 Season

So what is coming up next? DCT’s highly anticipated 30th anniversary season for 2013-2014 has even more fun surprises and stories to tell. Flatt, Schaeffer and Burks share their final thoughts on what they look forward to next season and the importance of keeping alive DCT’s rich tradition of puppetry, storytelling and family theater.


CITH-1“I am very excited about the puppet fish in Dr. Seuss’s The Cat in the Hat. The fish is so nervous having a cat in the house – understandably. He is constantly trying to be the voice of reason on that cold, cold, wet day,” says Schaeffer.



Mariachi-Girl-2“In Mariachi Girl, the protagonist has a Mexican Barbie and a blonde Barbie, which she uses to talk and argue back & forth. They extend her exploration of who she is and who she can be. The emotional impact of her personal struggle is powerfully portrayed through the interplay between the two dolls,” says Flatt.



Beauty and The Beast“I am looking forward to creating all new puppets for Beauty and the Beast. A family theater is the most important because you are enriching the young mind with beautiful ideas like ‘true beauty comes from within’. When it is done right, you’ve blessed your community for years to come. I do think DCT is succeeding in doing that, and I’m proud to be a part of it,” says Burks.


And don’t forget, Boats is a special storytelling and puppetry engagement with only three public shows! Click here for a sneak peek.

Dancing with “The Nutcracker”

Everyone knows The Nutcracker as a ballet and a masterful piece of music, but DCT’s version is entirely unique. Enter a dazzling and spectacular puppet interpretation by Kathy Burks Theatre of Puppetry Arts! We sat down with master puppeteers Kathy Burks, Trish Long and Sally Fiorello as they prepare to open their 15th production of The Nutcracker while launching their 40th season as a professional troupe. They are family – both literally and figuratively! We wanted to know what their experience has been like performing together over the years, and what it’s like backstage while spinning the magic. They all agree that it’s a mental and physical workout, choreographed as precisely as a dance. Despite the challenges, the reward is great, and it remains their favorite piece among the company’s holiday repertoire. Here are some of the highlights of what they had to say:


Trish Long

Puppeteer of the Nutcracker, the Prince and various puppets in Act II. She’s also the voice of Fritz, and a puppet costume designer

I think we know each other so well both personally and professionally, that at times on stage we are totally in sync with one another. It also is great to know you have one another’s back if something goes wrong, which in any live performance is bound to happen! A particular thing that can be very irritating is when you pull your hood down and you realize it’s backwards and you can’t see a thing! You quickly try to figure out how to turn it around on your head without revealing your face! We have bumped into one another, stepped on each other’s toes, poked ourselves in the eye (and lost a contact lens), had a case of the flu, and had small parts of puppets appendages come off during the performance!


Kathy Burks

Director, voice of the little puppeteer in the prologue

The short answer…it is great FUN. Backstage it is busy and quiet, and carefully choreographed. One must never let his mind wander. The sequence of events must be followed perfectly. Do not change your pathway and do not change your routine without previously informing all puppeteers. And on top of all of this, enjoy what you are doing and never lose your sense of humor. HO HO HO! The fight between the Nutcracker and the Mouse King always elicits excited responses from the audiences and this is a joyous experience for me.
Another outstanding moment comes when a solemn white poodle, the only ballet dancer in the production, achieves a startling leap across the stage, propelled by three puppeteers, who must move with drill team precision.


Sally Fiorello

Puppeteer of Tchaikovsky, Clara & the Mouse King in Act I, and various puppets in Act II, including the dancing Poodle. She voices the Narrator & Clara, and is also the Production Designer.

With one exception, most of us have been performing together for thirty to forty years. That is unusual for most arts organizations. We are indeed a family. As performers, this longevity has certainly developed our skill and craftsmanship, but it has also developed a unique ability to sense each other’s movements and dramatic choices before they occur. This allows us to work together in a more intuitive and creative way. With over fifty characters and manipulated objects in the show, the puppeteers never rest. Because it is a “black theater” production, we work completely shrouded in black velveteen (including hoods and gloves) in almost complete darkness. It is very difficult to see anything that is not on-stage in the light. The velveteen is very warm and during certain physical scenes like the Nutcracker’s battle with the Mouse King and his army, and it can become sweltering. Most of the show continuously moves to the cues and rhythms of Tchaikovsky’s musical score, making it more like a dance than a straight play. As an actor/puppeteer, communicating with an audience is a priority for me. Though difficult to perform, The Nutcracker enables me to accomplish that goal, and always gives me the inspiration and energy to keep it fresh, starting every new performance as if it were the very first one.


Legend Comes to Life!

Ever wonder how the amazing puppeteers of the Kathy Burks Theatre of Puppetry Arts prepare to perform for audiences in the pitch black Studio Theater?

To rehearse “Young King Arthur”, the puppeteers first practiced the show in the Dance Studio room at Dallas Children’s Theater. Why? The full-length mirrors in the Dance Studio give the puppeteers a special advantage in the rehearsal process.

“We work out a lot of details in front of the mirror in the Dance Studio,” said Kathy Burks, founder of the Kathy Burks Theatre of Puppetry Arts.

“You need to be able to see what you are doing and see what the audience sees so that you know if you need to change anything in the way that you are making [the puppets] move and bringing [them] to life.”

We can’t wait to see the full show once it opens in the Studio Theater at Dallas Children’s Theater on Friday, March 9th! Want to join the action?

On Opening Night, Dallas Children’s Theater will have a Medieval-themed party with games and activities before the show and a special Q&A session with the puppeteers after the show! For tickets to the show and more information, call the Box Office at 214-740-0051.