Captain Kangaroo alum stages puppet show at The Princeton Festival

 A scene from Goldilocks and the Three Bears

A scene from Goldilocks and the Three Bears

The Princeton Festival brings opera, theater, jazz, chamber and symphonic concerts to the region, creating a kind of Spoleto in central New Jersey. Now in it’s 10th season, the festival is not just for grownups.

This year’s production of “Goldilocks and the Three Bears,” performed by the Paper Moon Puppet Theatre, will offer youngsters starting at age 2 a chance to immerse in the performing arts.

The classic fairytale has been updated to take place in a National Park. Mama, Papa and Baby watch TV and are consumers who buy products in a supermarket. Little Bear likes listening to rock. Goldilocks, who has gone on a camping trip with her father, sets off to find berries. The bears are out shopping for more cereal when Goldilocks comes upon their empty home.

“We don’t perform for children or adults, we do theater,” says Paper Moon Artistic Director and founder James Racioppi. “The scenery, effects, acting, directing and blocking are geared toward a real theatrical experience.” Children might not understand all the dialogue but will follow the story and visual humor.

But before the curtain even goes up, Racioppi and his team bring out marionettes (Racioppi makes them all, as well as the sets) and introduce them to the audience. Children who have never encountered such creations have a change to befriend the inanimate objects that will soon embody a character. As children become acquainted, they have been known to hug the puppets. “We show how they move, sit and walk,” said Racioppi.

Racioppi has about 14 shows in repertory – “Sleeping Beauty,” “Cinderella” and “Hansel and Gretel,” among them — and each has 10 to 15 puppets. There are so many puppets they are stored not only in the company’s Atlantic Highlands theater, but in another facility down the street and even Racioppi’s garage.

The marionettes are made from wood, cloth and metal, and their heads are either carved or sewn into fabric. Racioppi is an auto didact at the sewing machine. “Sewing yields wonderful faces,” he says. The bodies are made from wood and stuffed cloth, and wood is used to weight them for naturalistic movement. “You have to know where to put the weights so it’s balanced – it takes a long time to get this right.”

The hand puppets are made from cloth and Styrofoam – they need to be lightweight so they can be held up. Occasionally Paper Moon offers classes to teach children how to make simplified puppets. “It’s not an easy art to learn – there’s a lot of trial and error, and it requires dedication,” said the puppeteer.

Racioppi, who grew up in Newark in the 1950s, made his first puppet when he was 9 years old. “It was a princess. I loved puppets and dolls, and I loved fairytales, myths and legends. What better way is there to tell a story than with these characters made of cloth?”

He found a book in the library – he still has a copy – of “Marionettes: Easy to Make! Fun to Use!” by Edith Flack Ackley. He recruited his best friend to put on puppet shows in their neighborhood, drawing, building and animating puppets to perform to old Disney soundtracks. They used refrigerator boxes to make the stage, then graduated to more sophisticated materials. “We had no budget – we were kids. Those limitations enable you to be more creative with materials. It was an incredible education, to use what was on hand. I do that to this day. Whether you have $10 or $10,000, it takes ingenuity and inventiveness.”

His mother, once a singer in his father’s jazz band, was his first critic. “She told me if the puppets moved right or were too stiff. She was always supportive.”

He studied painting, sculpture and drawing at Cooper Union, al the while building puppets on his own.

After school, he worked as an actor for various theater companies, and apprenticed for the Allenberry Playhouse in Boiling Springs, Pa., where he learned set design. Racioppi toured the country as a puppeteer for Nicolo Marionettes where, among his mentors, was Ruth Waxman, artistic director of Puppetworks in Brooklyn’s Park Slope. Later, in the mid 1970s, Racioppi worked as puppeteer for the “Captain Kangaroo Show,” then for Cottage Marionette Theatre in Central Park. By 1989, he knew he wanted his own theater and established Paper Moon in Atlantic Highlands at the First Avenue Playhouse.

Racioppi is presently working on a set for “Pinocchio.” He designs in miniature, then builds the set at one-third scale – a two-foot puppet, for example, would represent a six-foot person, and backdrops are six feet.

Despite distractions from electronic media – or perhaps because of it – children are especially drawn to puppet shows today, says Racioppi. “Children can invest so much with their own imaginations, and it’s interactive in the best sense of the word. One of the reasons I love doing this is because of what we get back from the kids.”

Goldilocks and the Three Bears will be performed at the Matthews Acting Studio, 185 Nassau St., Princeton, June 15, 2 p.m.and 6 p.m. 

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The Artful Blogger is written by Ilene Dube and offers a look inside the art world of the greater Princeton area. Ilene Dube is an award-winning arts writer and editor, as well as an artist, curator and activist for the arts.

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