Beverly Sporleder, assistant clinical professor of social work at UMSL, displays a marionette that she made.

She owns three sewing machines and has outfitted hundreds of people, including an entire dance troupe, with her creations. So, putting together a marionette from scratch didn’t seem like much of a challenge. But Beverly Sporleder, assistant clinical professor of social work at the University of Missouri–St. Louis, went to college this summer to learn an art form she’s dreamed of since childhood.

“I remember when my dad brought home our first television,” Sporleder said. “He plugged it in and there was Howdy Doody. I never forgot that moment. When I read about a puppet festival in northwest Missouri, I signed up.”

Held annually on the campus of North Central Missouri College in Trenton, Mo., the weeklong PuppetFest MidWest is presented, organized and financially supported by puppeteers. The Rumpelstiltskin Society, a nonprofit organization, also provides financial support to the festival.

PuppetFest directors Peter Allen and Debbie Lutzky Allen call the festival, “a gift to other puppeteers in the hope that it will inspire, strengthen and renew our commitment to puppet theater.”

Sporleder is the co-director of field education and student services in the School of Social Work. Her professional interests lie in the field of children and youths, childcare and women. When she’s not keeping track of nearly 100 students in field placements all over the St. Louis region, she draws, paints, sews and gardens. She once reupholstered all her living room furniture as a summer project.

“I’m just adding puppetry to my toolbox,” she said with an eye toward retirement. “I figure if Nancy Pelosi can run Congress at 72, I can reinvent myself.”

She found kindred souls in Trenton.

“I spent a week with 62 strangers and no one talked politics, or war,” Sporleder said.

“We never turned on a TV. When we had time, we sat around talking noses, ears, hands and silk,” she quipped. “From 8:30 in the morning until 10 or 11 at night, nothing but puppets. It was wonderful.”

Puppet performers, teachers and participants from all over the country gathered July 6 through 11 for the eighth annual puppet festival. There were daylong workshops on ventriloquism, marionette manipulation, soft stuff, the business of puppetry and moving mouth puppets (think Senor Wences). Puppet exhibits, a puppet museum, a swap and shop and a performance each night by some of the top names in the puppet world filled the schedule. The public is invited to the evening performances.

Phillip Huber, an internationally acclaimed puppeteer, performed the first night.

“His Michael Jackson marionette did the moon walk across the stage,” Sporleder said. Huber’s sophisticated marionette reviews have appeared in the movie, “Being John Malkovich,” numerous shows on Broadway, nightclubs in Europe and the U.S. and first-class cruise ships around the world.

“He was amazing, but at the same time, very humble and unassuming,” Sporleder said. “He gave a workshop on marionette manipulation. A classic marionette has nine strings. Some of his have 27.”

An ancient form of entertainment and a powerful means of communication in most cultures, puppetry guilds exist all over the world. But it’s also seen as a dying art. Don’t tell that to the folks in Trenton.

The Midwest festival attracts men and women, young and old and they came from California, Hawaii and Australia to be there, according to Sporleder.

“Many of the people I met work with children,” she said. “There were librarians, school teachers, therapists, storytellers, nurses and they use puppetry in their work. For most of them, though, it’s not the promise of money or a new career that draws them; it’s the chance to use their creativity, to make something magical.”

Sporleder, the social worker, talked about puppets being able to deal with bullying in a classroom or getting children from poor neighborhoods to channel their energy into performance.

“I can see a troop of little puppeteers who’ve taught their marionettes all the right hip-hop moves,” she said. For now, she’s finishing up the marionette she started in school and writing a book for her grandchildren, “Nanna Goes to Puppet College.”

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Maureen Zegel

Maureen Zegel