By HARRIETTE BRAINARD
SALISBURY — The children of Salisbury Community School have had a special treat this May with the month-long residency of the No Strings Marionette Company.
The husband-and-wife team of Dan Baginski and Barbara Paulson have spent about 10 days during the month of May bringing stories to life by not only performing puppet shows for the students, but also by helping children from kindergarten through the sixth grade create their own puppets and performances.
The artist-in-residency program will culminate on Friday when the students stage a series of puppet shows at the school beginning at 6:30 p.m.
“The students and the teachers have been working so hard on student achievement this year,” said Salisbury Principal Abi Sessions. “We have been working on the basics of reading and writing, so we wanted to end this year emphasizing a different style of learning. We wanted to end this year on a strong, positive and fun note.”
The first thing that the Randolph-based No Strings Marionettes did when they came to Salisbury was put on a show so children could see what they would be doing. Then the children picked a theme for the performance they would create.
“This theme is all about bullying, stressing tolerance and kindness,” said Sessions. “The schools in Addison County are trying to pay close attention to these issues and behaviors and work on getting rid of bullying altogether. The point of having the children do theater was to express these ideas in a different way so the children can grasp these themes more easily.
“Each class picked a different story to use and then Barbara created a script with the proper number of characters depending on the size of the class,” Sessions said.
The children then took on the different roles and began to make the puppets, which are appropriate to the age group that they are working with. For example, the fifth grade is doing “Maniac Magee,” and the kindergarten is doing “Horton Hears a Who.”
“The great thing,” Sessions said, “is that there is no child left behind in this program; each child has a role, they know where they fit into the story, and an equally fabulous puppet that they have created.”
Funding for Salisbury’s artist-in-residency came from the Vermont State Arts Council, Neat Repeats and Title-Four federal funds, which supply money to promote a positive school climate.
No Strings Marionettes has been traveling around New England and New York for 18 years mostly doing performances for schools, since a residency takes a great deal of time and effort. Workshops with children are fast-paced.
Twenty years ago Baginski saw his first puppet theater show in Massachusetts and a year later joined the troop that staged the show. With that group he did three shows a day for a month. He left and within a year he was touring by himself doing one-man shows.
He toured by himself for about eight years before meeting Paulson in 1996. Their first show together was called “Wasabi Dragons Tail.” No Strings Marionettes now have a repertoire of about a dozen shows. The duo creates the shows themselves, writes the scripts, creates the puppets and the scenery and put on the show.
“With just the two of us in this company it works very well, as it keeps them small and very flexible,” Paulson said.
“We conceive, we build, we know and we show. We have the ability to mount any of the shows that we have at any time,” said Baginski. “We can do it immediately with no problem.”
“The great thing about puppetry is that it affords you the opportunity to do all the aspects of theater — paint, make the props and the sets, ceramics, tell a story and to create it all yourself,” Baginski said. “It is like a mini theater.”
Doing such theater is not easy. Baginski and Paulson said they are always on the move, and there’s no difference between weekends and weekdays. Earlier this week they were working in Providence, R.I., before returning to Salisbury to fine tune the performance of the students here. Residency programs can easily require 12-hour work days.
Although they don’t need to do these residencies, as they have so much work just with the performances, Paulson and Baginski like to do them to keep in touch with the children.
“These workshops are like a sprint, we have so little time to do all of the work involved,” Baginski said. “There are different kinds of puppets depending on the age group. There are sock puppets, and sponge puppets which take only three hours and then the most advanced ones that they do with the kids are the papier-mâché ones, which take five hours to make.”
Doing drama in the school this year with the children was also very important as Salisbury Community School has not had any drama for a long time, Sessions said. School officials also expressed hope that someone from the community could come in and work with the kids in theater on a regular basis because of its importance for elementary-age students, Sessions said.
Sessions said she and others at the school have been impressed with how much the students have learned with the No Strings Marionettes.
“They have accomplished so much in so little time,” said Sessions. “Every grade here is involved and has had the same enthusiastic response. They have a way of making the puppets come alive for the children; they love carrying them down the halls and interacting with them.”