Penny Jones: Puppeteer

Penny Jones had first worked with a marionette troupe in the early fifties as a college student, but she experimented with other fields before she was inevitably drawn back to puppeteering. Following an association with the New York Parks Department’s Marionette Theatre and time out for married life, Penny collaborated with Larry Berthelson in performances that featured large rod puppets. In the early seventies, Penny formed her own company, dedicating herself to early childhood puppet theatre. She has since staged her puppet shows and puppet ballets in venues around New York, with stops along the way at the Children’s Museum of Manhattan, the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and the Public Theater. Her repertoire includes The Magic Forest, The Circus and Sebastian, The Lonely Loch Ness Monster, Peppi and the Pop-Up Dragon, Toby’s Silly Tales, and many other titles.

Penny Jones and her puppets in 1994.

In 1989, Penny and her puppets moved into Westbeth, where most recently they’ve been doing seasons of Sunday morning and matinee shows in the Westbeth Community Room, delighting residents and visitors alike. Penny’s son, Geoffrey Jones, appears alongside her as a puppeteer and master of ceremonies. Terry Stoller spoke with Penny Jones in May 2013 about puppetmaking, the role of music in her puppet ballets, the importance of audience participation in children’s theatre, and her work as an educator.

Terry Stoller: You began your puppet work as a college student for Suzari Marionettes.

Penny Jones: It was a department store gig for six weeks in Providence, Rhode Island. I went to Antioch—part of its curriculum was going out and working at jobs all over the country. In my senior year, I wanted to have something fun and different before I went out and saved the world, which was what you were supposed to do. So I found this job in the card catalog. We did twenty puppet shows a day, eight-and-a-half minutes apiece. I hadn’t known how to do marionettes before I went there. I learned how.

Your early work was with marionettes. You then went to work with someone who made very large rod puppets, and when you started your own company, you primarily created hand and rod puppets.

I love marionettes, and I stopped for a very practical reason. I didn’t want to get into anything where I was unable to handle the stage. For a marionette show, I like to have a nice sturdy stage, and I couldn’t possibly lift that myself. I can manage a simple screen hand and rod puppet stage.

What’s the difference between the marionettes and the hand and rod puppets for you as the artist?

For me, it’s total each way. It just takes a little longer with the strings of the marionette. The hand puppet is immediately on your hand, and it is somewhat determined by the shape of the body of the hand puppet. It’s very hard for a hand puppet to be elegant, whereas a string puppet or a rod puppet can be extremely elegant. A marionette will be elegant if he is designed so that the proportions of his body are elegant proportions. Otherwise no matter what you do, no matter how you try to walk him beautifully, he will fumble on clunkily. Rod puppets, I found, were wonderful for operas because they can take a stance, and they can use their arms, and they look quite glorious in a singing position. A hand puppet is much more useful for holding things, lifting things, using props. But they all are vehicles for the puppeteer’s emotion.

I assume you play Toby the dog and Sebastian, the park attendant who tries to work in the circus. Do you have a distinct relationship with each individual puppet?

It’s like an actor taking on a role. Toby has a particular function and role. When I started to design the first shows for young children, I wanted to have somebody outside so that if anything happened that person could reassure the children, just be there to help. And then he needed somebody backstage to help change the sets, to do various things—and it could be a hand puppet because then hands are there to do the work. And I thought, Why not have it be a dog? Punch and Judy had a dog named Toby. It could be called Toby. And since the person out front is kind of the parental figure, the dog behind the screen could be like the children themselves. He could be helpful, but he could be naughty; he could not understand things. You want it to be funny. You want to have a relationship between the person out front and the creature behind. So Toby evolved as eager, helpful, sometimes silly, but always hungry for biscuits—very much like a child.

A flyer for The Circus and Sebastian, 2013.

Do you have a special feeling for dogs? I’m asking because in The Circus and Sebastian, the dog is a hero character—although you’re saying Toby is a little naughty.

I’m really a cat person. I’m not all that keen on dogs. They like me, but in real life, I can take them or leave them. I don’t know that there are any circus cats. There’s always a circus dog.

Was that show’s original title simply The Circus?

Yes. A person who’s in theatre, did a lot of reviews and wrote a book about puppets, said, The Circus sounds like lots of circus acts. Everybody has circus acts, whereas this is supposed to be a poignant story about a boy who wants to join the circus and fails at everything—so you ought to put his name in there.

Your company is an early childhood puppet theatre. What are you looking for in terms of the material?

When I was working with other people’s puppet shows, they were geared to older audiences, but younger children came. And somebody made the rather mean joke that you could tell the success of the show by counting the puddles left by the youngest children in the front row, due to overexcitement. I thought, That’s terrible! I realized nobody is writing for that age, respecting that age. So I determined when I went out myself that I would focus on that age. I had a child that age. I really identified with it. I wanted to produce shows which would capture their imagination, which wouldn’t scare them, which would move them, which would not treat them like second-class citizens. And so I thought about it. I thought they have more fun when they’re sitting together as a group than when they’re sitting in chairs that are too big for them in between adults. They like to laugh. They need to exercise during the show. It’s too long for them to sit through a whole show. So we invent games that will exercise them without having to get up and run around. That’s why every show has a hand game. And they naturally want to participate. They say hello to the puppet when they see it. They don’t understand that you’re supposed to be a listener, a watcher, and not participate.

As I developed the different shows, I kept thinking of various ways that would allow them to participate. Our show The Magic Forest has been evolving for many years. When we first did it, someone reviewed it as being more of a nice, pleasant preschool afternoon than a show—because it took forever for us to collect all the bits of colored paper with which the children were going to help make spring. Over the years, we managed to hone it down, so that it could keep its excitement and movement, and the children would still be participating.

In the clip of the show that I saw, they participate at the end when they hold up the spring flowers.

That’s new this year—along with the music from Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé, which had been used years before in the Parks Department’s Marionette Theatre to accompany the opening of the door to a secret garden. I never forgot it, but I never knew the name of the music until I heard it on the radio two years ago.

I was thinking about what else we could do to enhance the climax, and I was enjoying how beautiful finally the spring looked with all the flowers coming up. I remembered back when I had been doing another show in a school years ago, Old MacDonald and His Farm, and as the conclusion, I had a bunch of children gradually hold up and “grow” the flowers they had made in front of the curtain, above which were Old MacDonald and his family and all the animals. And when I saw the end of the show, and the children slowly raising up the flowers, I thought the children’s faces were like flowers themselves. It was a whole wonderful picture to see.

Children growing flowers for the finale of Old MacDonald and His Farm, 1986.

So I thought we could do that with this show. After the finale, I come out and say, That was so beautiful I’d like to see it again. Maybe we can get some help. Is anyone 4 years old here? Of course, 4-year-olds get up. So I take them, I turn them around, and sit them down along the stage floor in front of the curtain—and then the 3-year-olds in front of them. I get everyone sitting. And we hand out these flowers and say, We’re going to do the ending again, and when the music begins to rise, you begin to grow your flowers and rise up. And so with the rising notes of Daphnis et Chloé, and with me conducting it, they all slowly stand up, raising their flowers as the puppeteers backstage are also raising their flowers, and it’s very beautiful. And, hilariously to me, many mothers come afterward and say, I love all your shows, but there’s something special about this show. And I know what it is. It’s that every mother sees her child starring with a supporting cast of all those other children.

So you enhanced The Magic Forest by adding that music at the end.

I heard it in my head—I heard that there should be music here with all these flowers growing. There should be something. There should be a grand climax.

Is the music for you, because it’s in your head, or is it to elicit a certain audience response?

For me, it’s in my head. I want the audience to respond to it, but it’s like a color for your painting, and it’s not going to be the right painting until you get that color. And it’s very useful for these children, because I’m sure they must instinctively feel through the music that a climax is coming, and I’m hoping they also feel expansive as the music goes up.

The Lonely Loch Ness Monster and a mermaid friend, 1980.

You also use music by Dmitri Kabalevsky for The Circus and Sebastian and by Paul Dukas for The Sorcerer’s Apprentice—plus you did The Lonely Loch Ness Monster with composer Natasha Ghent.

What happened was, at the Christmas party at Greenwich House, where we were doing puppet shows, I met Natasha Ghent—coincidentally, the mother of Westbeth’s Valerie Ghent—who was teaching an orchestra class there. We got to talking, and I asked her how she found music for her students with whatever instruments they happened to have. She said it was very difficult, that mostly she composed it. And I said, If you could compose it, I could write a story that would go with your instruments, and maybe we could do music and puppets. And she was very excited about that. So she told me what the instruments were, and then I put a story together: the trombone was the Lonely Loch Ness Monster, the Scratch family trying to catch him were a bunch of violins scratching, and there was a bird that was a flute or something. And we did it at Greenwich House for a bunch of performances. Then because of a connection, we got to do it with the Brooklyn Philharmonic Orchestra at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

In The Lonely Loch Ness Monster, there’s no dialogue.

I narrate. The narration is like an instrument weaving through the orchestration. The music, the puppets, and I are all interlaced.

I don’t see a lot of puppet theatre, so I don’t know whether it’s usual to have music with a puppet play.

In a lot of shows, puppets come out and sing and dance with music. Kind of nightclub acts. But that’s different from what I’m doing. What I’ve been doing is more like a ballet, or an opera, where the music and the singing and dancing are there to tell a story.

Natasha Ghent and I created The Lonely Loch Ness Monster, and she composed the score to fit the story. But usually the music comes first. Early on, when I was working with Larry Berthelson on children’s productions for Lincoln Center, we were given music scores to create puppet ballets of Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella and puppet operas for Mozart’s The Magic Flute and Manuel de Falla’s Master Peter’s Puppet Show. We had to make huge puppets suitable for the Philharmonic Hall stage. For a school tour, we used a tape instead of a live orchestra. I wove together the music of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade with stories from The Thousand and One Nights into a puppet pantomime fantasy Arabian Nights, narrated by a Scheherazade puppet with villains, heroes, and heroines.

Since then, I’ve done puppet operas with my own company. And if all goes well, [singer/composer] Eve Zanni and I are going to be creating a musical puppet pantomime for the Westbeth children’s music festival on September 22.

Penny and the Queen of the Sea from Arabian Nights, 1968.

Will that be a puppet opera, or a puppet ballet?

A ballet.

Is the ballerina from The Circus and Sebastian going to be in that?

No. They’re going to be all new puppets. I can’t mix and match puppets.

So they’re in their own show, and that’s it. It’s not like Kermit being in different scenarios.

Well, the dog Toby does, but he’s always Toby. There’s one character—on my website, there is a clip of a puppet show from the film Paradise Deranged by Edith Stephen. Remember the announcer in it? I made her about fifty years ago as a demonstration of how a puppet can lift the head. I was going to do a workshop in rod puppets. She could lift her head by a string pulled from behind. And I never did really finish her. I put a little red velvet something on her. I was going to make her more carefully when I got the job of doing that workshop, but no job like that ever came. So she was always in a drawer, until it came time for this show, and I was looking through my puppets to see who could be a narrator for this. I didn’t want to spend the time and money to make another one, and here she was. So I picked her out, and she became a star after all these years.

Let’s go back to audience participation. You’ve talked about the games and the flowers at the end of The Magic Forest.

When I was designing Peppi and the Pop-Up Dragon, my 12-foot pop-up book, which I miss because we haven’t done it this year, I thought, How can I include children? I didn’t want them coming up and doing things with the pop-up book because it’s too fragile, but they could be the sound effects. So I wrote the story with as many different sound effects as I could think of that the children could do.

You wrote in an article for the Puppetry Journal [“A Tale of Survival,” spring 2005] that incorporating participation in your productions leaves you somewhat vulnerable if you don’t have a responsive audience.

One time when we were at Greenwich House and doing a show, we had three nursing mothers—actively nursing—we had an 8-year-old girl and a couple of toddlers and somebody from the New York State Council on the Arts. So we had to address all our engagement to this 8-year-old girl. At first she was answering, and after a while she pulled back, and the performance sank like a lead balloon.

One reason that we decided on the five-dollar admission instead of higher was that I would rather have more people and less money than the other way around because one child is less likely to destroy the audience connection when he’s balanced by a lot of others. And why we like to go to the South Bronx on tour is that there’s always a guaranteed audience. And we know that if there is an audience, they will love us. We will be good. They are our partners.

Geoffrey Jones as Jack the Pied Piper, with Toby, in Mother Goose Tales, circa 2000.

The day I saw Toby’s Silly Tales in the Westbeth Community Room, you didn’t have a lot of people, but there were some kids who were just enthralled by it. Are you able to take that away, that there were five kids there who had the best time?

Geoffrey is able to do that in that show because he is out front. He can see them. In the back, I can’t tell.

When the children left, I could see their faces were glowing. I think you didn’t hear this because you were behind the curtain, but in his introduction for The Brementown Musicians, when Geoffrey said Toby was going to play the part of the dog, one kid yelled out, But he’s already a dog! What more could you want than total belief in the puppet? It was so touching.

When you’re out front.

Do you have an alter ego among your puppets? A special feeling for one of them?

No. I miss shows when they’re not here, like children. And when we haven’t done a show for a while, it’s as if I haven’t seen a child for a while. And that’s why I’m bringing back some of these shows. It’s the whole show that I care about more than any puppet because I’m the creator of the whole show.

Can you talk about the materials you use for your puppets?

I use a lot of recyclable materials. I use foam. I like foam a lot because you can cut it and shape it. I use Styrofoam. I used to use Celastic. It’s a material that when it’s wetted by acetone is very effective. It dries very quickly, and you can shape it. But puppeteers’ lungs have been burnt out by it, so they don’t use it anymore. I use papier-mâché—that takes longer.

What is Toby made out of?

He’s made out of fake fur. And I got that design from an article in a magazine years and years ago from Sesame Street. It was the pattern of a fox, but I made it into a dog.

You have wonderful animals in The Brementown Musicians—the donkey, the rooster, the cat. The other puppet that’s so darling is the ghost in The Magic Forest. What’s the head made out of?

A bottle top.

You use materials like plastic bottles in your education program.

I use materials that children can use. Somebody said they can look at somebody else’s show and enjoy it, but it has nothing to do with their real world. And they can look at our shows, and they can see materials they’re familiar with, and they can imagine, I can do something like that.

In the Puppetry Journal article, you wrote that you moved into education for financial reasons, to have a steady income.

But it didn’t work out that way.

It didn’t? You seem to be constantly working.

It worked out until the economy tanked, and they didn’t have the loose money for the arts. Then I thought, Well, I’ll become a teacher—not realizing that the teacher market also would disappear.

On your website, it looks as though doing education work in the schools opened up new vistas.

I loved it. It was all on educational grants, which people in the business of education got for me. And also I lived near District 1 on the Lower East Side, which is where I was getting most of the work.

Do you see a crossover between the performance work and the educational work? For instance, the big pageants with the children and the shoebox shows.

I don’t even see it as a crossover. I see it as all together. The big pageants required me to be there in the school lots of days with the children and bring lots of materials. I maintained one little link with an administrator who would have me come back after I moved to Westbeth, and I thought I’d develop the shoebox shows. My original idea for them was that the classroom teacher would get the point and would start making shoebox shows of stories that her kids loved, and then she would act them out. I deliberately made the figures to look like anybody could make them. They weren’t masterpieces of art. What I had realized was that in this day and age of television, children have a hard time just listening to a story. When I was young, they could listen to a story. But later on, they needed something to look at. It didn’t have to be beautiful. It didn’t have to be much. They needed to have something to focus their eyes on. I thought the shoebox show would have these little things you focus on. And then they’ll be open to listening, and they’ll imagine. They have wonderful imaginations. They’ll imagine that the princess looks beautiful and all these things. So my own fantasy was this shelf full of shoeboxes instead of books. I made some of them, and I have used them from time to time. That’s been mainly what I have been doing with schools since then.

Can you tell me about a highlight or special moment of your career?

There was a moment right in the beginning when Larry Berthelson and I were doing maybe Magic Flute, giant rod puppets, in Lincoln Center. Larry was a nervous wreck; it was his company. I was perfectly calm, cool, collected. As we walked out onto the stage, and there were thousands of people, I thought, Yes, this is the right setting for what we have. This is appropriate.

But I have to say that right now, for what I am doing with little children in our repertory season, the Westbeth Community Room is pretty perfect for what we need—light, airy, a clean floor to sit on, movable chairs, curtains to block off different sections, an area for strollers, room to run back and forth in, and all just a courtyard walk and an elevator away.

And there are other moments—when children tell me how much they love the show. I was once stopped in the street by a boy. He asked if I remembered him and told me he was now in junior high. He said two years ago he had been a giraffe in Noah’s Ark, and he wanted to know if I would be coming to his new school because that had been the most fun all year, and he wanted to be in another show. And that keeps happening.

(To see video clips of Penny’s shows on her website designed by Geoffrey Jones, go to

Credits: Penny Jones and her puppets—photo by Carol Rosegg; flyer for The Circus and Sebastian—Geoffrey Jones; Penny and the Queen of the Sea—photo by Charmian Reading. All courtesy of Penny Jones.

Profiles in Art, Copyright 2013 Terry Stoller and Westbeth Artists Residents Council

Contact Penny Jones Early Childhood Theater here
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