Students pull a few strings

The constable character in this show is beaten with a stick and humiliated by main character Punch. (Michael Dorame )

Michael Dorame

Saddleback College is one of the only community colleges in California to offer a class in puppetry.

For seven years, instructor Diane Lewis has taught the one unit class.

Sitting at a large table, Andrew Green, 25, technical theater, carefully shaped his puppet’s head with a small scalpel-like knife as he explained how the class was working on finger puppets for the “Punch and Judy” production.

“Punch is a violent, violent man, that likes beating people up,” Green said. “Punch beats up his own wife, his own baby, his own dog.”

“Punch and Judy” is an intensely violent puppet show that’s been around since before the Victorian era. Mr. Punch and Judy his wife, who don’t get along, are the main characters in the traditional comedy.

Throughout this play the squeaky specking main character punches, hence the name, many of the other puppets.

Punch also lays the smack down, swinging his famous stick, on his doctor, the local constable, and his neighbor, whom he decapitates in many versions.

“Puppetry is coming back,” Green said. “Punch is a character that people love to hate, or at least they like to see him beat up.”

The type of puppets used in “Punch and Judy” are finger puppets, but they aren’t the only puppets students have created in the course. Last semester they were constructing marionettes, which are operated using strings.

Green said it takes about eight or nine layers of paper-mache, which has gone through something like 40 or 50 used coffee filters to construct the puppet’s head by using a mold.

Other students, in addition to constructing the puppets, actually give them life on stage.

“I’m not sure if I’m going to do a squeaky voice,” said theater major Diana Campos, 21. “There’s a special tool called a swazzle.”

A swazzle is a special device with which puppeteers can produce the squeaky voice belonging to the belligerent Mr. Punch.

This is her third time taking the class, and she said it has added to her endeavor to gain knowledge encompassing all types of theater.

The instructor, Diane Lewis, opened an old puppet-design book, as she spoke of the influence puppets had in her childhood.

“I’ve been into puppets from a very early age. When I was four, my dad read to me from the traditional version of “Pinocchio”, which was the volume printed when he was a boy in 1924,” Lewis said. “I’d save up all of my allowance so I could buy clay.”

She even joined girl scouts because they had a badge in puppetry, though she never got the badge, and would often check out books from her school library about how to make puppets.

Lewis said nowadays children spend much of their time on the computer, watching TV, and playing video games. “They are not creating, they’re not coming to grips with their own ideas and ways of expressing them,” Lewis said.

She talked about how puppetry helps promote creativity in children, and how it has its place in both teaching and psychology.

On the subject of physiology, she said, “Sometimes I tell my classes that if they took some of these people in mental institutions, who are always having conversations, and gave them puppets, they could just put on puppet shows for people, and maybe that would be a socially acceptable way of dealing with the fact that they have very active imaginations.”

Regarding the “Punch and Judy” puppet production, Lewis said, “The traditional “Punch and Judy” shows are very politically incorrect. Punch is kind of a psychopath; he kills his neighbor by striking his head off, and then he kills his baby by dropping it out the window, and when his wife complains about that, he does away with her.”

With all the allegations of misconduct by Punch the puppet, various opportunities for reply were given, however all attempts for an interview went unanswered.

Lewis said students ranging from ages 18 to those in their late 60’s have attended the class, representing a wide array of skill levels.

“Sometimes people come in with nothing but a love and desire to create,” Lewis said. “In the future if people want to take the class, there are no prerequisites; anybody is welcome to come.” 

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