Nancy Smith, director and puppeteer for the Great Arizona Puppet Theater in Phoenix, stepped in front of the curtains and began to play a song on the piano. After explaining through song the importance of good behavior and reassuring the children that the scary characters in the play are not real, she retreated to the back to begin the puppet show.
Smith and her husband, Kenneth Bonar, performed “Little Red Riding Hood,” the same show the couple first directed and performed together in 1976.
Smith was raised in Germany, and her parents gave her and her sister a puppet stage in place of a TV. They spent hours playing with their puppets, Smith said.
“I never thought anything would come of it; they were just fun,” she said.
She went on to get her undergraduate degree in theater at ASU, where she realized that her passion lay in theater and art.
“There wasn’t a subject I didn’t like,” Smith said. “Theater makeup, directing, acting, it was all fascinating to me.”
She had the opportunity to direct “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” by Shakespeare, acted out by puppets, while attending ASU. She used this directing experience to get into the graduate program at Florida State University. There, she began managing children’s theater tours and working with a children’s playwright.
Bonar, whom Smith introduced to puppetry while they were students at ASU, began helping her, and soon after, they joined a touring puppet theater.
“I would waitress during the graveyard shifts, and he would work at gas stations so we could support ourselves,” Smith said. “That way we could still be in performances. We were young, we didn’t need sleep,”
They referred to themselves as the “starving puppeteers.”
After moving back to Arizona in 1983, the couple opened up the Great Arizona Puppet Theater. It is a nonprofit organization supported in part by the Phoenix Arts Commission.
The theater, located on West Latham Street near Margaret T. Hance Park, strives to instill good values in children through shows that carry a message.
Smith chose not to add twists to classic fairy tales during her shows because “with little kids, fairy tales help them learn to be better people.”
A story Smith did choose to change, however, was Cinderella.
“All Cinderella did was stay in her unfortunate circumstances and wait for something better,” Smith said. “And that something better happened to be a rich, handsome man. That’s not much of a lesson.”
Instead of the original plot, while the evil stepsisters are at the ball, Smith’s Cinderella decides to begin reading and make something of herself. Also, the Prince’s character is changed from just a “pretty face” to a shy man who chooses to read instead of mingle at the ball. When the two finally meet, their love of books and distinguished personalities lead to love.
Performers from all over the world come to perform at the Great Arizona Puppet Theater, said Connie Galeener, a solo puppeteer who has worked at the theater for two years.
The theater does whatever it can to help low-income schools. It created a program called “Reach Out With Puppets” that subsidizes tickets and buses for the schools.
Smith and the theater also put on shows at other locations, promoting things such as dental hygiene and land conservation.
“When you have something that you’re passionate about, and you have the means to express it, you do it,” Smith said.
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