Ben Snead has spent several decades mastering the art of puppetry, and through Le Chat Noir, he wants to pass on his knowledge and his puppets to the next generation.
Matagot’s School of Stagecraft and Puppetry will be June 19-24 with two sessions – one for children 8-12 years old and the other for teens 13-16 years old. The deadline for registration is June 11.
Snead’s interest in puppets began while a student at Georgia Southern University working on a degree in therapeutic recreation. He did some public recreation work at Hilton Head and worked with a group called Angela Beasley’s Puppet People in Savannah, where he learned how to make puppets. He spent many years working at Gracewood State School and Hospital as a recreational therapist working with adults with disabilities.
“The highest functioning adults at Gracewood had severe cerebral palsy,” he said.
They were non-verbal and often confined to wheelchairs, but they could communicate through body language or a bliss board, which allowed them to make words and phrases. The board, however, was slow and tedious. A five-minute conversation could take 45 minutes, he said.
He decided to use his interest in puppetry to help them.
“We wanted to adapt recreation and leisure for these individuals,” he said.
He received a federal grant to help. He hired an electrician to create a system to allow them to operate the puppets’ mouths with the push of a button.
The shows had three different stages in operation at one time. When the curtain went down on one, the curtain went up on another. They even took their shows into the community.
“It blew me away on the self-esteem they got,” he said of his performers. “And there was teamwork. They knew if something went wrong, I could push their button.”
To be part of the puppetry program, they had to go through an audition to see how well they could lip sync the puppets. The audition included a counting song, the Pledge of Allegiance, a song that had a chorus that repeated and a song with a lead and a backup.
Over the years, Snead went to numerous puppet conventions to learn as much as he could about the craft. Puppeteers are generous people when it comes to helping others interested in the artform, he said.
At one national convention, he met Jim Henson, creator of the Muppets.
“I took one of mine, a PVC wheelchair with the puppet mounted on it. It was crude,” he said.
He also had information on the program he was doing with Gracewood.
Henson had just released the 1982 film Dark Crystal, and there were several of his puppets from that film on display. Snead said Henson’s workmanship was “magnificent,” and he was in awe.
To Snead’s surprise, Henson was impressed with Snead’s work and the program he was doing at Gracewood.
“Henson was looking at mine (puppets) the same way I was looking at his,” he said.
He received a couple of grants from the Henson foundation.
Through his work at Gracewood, he met Keeter Valdick, and they formed Ben and Keeter’s Puppets.
The duo did bunraku puppetry, a traditional Japanese style of puppetry involving life-sized puppets with the puppeteers wearing black.
Their puppet company took their shows into schools, libraries and museums. They sometimes did corporate events.
Snead said they used their shows to teach, but they were also fun and interactive.
“If we said ‘it was a Dark and stormy night.’ We’d take a squirt gun and squirt water,” he said.
They adapted the Kenny Rogers’ song The Gambler to talk about paper airplanes because you have to know how to hold them and how to fold them. And they threw airplanes into the audience.
Snead said the best compliment he ever received was from a mother who said her 2-year-old sat mesmerized for 30 minutes because he couldn’t take his eyes off the puppet show.
Over the years, Snead has slowed his puppetry down. He made some puppets for the Augusta Players for productions such as The Little Mermaid and Seussical. But he’d like to see puppetry flourish in Augusta once again.
“I wasn’t doing shows. I was doing bits and pieces – a story with a puppet,” he said. “I want to donate my puppets in hopes of getting a puppet program going.”
Krys Bailey, of Le Chat Noir, said he’d like to see that happen as well. He hopes this summer could be the start of a puppet program through the theater.
Although Le Chat Noir has made its name for theater that’s not meant for children, Bailey said he’d plans to add shows that are made for kids.
Prior to the puppetry camp, Bailey is bringing in the Tanglewood Marionettes for two shows on June 17. The group will perform Cinderella at 11 a.m. followed by Hansel and Gretel at 6 p.m.
Charmain Z. Brackett, the publisher of Augusta Good News, has covered Augusta’s news for 35 years. Reach her at email@example.com. Sign up for the newsletter here.
Support local journalism: Local stories on local people, organizations and events. That’s the focus of Augusta Good News. And you don’t have to go through a paywall to find these stories. An independent voice in Augusta, Ga., Augusta Good News is not funded by a billionaire or a large corporation; it doesn’t have celebrity reporters who have agents. It’s local people who are invested in the community and want to tell its stories. You can support local journalism and help us expand our coverage by becoming a supporter. Through Ko-Fi, you can give once or set up a monthly gift. Click here to learn more. Thank you!