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How we created ‘The Search for Teddy Island’

Date published: 11 Nov 2020

Posted by: Alison Denholm

Puppet show performers

City Arts created the family friendly puppet show ‘The Search for Teddy Island’ in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. With arts venues closed, we wanted to bring real life theatre to people in a COVID-safe way. The show was aimed at children aged 2-5 and their families.

Teddy bear puppet in a garden
Photo by Jo Wheeler

Supported by Small Steps Big Changes, we toured the show to doorsteps, parks and gardens in St Ann’s. In this article, the Teddy Island team reflect on creating the show…

Creating the central character

By Bryony McCombie Smith

We wanted to create a character that any child could relate to – something to create a universal connection. We settled on a teddy bear. A teddy is something that most children own, or at least understand. We chose to make the bear genderless, never referring to ‘he’ or ‘she’. All of these choices were designed to make ‘Bear’ as relatable as possible; a blank canvas that children could project their own feelings and emotions onto.

Teddy Bear Puppet
Photo by Jo Wheeler

Bear needed to be tangible, so we made them the size of a real teddy. In the story, Bear is lost without a home. To communicate this I made the puppet a little scruffy. Bear had a scuffed nose and a wonky smile. This grounded them in the story and added to the character’s lovable nature.

A story with a message of wellbeing

By Sarah West-Valstar

We wanted our show to be entertaining and engaging, a story that would inspire creative play. It needed to be simple and accessible to all.

The first lockdown had been an intense experience. We were aware that children would now be returning to childcare, or places like nursery. With the show, we wanted to help children and families to identify, understand and express the anxieties they felt about this. We chose to incorporate some simple, but effective, calming techniques into the narrative. Controlled breathing, sharing feelings with others, and focusing on a single sense all appear in the story.

It was the first theatrical performance some of our children have experienced. What a great first memory for them to hold onto. Grace has been talking about “poor 🧸” who was “lost” ever since. Plus the mindfulness skills taught within the performance have already been applied. “Calm bird breaths …”

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The story is traditional. Our hero sets off on an adventure and meets characters along the way that shape their journey or outlook. Children that we know love treasure maps and adventures, so we decided a journey across the seas would be appropriately exciting and magical. Puppets are uniquely fun and enchanting. They are ideal for telling a simple story, or sharing a universal message, while keeping the atmosphere light and playful.

Performer holding Teddy Bear Puppet and Treasure Map
Photo by Jo Wheeler

It all came together surprisingly easily. The COVID restrictions for performing (masks, safe distances etc.) gave us lots of opportunities to think creatively. They helped us keep it simple and focus on being engaging.

On the road with Teddy

By Izzy Hollis

Taking Bear out to peoples homes was a brilliant experience. Each show was performed to an individual family or bubble, so it involved a lot of traveling. To aid this, we made it so the whole show could be packed into a suitcase, a basket and one bag. Teddy’s entire adventure fit into the boot of a car!

Search for Teddy Island puppet show today on our doorstep. 🐻 It was so special and Elijah really enjoyed it from start to finish he had a smile on his face and danced to the music. We loved it thank you so much @cityartsnotts!!

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Touring to so many different spaces meant that every show was unique. It was exciting for the kids in our audiences: something completely new happening in a familiar space. The weather kept us on our toes. Wind blew the set in every direction and rain threatened to drench us. However, it was worth it to see the joy on the faces of our audience.

Teddy bear puppet on a doorstep
Photo by Jo Wheeler

Storytelling and Soundscapes

By Lauren Kinnersley

The show features a spoken narrative and sounds to tie the action together. Normally, as a storyteller, children’s attention is focused on me. For Teddy Island I needed to take a different approach, one where my words drew their attention to the puppetry. Throughout the show, I communicate directly with Bear, not the audience. I clarify Bear’s emotional responses verbally, and describing their unfolding adventure. At times, I inhabit the characters Bear meets on the journey, speaking as a whale, a fish and a bird.

A bird puppet
Photo by Jo Wheeler

The soundscape is central to the performance. We identified a focus on sound as a key wellbeing outcome. Certain sounds can be used to de-escalate strong emotions. Sound was also important for communicating Bear’s emotional landscape. For example, the sound of the thunder drum captures Bear’s fear during a perilous time on the stormy sea.

Lauren Kinnersley holding a lyre
Photo by Jo Wheeler

My Steiner training puts emphasis on using music in early years education. We wove a song through the performance, to represent when Bear confidently goes forward in exploration and adventure. I used a lyre as accompaniment. The instrument has the ability to create special moments of attention, engagement and magic.

COVID-safety on Teddy Island

By Alison Denholm

For most of the year now we have been encouraged to stay at home, so taking work directly to people’s houses felt like logical step. We chose to perform on people’s doorstep to maintain a safe distance between the performers and our young audience.

Masked puppet show rehersal
Photo by Jo Wheeler

We put lot of thought into the risks, for both the performance and the rehearsal process. The team formed a ‘bubble’. The two puppeteers, who on occasion were less than two metres apart, wore masks. Our narrator, Lauren, was always two metres from them and the families.

Social Distance Puppet Show
Photo by Jo Wheeler

We made sure we thought through every little detail, creatively and practically. Between each stop everything was wiped with disinfectant. Hands were regularly sanitised. If any children got excited and joined in the show, the set was wiped down too. A strong, early emphasis on making the show safe gave us the confidence to get out and entertain.

Watch ‘The Search for Teddy Island’

Streaming free on Youtube, this film of the show was made by Melvin Rawlinson and recorded in the City Arts garden.

A filmed performance of ‘The Search for Teddy Island’