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Students and faculty performing in the Staples Family Concert Hall

Peter and the puppets

Art, music, theater combine for an unconventional performance of Prokofiev classic

Contact: Emily Stulz

It took more than musicians and a narrator to perform Sergei Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf” during the Powers Woodwind Quintet spring concert.

A group of nine students led by Nicole Graziano, assistant director of Central Michigan University’s University Art Gallery, spent months preparing to share the musical tale in a different way: with shadow puppets.

"Puppetry is such an interesting art form,” Graziano said. "It’s not always considered traditional theater or fine art by theater and art critics and popular culture, but we as puppeteers understand it to be both, and both at the same time.

While earning her Master of Fine Arts in Puppet Arts degree at the University of Connecticut, Graziano watched some of her classmates perform “Peter and the Wolf” with the Boston Pops Orchestra. This inspired her to work with CMU faculty to create the opportunity for students.

“I offered it as a workshop in three chunks, to highlight as many skills of our students in College of Communication and Fine Arts as I could,” Graziano said. “Because puppetry is an interdisciplinary art form, it really lends itself to being a collaborative project, highlighting all the different schools and programs in the College of Communication and Fine Arts.”

The first section of the workshop included designing and building a crankie — a box with a cutout opening in the front. A scroll is situated within the opening, rotated by cranks to change the scenes.

Product design engineering technology student Richard Bigford, from Mount Pleasant, was heavily involved with creating the 9-feet-wide-by-6-feet-high crankie. He refined rough sketches with a computer-aided-design program.

“I was able to 3-D model it and lay out what we actually needed to cut,” Bigford said.

Next came the scroll. Measuring 5 feet by 4 feet, the scroll held 43 panels painted by a separate team of students.

“My favorite part was coming in and seeing the progress other people made on their sections,” said Hannah Shoemaker, a theatre major from Otesgo, Michigan. “I also got to see how other people work and learn better ways of progressing through the project.”

In rehearsal, yet another set of students practiced moving their acrylic shadow puppets inside the crankie, to music by the quintet and narration from music faculty member LaToya Lain. 

Puppeteer Emily Swierzbin, a studio art major from Midland, Michigan, said she’d never done anything like this show before and was excited to step outside of her comfort zone.  

“We can make wonderful things when we collaborate,” Swierzbin said. “Even though some people were from other disciplines, we were able to come together to create something awesome.”

The single performance of “Peter and the Wolf” took place April 8 in the Music Building’s Staples Family Concert Hall. Graziano and the students hope its success means a possibility for more puppetry at CMU.

"I would definitely participate in other projects like this,” Shoemaker said.

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