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Sam Hunt’s Puppets

Even though playwright Liz Bussey Fentress had actually performed a puppet show with the circus, she initially resisted making puppets part of Liz’s Circus Story, her play about her experiences. “I wanted the play to live on its language and didn’t want to bring in what might turn out to be a ‘gimmick,’” she explains. However, on the first day of rehearsal for the stage production at Horse Cave Theatre, the tiger puppet from her circus days seemed to roar to her from her basement. “I had tried not to impose any of my stuff on the show, but I decided to take the puppet to rehearsal. I showed it to director Robert Brock and told him the puppet had demanded to come. That turned on Robert’s imagination.”

puppetEventually three puppets—the tiger, an elephant, and a horse—became part of the show. The puppets used in the stage production were based on the sock puppets Liz had used in the circus. But for the television version of the play, Liz and KET director Vince Spoelker wanted more elaborate puppets. And for the tiger puppet, they wanted a more dangerous look.

They turned to Butler County High School visual arts and humanities teacher Sam Hunt. Since he had designed the set for the Horse Cave Theatre production, Hunt was familiar with the show. And when he and Liz had worked on a production of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, he had created Styrofoam puppets of each character.

He based the Liz’s Circus Story puppets on that model. To create the tiger puppet, he glued 3-inch sheets of Styrofoam together to form a large block, then puppetsculpted a tiger’s head using scissors. He added foam pieces as needed to finish out the expression; for example, he enlarged the tiger’s eyebrows to give a scowling effect. Finally, he sealed the glued foam with matte medium and painted it using an airbrush. The tiger’s mouth is hinged on a pencil. (Watch our puppet video clip to see the finished puppet and how it compares to the version Liz used on stage.)

To create an elephant’s trunk that would move, Sam covered a section of 6-inch-diameter aluminum dryer vent with foam. He put pieces of wicker down each side of the trunk so that Liz could bend the trunk by pulling a string under a wheel in the back of the head. “Before I added the foam, the trunk would curl all over the head and under, but adding foam stiffened it a bit,” he says.

Sam participated in the television production in another way as well. After rehearsing the new, shortened script, Liz gave a performance for Hunt’s students at Butler County High School—some of whom remembered seeing Franzen Bros. Circus when it toured Western Kentucky.

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