Puppets teach students about hunger 9/25/08

Show kicks off a yearlong school program

Sept. 25, 2008
By Tim Simard
Observer staff

Accompanied by eclectic jazz music and a flurry of puppeteer hands, inanimate objects came to life on the big screen for students at Williston Central School. But the art had a message, as well.

Observer photo by Tim Simard
Los Angeles-based performance artist Dan Froot talks to students at Williston Central School about his puppet theater production, ‘Who’s Hungry.’ The three-act puppet play tells the story of southern California’s homeless and hungry citizens.

During an assembly on Thursday to kick off the school’s community-oriented program, “Good Citizens, Good People, Good Learners,” students in grades four through eight were treated to a multimedia presentation by performance artist Dan Froot.

Froot, based in Los Angeles, is the creator of and performer in a show called “Who’s Hungry,” which uses puppet theater to tell the stories of three homeless people. The show will appear at Burlington’s Flynn Theater early next month.

But Froot’s performance at the school wasn’t an average puppet show. Though he does perform the show live, at Williston Central Froot showed a video of puppeteers commanding inanimate objects to create lifelike characters and an emotion-fueled story.

In addition to showing a video of the show to students in the Williston Central auditorium, Froot also talked about what it means to be hungry in America and how important it is to recognize the less fortunate in the country.

Froot said hunger and food insecurity is a nationwide problem, in cities and rural areas. He praised the students for being a “part of the solution” in learning about the complex issues behind hunger.

“That’s the most powerful tool — knowledge in putting an end to it,” Froot told the audience.

Finding out who’s hungry

Froot, an actor, dancer and artist, has been working to make puppet theater a form of entertainment for children and adults. While looking to do a new project, he visited homeless shelters in the West Hollywood streets of southern California.

The shelter Froot focused on has been giving out 120 hot meals every night for the past 20 years. In doing research, Froot volunteered at the shelter for two years and befriended many of the area’s needy.

“There’s an incredible diversity between the food insecure people we worked with,” Froot said, referring to people who can’t afford food on a regular basis.

He began taking an oral history of three homeless citizens by conducting 10 one-hour interviews. He took their stories and, with fellow performer Dan Hurlin, wrote three one-act puppet plays. “Who’s Hungry” is the result.

At the school assembly, Froot talked about one of the plays, which tells the story of Sandy and her faithful dog of 11 years, Sharryll. Sandy lives in a van with her dog and has no job or money, but hopes to one day work in elder care, he said.

“We wanted to portray this beautiful and intimate relationship they have together,” Froot said.

The students watched the play “Eight Days Without a Dog,” which told the story of when Sharryll went missing and Sandy’s frantic search to find her. All of the puppets were designed using items found in California’s popular 99-Cent Only stores, which Froot said is Sandy’s favorite store. For instance, Sandy’s puppet was comprised of a pair of kid’s binoculars, ribbons for hair and children’s flip-flops for feet. A small, puffy shower scrubber represented Sharryll.

Froot said the other puppet plays look a lot different from Sandy’s story, and focus on more adult themes with what he calls “gritty” storylines.

Good citizens

In going to Froot’s presentation, students at Williston Central also collected non-perishable food items for the Williston Community Food Shelf.

Williston Central School Principal Jackie Parks said she hoped Froot’s presentation, as well as the students’ work in raising food and money for the food shelf, would bolster a community connection. She hopes the work with the food shelf will be an ongoing, long-term partnership, starting with the “Good Citizens” program.

“We wanted to educate about hunger here in Williston, because it certainly exists,” Parks said. “To understand is a great first step.”

Parks said the three-part, yearlong “Good Citizens, Good People, Good Learners” endeavor will promote citizenship with students. Students will gather during Thursday’s morning meeting times to continue to work and learn about the community. “Good Citizens” will be the fall focus, with “Good People” and “Good Learners” following in the winter and spring.

“Who’s Hungry” will be performed live at 8 p.m. on Oct. 2 and at 5:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. on Oct. 3 at the Flynn Center. For tickets, call the Flynn Center for Performing Arts at 863-5966.