One-Of-A-Kind Performance at RCC

Wednesday, April 23, 2014
The mean troll is confronted by Tuff Gruff during Bits 'N Pieces Puppet Theatre's production of "Three Billy Goats Gruff' Monday at the Rector Community Center

A world of fantasy and imagination mingled with real life creativity and top flight production Monday at the Rector Community Center as the renowned Bits 'N Pieces Puppet Theatre returned to the area. The special presentation, made possible by the Clay County Arts Council and its generous sponsors, served as an entertaining delight for area students. Elementary classes from Rector, Piggott, Corning and Greene County Tech, along with Art students from Piggott and Rector High Schools, attended the unique production of "Three Billy Goats Gruff." Around 700 children and adults attended the two performances Monday.

The production flew off the stage through the combination of three styles of puppetry and stunning black light effects.

Likely the most eye-catching style is the use of three large nine-foot tall puppets which the performers wear through harnesses attached to their backs. The harnesses allow the puppeteers to balance the large creations, while inner controls are used to bring the puppets "to life," allowing the puppets' mouths, eyes and even tongues to move on command. These large puppets truly stand out on stage, adding to the fantastic premise of theatre through their sheer size.

Bunraku, a traditional Japanese form of puppetry, was represented through the use of one of the productions smaller puppets, Bluff Gruff. Bluff, the youngest of the three goats in the story, was roughly the size of an actual goat and achieved a full presence on stage through bunraku's element of masking the puppeteer's presence by wearing all black clothing and remaining in shadow.

One of the oldest forms of puppetry, shadow puppets, was utilized throughout the story's introduction and transitions. This style remains popular throughout the world due to its relative ease in terms of production, and serves as a way for young creators to share their imaginations.

The three styles blended together seamlessly through the efforts of Bits 'N Pieces stars and creators Holli Rubin and Jerry Bickel. Rubin does much of the design work for the theatre's puppets while Bickel handles the bulk of the writing duties. The two work in harmony on stage and behind the curtain, crafting a show which at first glance would appear to require several more participants to bring to the stage.

Bits 'N Pieces works to adapt each of their productions in order to complement the types of studies and curriculum utilized in elementary classrooms across the United States. The group focuses on presenting classic children's stories, providing positive reinforcement through the onstage portrayal of life lessons while appealing to young viewers through the colorful characters and elements of fantasy. "Three Billy Goats Gruff," through its portrayal of the bullying troll and the determined goats, motivates young viewers to remember that nearly any problem can be overcome.

Bits 'N Pieces Puppet Theatre tours not only the United States, but also has brought delight to crowds in Hong Kong, Japan, Singapore and Taiwan and other areas through international tours, in addition to regular shows at the PuppetWorld Playhouse in Tampa Bay. "Three Billy Goats Gruff" is in the midst of its United States tour and will visit other countries soon, though Bits 'N Pieces has toured around the world with its other productions, including "Aesop's Dinosaur Fable," which appeared in Rector last spring.

"We like working with fairytales because they translate well," Bickel said. "These stories have been around for so long, there's a familiarity that's built in. When you go to Japan, they know Aesop. The spirit of the story remains true wherever you are."

Bickel retains a sense of wonder which creates a bond between the talented writer/performer and his young audience.

"I saw my first (puppet) show in the second grade," he said. "It was "Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves. I was fascinated by it. I knew right then I wanted to do that. Nothing had sparked my imagination like it before. I was the same age as a lot of the kids here today when I saw something that influenced me through all the years since. When I work on writing for our shows, I think back to those early impressions and try to create something like that for the kids in our audience."

Bickel was very complimentary to the Clay County Arts Council and its founder Gail Burns for their efforts in supporting the arts at the local level.

"That (CCAC) is such a wonderful thing for your community to have. They have been fantastic to work with, and you can tell they are very passionate about providing for and supporting the arts here. A lot of credit to Gail Burns for her work with the schools. I know in our experience alone, she does an outstanding job with the kids before each performance and has them excited beforehand. We've had two great audiences here today."

Bickel also made note of the efforts to improve the Rector Community Center in the year since Bits 'N Pieces first visit, pointing out the improved lighting and facilities at the center.

Bickel and Rubin announced their show for next season, "Rip Van Winkle," noting the story is a representation of an early American fairytale. Burns hinted a return of the talented performers to a warm reception from the young audience, even suggesting a puppet workshop may be in store to allow students the opportunity to show their creative sides.

Bits 'N Pieces returned to the area through a collaborative effort between the Clay County Arts Council and a group of very special local sponsors. Area businesses which contributed to the performance included Centennial Bank of Rector, First National Bank of Piggott, Glen Sain, Graves Gin, Inc., Piggott State Bank and Rector Downtown Drug.

"We're so grateful to these sponsors for their support," Burns said. "It's because of local businesses like these that we're able to offer events like this in our communities."

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