Wallis Annenberg PetSpace entertains and educates with weekly puppet shows
By Bridgette M. Redman
Education gets tricky when teachers and learners can’t be face to face, but a pandemic-length pause is too long for children to go without it.
Wallis Annenberg PetSpace, a community space that features interactive pet adoptions, an education center and a leadership institute, set high priorities for two things once the pandemic started.
One, they wanted to continue uninterrupted their youngest friends’ learning about human-animal relations. Two, they wanted to avoid laying off their employees by tapping into their creative abilities. The result? PetSpace Pals puppet shows offered live on Thursdays at 4 p.m.
It’s a project that all of the guest experience team got involved with, getting to use skills they had developed elsewhere such as writing, designing puppets and acting. And while the show provides entertaining and interactive educational content to children, it also ensured that all staff kept their jobs and used their creativity to help PetSpace work its way through the pandemic.
Artists create weekly shows
Three key artists were John Patron, Eric Diaz and Jolie Santos-Ramsey, all of whom are guest experience specialists for PetSpace. Together, they started creating weekly puppet shows with three special virtual events called Pawlidays, Palentine’s, and Reduce, Reuse & Rescue! An Earth Day Celebration.
Parton has a background in documentary filmmaking and screenwriting, which has helped him create scripts for Pandemic Pals. At Northwestern University, he earned a degree in radio, TV and film, working for NU Radio Drama. This gave him the skills to voice the puppets.
Diaz is a costume designer and puppet fabricator with over five years of film experience ranging from live-action science fiction to stop-motion animation, along with more than six years of gallery exhibitions of fabric sculptures. He designed and hand crafted all of the PetSpace Pals puppets. He also writes some of the scripts and performs multiple puppets.
Santos-Ramsey is a screen and stage actor who loves working with kids and cute animals. She performs puppets and contributes to script development.
“We were all trying to continue our individual passions outside of PetSpace,” Parton said. “I write a lot and wanted to keep using my writing muscle. Eric is a puppeteer and costume designer. Jolie is an actress. We thought each could continue our individual passions while still helping out at PetSpace and finding some small fun in the midst of a very scary time.”
From concept to screen: PetSpace pivoted quickly
The weekly series came out of a brainstorming Zoom call between the staff and the director, Donna Fernandes.
“It was initially her idea,” Diaz said. “I had made some puppets and I was showing them off in the huddle when our team got together. We were brainstorming how to connect with kids and our guests that we couldn’t see.”
Parton said they were looking for a way to continue their goal as a community education partner.
“Prior to closing our doors, we were heavily involved in field trips and a lot of education,” Parton said. “At the beginning of the pandemic, we wanted to not only stay relevant, but fulfill the educational mission we had prior to COVID and the shutdown.”
Santos-Ramsey said that the majority of their workdays involved working with children, teaching them empathy with animals. When the pandemic hit, the world became a scarier place for children.
Diaz made the first two puppets — a cat and a dog — in less than two days so they could get the first show on. There are now 12 puppets. It caught on fast and they had big audiences from the beginning.
They began workshopping the shows in mid-April, pursuing plans to have the show be both interactive and educational, not just another screen that kids sat in front of.
“We played around with a couple different things,” Santos-Ramsey said. “Sometimes we’d have trivia to see if they were listening — usually they would know more than us. We like to have open questions so the puppets will stay in character for up to 30 minutes. Our arms are dead by the end of it, but we do like to have that component. We wanted something that would engage their minds.”
One popular component was when they would have dance breaks. They said that typically the entire family would join in and they would have a Brady Bunch wall of 40 kids with their families all dancing and having fun with the puppets.
“Just seeing the joy on the kids’ faces — we made a gif of a girl dancing so hard. Just watching it was 20 seconds of pure joy and we captured it,” Diaz said. “It was really beautiful to be welcomed into (the viewers’) homes. They really do respond to these plush creatures.”
The characters include such puppets as Angel Cat, Charly the Cockatiel, and Wilbur the Hound Dog.
“Sometimes I will get stuck in the voices,” Diaz said. “While getting ready I’ll talk like an Old Texan or a spirited Australian wild child or a diva.”
“We do get attached and feel responsible for our characters and our connection with them,” Parton added.
The cast holds rehearsals over Zoom for four days a week and then performs the show on Thursdays. The scripts usually focus on the kinds of things they would do live at PetSpace: how to approach a dog, how do you keep your pet safe in the summer, what food is OK for cats and dogs to eat. They also would teach fun facts such as how long snakes can grow.
“Most of the things were things I would say in the space, but we turn it into a plot,” Santos-Ramsey said. “They are all things we care about a lot and we do it in a way kids can understand.”
Wallis Annenberg PetSpace has now reopened but the puppet shows continue. They have people tuning in from as far away as Florida and Canada. The three artists encourage people to check out the show.
“It’s a really fun experience and I’m glad we can bring that to the world,” Santos-Ramsey said. “There aren’t a lot of other things like it. We talk a lot about the human-animal bond — that doesn’t have to be your pet. It can be a dog on the street. It’s about treating animals with kindness. They don’t have a voice like we do. Even if you don’t own a pet, you can still love them and support them. The puppet show is a great way to start.”