creation story: Heidi Rugg 

Puppeteer and Puppet-maker

What she does: Rugg stages original puppet shows for families and children. She considers puppetry to be the perfect medium to combine all of her interests — visual arts, working with her hands, theater and storytelling. Rugg performs most shows alone, although her husband, Sam Rugg, has been helping her with the business full time for the past two years.

How she got interested in puppetry: Rugg went through a host of visual art majors at Virginia Commonwealth University before landing on puppetry as a possible career. A summer trip to the Atlanta-based Center for Puppetry Arts and a puppet festival in Minnesota turned her on to the possibilities within the medium. She left school and began apprenticing under a puppet-maker in Silver Spring, Md., who created puppets for television and video work. Rugg also honed her performance skills by working in a magic shop in Washington, D.C. In 1996, she moved back to Richmond to work toward creating her own puppet theater.

Where she performs: Rugg began her career on the birthday-party circuit, doing magic shows. She next branched out into puppet shows for day-care centers. Today, she performs all along the East Coast, presenting shows in schools, libraries, children’s museums and theaters. She estimates she has done more than 200 puppet shows during the past year. Between February and April she performed in nine states.

How she creates a puppet show: “First, I have to come up with a script,” she says. “All of the puppets are built off of that.” Rugg spends a lot of time reading to figure out which stories work best for puppetry. Most of her work is based on world folktales and traditional children’s stories. She creates a script outline, stages scenarios and decides what type of puppet will work best in the show — either hand puppets, rod puppets, hand-and-mouth puppets, or object-based puppetry.

She next creates sketches of what the puppet will look like and thinks about how it will function. “I really prefer to figure out which movements are most important to that character and focus on making those movements really well,” she says. For her newest show, “The Little Bread Hen,” she created about six puppets. While making them, she played around with different voices to help each puppet find its personality. Next comes set-building, rehearsal and, finally, the show.

What she uses to make the puppets: Hot glue, craft glue, fabric, latex, plaster, foam rubber, plastic plates, a drill press and a compound power miter saw are just a few of the things Rugg regularly uses in her studio.

What makes a successful puppet show: “A show is only successful if your audience is responding the way you want them to respond,” Rugg says. “… If your audience doesn’t get it, you need to go back to the drawing board. You can have great puppets, great music and a great set, but if the audience doesn’t stay with you during the show all of your work has been for naught.”

On the challenges of performing for children: “There are a lot of things you can’t have any control over,” she says. Cranky children in need of a nap don’t always make the best audience; nor do children who are hyped up on sugar. “But the bigger your audience, the easier it is,” she says. “Children model their behavior on others. The smaller ones watch the older ones and a group consciousness develops.”

— Jessica Ronky Haddad


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