Lesley Smith is huddled in a tiny sound booth ready to record a few puppet voices for her first internet page. It is dark except for a small ceiling bulb that exaggerates the deep crater pattern in the thick gray foam that surrounds her. She has only a microphone and works without a script.
"All set, Lesley?" the engineer asks from the control room three doors away. He has been gliding levers and adjusting dials as she counts backwards. A gentle, somewhat timid voice comes from two large speakers on the engineer's console.
"Sorry. I just need a moment to myself," she says. "It's kinda spooky in here."
"Take your time," the engineer says into his microphone, and then it begins. At first just a murmur. There are two voices, maybe three coming from the speakers. The voices grow louder and more distinct, arriving and greeting each other by name.
"Hey, Sammy man, howz ya doin? Itz me, Nanno, Nanno de wood nymph, man." A squeaky boy's voice responds.
"Wow! Hi Nanno. Are you speaking today too?" It's the mischievous little Sammy Snail who can easily galvanize a giant room full of TV-addicted grade schoolers.
The imperious Mrs. Biddle, everyone's least favorite third-grade teacher, arrives next and begins ordering the younger voices about.
And so it goes as a dragon, a lion, an elderly knight in armor, a British spinster arrive one by one until the studio speakers are filled with raucous chatter. They interrupt one another and (the engineer must be hearing things, he thinks) seem to talk at the same time. In the middle, struggling to keep order among the chaos, is the voice of Lesley Smith.
"Okay, okay, quiet. You'll have to go one at a time, please. And quickly, or we'll all run out of air and suffocate in this tepid little room." She pauses and the engineer resists an urge to run down the corridor and fling open the sound booth door, just to see if...nah. Lesley clears her throat loudly over the speakers.
"Okay, we're ready, : she says.
Twenty minutes and many voice characterizations later, Lesley Smith is looking over the menu at the Rusty Hammer next door in Portsmouth. All traces of puppet schizophrenia are gone.
"My father was in the Air Force," she says, anticipating the question. Born in England, Lesley had lived in Washington DC, Alabama, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Nebraska by the age of 10.
"I had a lot of friends," she says, then adds slowly, "but not for long. So I started to just, sort of free associate. I became a mimic. I talked too much, to anyone who would listen."
Teachers caught her daydreaming. "Some teachers resent children who escape so easily," Lesley says. "I started to wonder if there was something wrong with me."
Returning to NH to attend college, Smith put on the brakes. A voice she can't quite imitate called to her, and she stayed in the Seacoast. Her evolution from wailing rock bands to sophisticated swing was more accident than plan. She became a puppeteer when somebody loaned her puppets and a portable stage.
"I broke down and cried when he took them back," she confesses, but the kid connection was magical for both parties. She was hooked. Between stints of modeling, acting, and voice-over work, she always found her way back to children. Now with two boys of her own (Trey and Rowan), Lesley did the circuit, from playgrounds, schools and summer festivals, to libraries, parties and assembly halls. With as many as 67 shows in a recent three month stint, she still remains unflaggingly enthusiastic.
"I feel driven to make a difference, compelled to be a positive influence on children," she says without an ounce of treacle in her voice. This is Lesley the role model, ring leader to a circus of puppets that teach while they perform. Her dragon preaches against smoking. Her snail promotes the environment. Her wizard teaches self esteem. Her van transports the whole cast from town to town. The media has dubbed her "the woman with 1000 voices."
"I guess I just really like working alone," Lesley says, and then it dawns on her how crazy that sounds.
By J. Dennis Robinson
1. Be Smart--Don't Start
Exquisite giant size shadow puppets tell the tale of Nicky the Dragon who starts smoking because that's what dragons do! Students and teachers love this show no matter what their age! Interactive music, humor and drama cover every aspect of tobacco abuse and addiction.
2. Wizzards and Knights
Fantasy: K-4 & 5-6 or General audiences.
Celebrates books and reading.
Effects of peer pressure & put-downs
Giant sized dragon and lion puppets bring to life this inspiring adaptation of Elizabeth Winthrop's classic "Castle in the Attic". This show is packed with excitement, intrigue and humor. The audience plays a central role in encouraging our hero Sam and providing him with the support to discover his courage and worth.
Through puppetry we explore the damaging effects "put downs" and "bullying" have on our self esteen. This program does qualify for substance abuse funding and can be modified to address tobacco or drug education.
3. Mystery of Queen Lake
Fantasy. Decision Making.
K-4 & 5-6 or General audience
Audience involvement highlight this magical tale of intuition and self knowledge. A sightless woman of color is our heroine in this Medieval tale. Hilarious situations and enchanting giant puppets including a fish steal the show. The conscience or higher self has been a historic exploration for humanity. This production examines our relationship to "gut feelings" through symbolism and metaphor. An absolute delight for the youngest to the oldest audience member!
4. Peaceable Kingdom
("Peaceable School") Conflict Resolution
K-4, 5-8, teachers or General audience
Dynamic African drumming, theatrical puppetry and humor reinforce ways of resolving conflicts peacefully. The audience participates in how to de-escalate conflict in the opening songs with call and response, and sign language. Six students with self esteem issues are selected by the school guidance counselor and principal to perform with percussionist Neil Shilansky and Lesley in second half of program. They operate giant horse and dragon mask puppets and perform simple choreography. The puppet spectacle and the tension created by the drumming powerfully demonstrates how anger, fear and aggression escalate conflict. The finale reinforces through role play how to come down off the conflict escalator with "CAPS" (William J. Kreidler's ground breaking curricula on violence prevention for elementary and middle students).
FOR BOOKING AND INFORMATION:
Lesley Smith and The Theatre of Life Puppets
All characters and voice
characterizations ©1997 Lesley Smith,
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