By Holly Iwasaki
For 17 years, Mid-Pacific’s Middle School Theatre Teacher Coco Wiel has guided hundreds of middle school students through the exploratory method of performance. Part of her instruction includes learning the different movements to develop a character; how to walk, stand and move to bring out different personas. Regardless of the student’s experience level, Wiel’s expectation is production-quality acting and stagecraft.
“Rehearsal is an essential part of the theatre process,” Wiel said. Students work through their glitches, fears, anxieties, and as the weeks go on, the roles start to solidify, and you begin to see the confidence build.”
A unique talent Wiel brings to the middle school program is her gift of visualizing and creating homemade puppetry for every play. Wiel’s productions have a reputation of including beautiful puppets and headdresses, transforming each actor into a distinctive character.
“Puppetry adds a dynamic to a production that you’re not going to experience any other way unless it includes puppets,” said Wiel. “Image if the audience is watching the ‘Odyssey.” What is the ‘Odyssey’ without a gigantic cyclops puppet? It’s not going to tell the story if it’s just an actor with a fake eye on stilts.”
Including puppetry adds another layer of time and difficulty to each production. Still, it is worth it to Wiel because she can teach different acting skills and include more students in the theatre process.
“I used to create all original puppetry for every production I directed,” she recalls. “But over the years, students have taken an interest in puppetry, and as they moved up to high school, they would return to help me create new pieces. It brings out the students who are interested in doing this art form, and who want to be a part of the theatre world.”
Over the years, Wiel has collaborated with middle and high school students to create a dazzling collection of puppets; gargoyles, birds, frogs, and dragons. It is not uncommon to create new creatures from existing ones. In the 2021 fall production, “Around the World in 8 Plays”, frogs and pigeons headpieces received embellishments and became dragons and bluebirds. A stand-out figure was a striking electric blue carousel horse made from gum wrappers.
“We created a carousel of animals for a production a few years ago. It took three high school students to complete each animal using different shades of gum wrappers and paper mache,” said Wiel. “One student documented the puppets he created with me, including the carousel horse, and got accepted to the University of Connecticut — one of only two universities offering a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in puppet art.”
Wiel is the only theatre instructor who incorporates puppetry in her annual productions. However, she knows it adds difficulty to her show because of the additional time to create or update puppets and teach students how to act and operate the figures during the play. The pride and confidence students develop from being a part of a serious production is the reward.
“In middle school, the benefit of theatre is the students growth,” explains Wiel. “They discover things about themselves that comes out only when you participate in theatre. Theatre is all about emotions and creativity. Being able to tap into that, it allows the students to express an emotion they might not have an opportunity to express outside of a theatre.”