Puppets animate the action of Maybe Something Beautiful

Puppets are always a big hit with children, and they don’t need to wear masks or practice social distancing. So it was a natural choice to make them the stars of Maybe Something Beautiful, the next Once Upon a Symphony program.

A production of the CSO's Negaunee Music Institute, Once Upon a Symphony is a 45-minute multimedia and interactive concert for 3-5 year-olds that weaves together live music, vivid storytelling, sets, costumes and images created by the Chicago Children's Theatre.

“Something that puppets do really well is that they ask the viewer to use their imagination. You fill in some of the blanks and believe that these objects are real and alive, and I think that’s stuff kids are really good at," said Will Bishop, director of production for Chicago Children's Theatre. He also serves as the show’s puppeteer, along with Miranda Betancourt. "For children, imaginative play is a huge part of their lives, and it is really how they understand the world.”

Maybe Something Beautiful is an adaptation of the award-winning book by F. Isabel Campoy and Theresa Howell, and illustrated by Rafael López. Based on the history of the Urban Art Trail in San Diego, Calif., this bilingual tale of artistic and social transformation follows Mira and her neighbors as they discover how the use of color can enliven and change their community.

The project began as a 13-minute video in the CSO for Kids series last season and now has been adapted for live performances scheduled for Jan. 8 and Feb. 12. Jacqueline Russell, artistic director of Chicago Children’s Theatre, and Jon Weber, director of the Negaunee Institute’s school and family programs, served as co-directors.

CSO musicians, including Keith Buncke (principal bassoon) and David Griffin (horn), supply the accompanying music. They perform a group of selections, including Miguel del Aguila’s Quinteto Sinfónico, José-Luis Hurtado’s Son de la Bruja and Astor Piazzolla’s Libertango (arranged by Jeff Scott).

To create the hundreds of 2- to 4-inch-tall paper cut-out puppets for Maybe Something Beautiful, Bishop relied heavily on the illustrations in the original book by Rafael López. He started with high-resolution versions of the art and manipulated them via the software Photoshop, sometimes zooming in on parts of the works and segmenting them. Next, Bishop printed out the resulting images onto card-stock paper and cut them out. Then, Jeffrey Paschal, CCT's director of photography, helped bring them to life via his lively camera work. “Essentially, we reassembled Rafael’s original images as these kind of moving tableaux with these paper puppets,” Bishop said.

The result is a fusion of animation and puppetry. “It’s that interesting thing,” Bishop said. “Where’s the line?” The fusion can be compared somewhat to centuries-old art of shadow puppetry, but it comes closest to the toy or paper theaters that first appeared in the late 18th- and early 19th centuries — elaborate, mass-produced miniature replicas of popular plays that people assembled at home.

One of the challenges has been assuring the program “flows organically” from moments when the viewers follow the puppets and to others when they watch CSO players and get lost in the music. “It’s really important to see a lot of the musicians, so kids really understand that this is music that is being played live," Bishop said. "It’s not just underscoring. It’s really shaping the entire piece.”

The program, however, does not stop there. Along with the music and visuals is an important third dimension: the words. The goal, Bishop said, was to weave all three elements into a lucid, comfortable balance. The script was assembled by narrator Jasmin Cardenas, a Chicago actress, bilingual writer and storyteller who has been seen at such area companies as the Steppenwolf Theatre and Teatro Luna. 

Cardenas used a bilingual adaptation of Maybe Something Beautiful in which she fused the English and Spanish versions, with each language jumping in and out of the other. “It is very easy to understand, whether you are a monolingual Spanish speaker or a monolingual English speaker," she said. "Almost all of it is translated in some way.”

Although the video marked Cardenas’ first time as a narrator, many of her storytelling techniques also were applied, such as injecting the words with energy and dynamism. “The story needs to come alive vocally as well,” she said. “The music is bringing it alive, and the puppetry visually is bringing it alive, and the vocal story that is being narrated also needs to bring in the forward movement of the story."