The Wheelchair Puppet Theater

Making Puppetry Performance Accessible

There is much literature about making theaters wheelchair-accessible, but what about puppetry itself?

I premiered a prototype puppet theater mounted on a wheelchair on October 7, 2011, at The Grand Auditorium in Ellsworth Maine, as part of the Great Ellsworth Puppet Festival.

Shadow puppet theater mounted on a wheelchair

The frame was square aluminum tubing and aluminum strip, with threaded rod and plumbing clips to mount it to the chair. For this show I was performing with shadow puppets, so I used a screen of fabric. The screen (or "scrim") was thick white cotton twill stretched inside an arch of 3/16" fiberglass rods. A drape of black fabric printed with purple and gold abstract shapes drapes over the frame, with a cutout for the viewing screen. The light was mounted above and behind my head.

I used thick cotton twill because of my lighting style. I don't use a pinpoint source, which makes a cleaner shadow. I use a regular incandescent lightbulb, which diffuses the light over the whole screen, and doesn't create that bright spot on the screen, which I find distracting. I also like how the puppets are clearly shown when they are within 1/4" of the screen, and blur and disappear as they move away from it.

For this show, I went green and used a compact fluorescent lamp (CFL), which has the drawback of not being able to fade up and down. A big plus, though, was that it doesn't generate much heat, so I was able to use the reflector cone as part of the support for the overdrape.

Maine Arts Commission Grant

Sometime after this show, in 2013, I was awarded an Arts Visibility Grant by the Maine Arts Commission to build a more portable version that could be adapted for individuals. That same year, the Maine Arts Commission featured this grant at a national conference on arts and disabilities.

View a short video of the theater in use.

Photos of the original Wheelchair Puppet Theater

Click thumbnail to open and close larger photos

Wheelchair puppet theater left front View of theater showing mount to wheelchair View of the theater with lighting Assembling the puppet theater on the wheelchair Assembling the drape Kids watching Elmer shadow show Elmer fishing with a banana as bait Richard demonstrating Elmer fishing Richard demonstrating shadow puppets

The curtains parted, and this theater rolled forward to the front of the stage. The theater face was 6 feet wide and tall, and reached the floor. I couldn't see where I was going, but the theater techies put a white tape line up the center of the stage so I would stay straight and not roll off the front of the stage!

The prototype was meant to demonstrate the principle, but a downside of prototypes is that they're often put together at the last moment, and "refined" with duct tape and wire. This theater was no exception. The theater had to be mounted further from my seat than I anticipated, causing more stress on the threaded rods that held it up, so I braced them with wooden slats, which worked fine.

My friend Erik Torbeck of Frogtown Mountain Puppeteers said he felt like he was watching the first person walk on the moon. I am so honored to be able to begin this journey of puppetry accessibility.


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