Brooklyn's Puppetworks theater thrives on strings and a prayer
Longtime Park Slope establishment successfully crowdfunded more than $5,000 to keep shows for special needs students affordable.
Behind a heavy red door on Sixth Avenue and Fourth Street in Park Slope, some 50 kids sit in a small room painted in bright colors.
Puppeteer Michael Leach tested the children on a crash course he gave the gathering of special needs students alongside his small, strung-up co-star.
"What are these kinds of puppets made of?" Leach asked.
"What makes them move?"
"And what are puppets with strings called again?"
Thousands of children from across the five boroughs have walked through the red door into Puppetworks — founded more than 35 years ago —and watched wooden characters come to live thanks to a small crew of devoted puppeteers and staff.
The theater recently lost a New York State grant it relied on to provide discounted tickets for special needs children, like the ones in front of Leach on Thursday. The change forced them to crowdsource $5,000 to replace the grant.
"We needed to help offset the loss," said Leach's fellow puppeteer Jeremy Kerr. They exceeded the goal by more than $400.
Between the three puppeteers and five staff members, the troupe puts on a show at least twice a day, every day of the week. The productions rotate every so often and feature a cast of marionettes that have been around Puppetworks longer than some of the puppeteers.
"Beauty and the Beast" was on Thursday's marquee, though the total15 productions include"Alice in Wonderland," "Goldilocks and the Three Bears," and "The Wizard of Oz."
The theater's founderNick Coppola, who launched the nonprofit in 1980,still makes all the costumes for the marionettes, and helps tend to the wooden cast.
Leach joined Puppetworks 25 years ago, and said the years haven't always been easy. Superstorm Sandy didn't damage the theater, but it did put a halt to trips from elementary and middle schools when New York City’s school bus operators' central office was flooded.
Not a year later, a month-long strike by the school bus driver union occurred. Leach said that was a close call. Even so, the theater's popularity among the city's schools manages to keep the theater's door open.
One teacher at the performance who bused 25 students from Shell Bank Junior High School in Sheepshead Bay estimates she's brought some 500 kids to the show over the years.
"The kids are always entertained," she said. "It's always a different show every time we come, and every time they do a great job."
Despite the issues that creep up over the years, all tribulations are worth it for Leach.
"Ten percent of the work is a headache, but the office worker or the mailman don't get applause for their work. We do, a couple times a day," he said.
As Thursday's performance came to its climactic end, both the beauty and the beast took a bow. The curtain closed to loud applause when they suddenly opened once more to the marionettes nuzzling, maybe even kissing.
"Ew," some of the kids shouted.
But the claps continued.