A Passion for Puppetry

Written by Stephanie Gordon

On a snowy November evening, my husband and I watched our two daughters giggle at a screen of acting shadow puppets inside McNamara Rehearsal Hall. With a rather large audience in attendance, these handmade puppets reenacting Spanish Golden Age theater captivated each audience member with smiles, laughs, and applause. New Assistant Professor of Spanish Dr. Jared White brought his puppetry troupe, Dragoncillo, to the stage for the Hillsdale community to experience, most likely for the very first time. 

According to its founders, Dragoncillo is a puppetry troupe dedicated to imaginative, bilingual storytelling that educates while it entertains. The troupe is composed of four university scholars from across the country, specializing in Spanish Golden Age theater. On Friday, November 12, Dr. White, Dr. Yancey of Grand Valley State University, a founder of Dragoncillo, and several students of Dr. White performed Second Hands and the Ladies’ Man, based on plays written by Spain’s Francisco de Quevedo.

“One of the most rewarding things I’ve done in my career is Dragoncillo,” said Dr. White. “And to be honest, I never thought I’d be doing this.”

Dr. White first experienced Golden Age theater as an undergrad at Brigham Young University.

“At the time, they were developing a Golden Age theater program at BYU,” said Dr. White. “I didn’t have any acting experience, but I really wanted to participate. They ended up casting me in the role of the gracioso, which is kind of the funny guy in the play. From that moment, it took off, and I absolutely fell in love with Spanish theater.” 

But Dr. White’s introduction to Golden Age theater didn’t necessarily come easy.

“At the end of my sophomore year, I was a clinical laboratory scientist, and I would do all of these analyses,” said Dr. White. “Eventually, I went to work in a hospital, and it was a bit of a mid-life crisis for me where I realized I wasn’t doing what I wanted to do. I took my minor at the time, which was Spanish, and pushed it up to my major.”

Dr. White went on to get his master’s degree from BYU and wrote his thesis on a 20th century playwright, Antonio Buero Vallejo. After obtaining his master’s, he received his doctorate degree from the University of California, Irvine, with his dissertation focusing on a 19th century Spanish playwright.

Soon after, Dragoncillo was founded in 2018. 

“I had a friend who was the director of a play during my undergrad years,” said Dr. White. “He said he was really interested in creating a puppetry troupe. I said ‘yeah, absolutely.’ Since then, we’ve performed in Texas, Iowa, Michigan, North Carolina, and even Austria for a puppet conference.” 

But before the shows could begin, the puppets needed building. According to Dr. White, the original method of puppet building was incredibly painstaking and time-consuming. Building the puppets began with a drawing. Once the drawing was ready to go, the image was printed. After searching for the right material to use, Dr. Yancey landed on ABS plastic and acrylic materials because of their durability and ease. Contact paper was then applied to the plastic, with the printed image adhered to the contact paper. Dr. Yancey then cut every piece of the puppet by hand with a jigsaw, followed by sanding edges. Dr. White said the original process would have cost a few fingers, too.

In 2020, Dragoncillo received grant funding, and were able to purchase a 3-D printer, which now makes the building process much simpler.

“Now all it takes to create a puppet is to make a sketch, digitize it, and program that file into the 3-D printer,” Dr. White said. “After 3 (or so) hours, we have the puppet printed on very durable PLA plastic and, after maybe half an hour of assembly, the puppet is complete. As an added bonus, we can replicate the puppet as many times as needed with a simple click of a button and a little assembly.”

Dr. White went on to say that the best audiences for Dragoncillo are usually elementary and middle school students. At these ages, students are able to connect with the puppets and can appreciate all that they do.

Some of my best memories are going to these schools with these kids looking at us strangely when we come in, and by the end they’re smiling and laughing,” Dr. White said. “Those elementary students are really so generous in their kindness.”

Dr. White explained a bilingual audience is also ideal, but it absolutely doesn’t need to be that way. With the subtle inclusions of Spanish throughout the shows, Dr. White and its founders hope that it will intrigue the students to want to learn more about the Spanish language.

One of Dr. White’s goals is to expose Spanish Golden Age theater to the Hillsdale community. He’s doing just that with performances on campus and in the local schools.

“I know this is a largely non-Spanish speaking community, but that does not mean we cannot do the performances for the kids or at least inspire them to learn what Spanish is all about,” Dr. White said. “If I get that spark to hit early, it will light a fire for them later.”

To learn more about Dragoncillo, click here.

Stephanie Gordon, a lifelong Hillsdale native, is the Managing Editor of the Student Stories Blog. She is married to chiropractor, Dr. Matt Gordon, and has three children – Eloise, Flora, and Jack. When she has a spare moment, she enjoys paleo baking, floating on Baw Beese Lake, and breaking a sweat at the gym.

Published in December 2021