In a small theater located in the children’s section of the Nashville Main Library, rabbits dance on stage. A saxophone and a clarinet croon to one another. A cat with a slinky for a torso inches around while a marionette of Duke Ellington invites the audience to feel the beat.
This is “Ellingtown” — an original show by Wishing Chair Productions.
For close to a century, the Nashville Public Library has been bringing books to life through puppetry. And today, the puppet troupe is more alive than ever.
One mom, Rachel Pritchard, brought her two toddlers. They stood, open-mouthed, swaying to the music for the duration of the show.
“They obviously love it,” Pritchard said. “It’s like perfect for them.”
The library’s puppet troupe performs about seven times a week in the theater, and their puppet truck brings shows all across Nashville, like to schools and senior centers.
Bret Wilson, the program manager for Wishing Chair, says that the puppet shows are a way to draw families into the library, which he says is ultimately “built for them.”
“We want kids to, of course, continue to feed that curiosity and to get more into, you know, the stories and the artists — whatever we present,” Wilson says.
Wilson has been with the Wishing Chair team since 2006, but the library’s puppet program has been building long before that. It dates back to the 1930s, when puppeteering luminary Tom Tichenor began performing at the library as a teenager.
Then, in the 1990s, the library expanded the program into what it is now.
“That’s kind of how it started, because we would wheel all these sets and beautiful puppets down the hall and then the first graders – they would see, like, ‘What’s that?’” Wilson explains. “And then the second graders: ‘We want to go!’ Third graders: ‘Like we want to see it too!’”
There’s no doubt why kids are entertained. The show is filled with moving sets, shadow puppets and singalongs.
It’s a work of art. That’s no surprise, considering the Wishing Chair team is an ensemble of multiple talents. Nearly every member is involved in all aspects of the show — from writing the stories, to recording vocals, to creating the puppets, to performing the shows.
“We’re creating the costuming, we’re painting, building the sets, the puppets,” Wilson says.
And he hopes that this innovation is something that audience members can be inspired by.
“We talk to the children about being able to use everyday materials,” he says. “You don’t have to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to make a saxophone.”
That singing saxophone? It’s made out of a Big Gulp cup, a yogurt container and a juice bottle. Umbrellas are used to make jumping frogs, and slinkies are used to connect two sides of a cat.
Wishing Chair’s puppet collection numbers well over a thousand. That includes Tom Tichenor’s donated collection of around 450 puppets and the new characters created by today’s team.
It’s this creativity, Wilson says, that kids connect to.
“When you use that imagination and you can see it and you can smell it — kids, they just tend to believe instantly,” Wilson says. “And the puppeteers, we just fall into the background and let them have that opportunity.”
After 30 minutes, Duke Ellington bids farewell to the audience, saying, “I think I’ll take the A-Train. So long now!” And kids continue to clap, dance and maybe even check out a library book about him.