At the National Air and Space Museum, we tell stories in a number of ways — through objects, artwork, lectures, videos, planetarium shows — even puppets. Storytelling through puppetry can be a powerful educational tool for our youngest audiences in particular. Puppets have the ability to bring stories and objects in the Museum to life. Young children are concrete learners; they learn through direct experiences. Using puppets in the Museum is a wonderful way to engage young audiences.
We are thrilled to host a return engagement of “The Wright Brothers: A Musical Play,” a show using shadow puppets, hand puppets, wide mouth puppets, human arm puppets, and live actors to bring to life the story of Orville and Wilbur Wright and the world’s first successful, manned, heavier-than-air, self-propelled flying machine. The show’s creator and founder of Rainbow Puppet Productions, David Messick, has been a professional puppeteer for 35 years. He was inspired by his childhood love for Captain Kangaroo, the Muppets, and musicals.
Originally created in 2003 for the 100th anniversary of the Orville and Wilbur Wright’s first flight, the show has undergone revision to add more interaction with the audience. David hopes that the show leaves the audience curious and inspired to learn more. “I always try to work into the script something that is in the Wright Brothers gallery that is not in the show,” says David, “the puppet show gets children thinking, laughing, having a good time — we give them just enough to get them excited to go upstairs and see the real Wright Flyer and the objects that are integral to the Wright brothers’ story.”
Young children today live in a world where aircraft and spacecraft are everywhere. How was David able to take the story of the Wright brothers, who invented the airplane more than 100 years ago, and make it meaningful, and relatable, to young audiences? He recalls “having a dream as a kid, flying, like Peter Pan flying… what a cool feeling that would be. I remembered that feeling of curiosity and wonder. This is the heart of the story. So I created a scene in which Wilbur tells Orville, ‘can you imagine what it would really be like if we could fly like an eagle?’ We even have the puppet leave the stage and soar over the audience.” That curiosity is something that all young children can relate to, and it makes events in history become more real.
There are many themes in the story of the Wright Brothers that are important life-lessons for young children and adults alike. While the puppet show teaches children the simplified physics of flight through a whimsical song, “Power, Lift, Control,” more than that, the show illustrates the importance of scientific discovery, curiosity, and trying, and retrying, again and again.
Success in anything, from engineering to teaching, comes from testing and retesting whatever it is that you create. David knows this lesson very well, saying that when developing the Wright Brothers puppet show he had to try again and again until he got it right. “At some point” he says, “you have to trust yourself, just like the Wright brothers”.
Lizzie Cammarata is an early childhood program specialist at the Mall Building.