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Exodus 13-20

Actually...

Actually you can use this puppet theatre for any Bible passage at all. It all depends on what the puppets want to say. At St James Muswell Hill our two puppets - Josh and Sarah - were the children of Israel, and they helped with our all age worship series on Exodus.

Puppets

We bought our puppets from One Way UK, a company that is run by Christians and helps churches to spread the gospel through the use of puppets.

They have a huge range of human, animal and even flower puppets, of various sizes. Their web site has puppet scripts and music and all sorts of puppeting accessories. And they run courses all over the UK to teach you how to be a good puppeteer.

If you can't get to a course there are some tutorials on YouTube - search for 'One Way UK foundations of puppetry'.

You can, if you wish, be really ambitious. For example, YouTube has videos of Bethlehem Rhapsody - the story of the birth of Jesus told using puppets and a version of the old song by Queen.

Theatre

One Way UK will sell you a stage set and curtains to go with it. The curtains are black and very good at blocking the light - so you won't see shadows of the puppeteers. And the frame is made of metal tubes and packs down neatly into a bag that you can store away when you're not using it.

But that kind of quality comes at a price and, really, would you want to buy a ready-made theatre when you could spend ages making one of your own? Of course not.

Materials

Timber

First of all you need to pay a visit to PO Joyce's timber yard in Finchley. This is a marvellous place, run by really helpful men in long brown coats and with pencils behind their ears. They take your order in the yard, help you put the wood in your car and give you a bit of paper to take into the shop. There a man writes out a receipt by hand and stamps it 'paid' using a rubber stamp.

If you don't live near Finchley you need to find a place like PO Joyce in your town. Or, I suppose, you could move to Finchley, but that might be a bit extreme.

Anyway, this is what you need:

  • One piece of MDF 2440 x 1220. Or four pieces 1220 x 610, which will fit more easily into your car. I used 6mm thick MDF which gave a good depth of relief in the details, but it did make the proscenium arch quite heavy. 3mm would have been OK.
  • 15 bits of wood 44 x 20 x 2440mm long cut up as follows:
  • 2440mm long x 9
  • 1220mm long x 6
  • 915mm long x 2
  • 610mm long x 9

Things from Ikea

Ikea sell extraordinarily cheap curtains. They also have piles of little pencils which are just the right length for putting behind your ear, but for some strange reason nobody in Ikea does this. If you find the short cut you can avoid the long, long walk round the furniture departments, and if you go early in the morning you can avoid the long, long queues at the checkouts. This is what you need:

Bits and pieces

Then you need some things from a DIY store:

  • 6mm diameter bolts, washers and wing nuts x 16
  • Screws
  • No more nails glue
  • Self-adhesive Velcro tape 2.4m long
  • Yellow emulsion paint
  • Gold lacquer spray
  • A double pulley and a single pulley
  • Some string.
  • Two cheap door knobs.

And I bought a roll of desert backdrop - because Sarah and Josh were in the desert in Exodus. This came from Castle Hill Crafts via their web site.

What to do

Pray. God has given you the talent to build a puppet theatre, and you need to give him thanks. Or maybe he hasn't, and you need to ask for that talent.

Then, using the pdf scale drawing as a guide, draw out the shape of all the bits on the MDF. Cut them out using a jigsaw, cutting them slightly oversize so that you can file off the waste later. Wear a dust mask - cutting MDF creates lots of very fine dust.

Be very careful to cut the joints in layer 2 so that you get accurate right angled corners. I cut out the top piece and laid it on the next bit of MDF on the kitchen floor (the largest flat floor in our house). Then I measured 1200mm across the top and 900mm down the side and rotated the top piece slightly until the diagonal measurement was exactly 1500mm (a 3:4:5 triangle). Then I used the top piece as a template to mark the line of the joint on the other bit of MDF. Like this:

right angle

Next, you need to glue the layers together. Some of the edges line up and these will be filed down after the layers have been fixed together. Other edges need to be filed down before.

Roughen the MDF so the glue will stick better. Apply no more nails (other brands of PVA glue are available) and stack up the layers. Place the stack on a sheet of polythene on a level floor, and put a heavy object - I used my toolbox - on the top. After a minute or two remove the heavy object and wipe away the surplus glue that has squeezed out of the edges. Take a moment to appreciate the wisdom of that advice about the polythene, and then put the heavy object back.

No more nails usually sticks quite well after ten minutes or so, but I found that these stacks took a bit longer. I stood them up and leaned them against the wall, and some of the layers came apart. (I think it was probably because the MDF is not very absorbent.) So, leave the glued stacks flat on the floor overnight. They don't need the heavy weight on top all this time.

Fix the pieces of wood using countersunk screws, with a bit of filler on top so they are not visible in the finished article. You should end up with four main pieces, as in the picture on the right. Again, take care when you fit the screws that connect the four pieces to make the rectangular frame, so that the corners end up as accurate right angles.

The side frames are fairly straightforward. It is essential that the piece at the bottom sticks out in front of the theatre. Otherwise the whole thing will fall over easily: the proscenium arch, with all that MDF, is quite heavy and so the centre of gravity is very close to the front.

Fix the side frames to the proscenium arch using bolts and wing nuts. Attach the diagonals and the bits across the back in a similar way. It's a good idea to cut off the surplus ends of the bolts, and file off any sharp corners, so that people (or puppets) don't snag their clothes.

Paint the proscenium arch. I used:

  • MDF (or 'difficult surfaces') primer
  • Yellow emulsion paint
  • A coat of spray-on gold lacquer to give it a bit of sparkle.

It's curtains for you

Attach the curtain poles to the side frames and to the back of the proscenium arch.

The curtains at the side simply need to be cut to length. Fold the bottom over and fix it using the Ikea Sy hem tape. There are rings at the top of the curtains so they fit directly on the poles with no extra effort.

However, the curtains at the front are a different matter. First you need to cut them so the top half can be used behind the proscenium arch and the bottom half can be used at the bottom to hide the puppeteers. Fix two of the top halves together side by side using Ikea Sy hem tape, and then do it again for another top half curtain. Fold the bottom over and fix using more tape.

For the bottom part, again fix the pieces side by side and finish the bottom using hem tape. At the top the tape will not be enough - you need to pleat the curtains so that the total width is correct. Use a sewing machine to make the pleats permanent; also sew on a length of velcro (fluffy side). The velcro won't stick properly to the material, but the hooked part will adhere perfectly well to the bottom of the proscenium arch.

If you really like using the sewing machine - or if you think the hem tape won't stay stuck for ever (a reasonable concern) - sew all the joins and hems.

Work out where the person who opens the curtains will stand, and fix the double pulley near that end of the curtain pole. Fix the single pulley at the other end. Thread the string through as shown in the diagram. Remember to tie the outer ends of the curtains to something fixed.

Take it to the church

You will need to dismantle the side frames, and separate the proscenium arch into its four constituent parts, in order to fit the pieces in your car. VW Beetle recommended:

VW Beetle

It's best to remove the curtain poles as well, so you don't snag the upholstery of the car on them.

At the church, put it all back together. The best way to do this is to find a couple of church tables and lay the proscenium arch face down on them. Bolt the side frames and the bracing on, screw on the curtain poles, and then tip it all upright.

Hang the curtains - you'll need a stepladder - and sort out the string. Fix the backdrop using sellotape. It will tear when you move the theatre - just repair it with more sellotape.

Check the wing nuts every time you move the theatre - they tend to shake loose.

Can I borrow it?

Contact me via the about page and we'll talk about it. You'll need to fit in with St James's plans for using the theatre, promise to look after it and sort out the transport.

Sarah and Josh
Sarah and Josh - the children of Israel

 

Theatre and puppets
Dress rehearsal. Sarah listens intently to John's every word.

Cutting pattern
This is how to cut all the bits from four 1220 x 610mm (4ft x 2ft) sheets - or one 2440 x 1220 sheet - of MDF. All, that is, except for the two bits at the top, which have to come from offcuts you have lying around. You can download a pdf scale drawing.

Arch complete
This is the completed proscenium arch. The bits of MDF are stuck on top of each other in layers - 1 at the back, 6 at the front. Again you can download a pdf.

 

Arch layer 1
This is layer 1. The red lines are bits of wood.

Arch layer 2
Layer 2. Here the bits of wood are shown dotted because they are hidden detail (ie behind layer 2). I paid attention during those technical drawing classes.

Arch layer 3
Layer 3

Arch layer 4
Layer 4

Arch layer 5
Layers 5 and 6. The shell at the top is the symbol of St James. I do not know why, and nor does Wikipedia - all they say is that the French for scallop is coquille St. Jacques. Since I built the theatre I realised that St James's shell is usually the other way up. Ah well.

Arch sections
Assemble the pieces like this so that you can get them in your car. If you join them all together you will need to use a van.

Side frame  Side frame 2
Side frames, made of lengths of wood. The grey bits are offcuts of MDF, used as gusset plates to avoid fancy joinery. When you assemble the theatre the gusset plates should be on the left side of the left frame, and on the right side of the right frame. The bottom pieces of wood stick out to the front so the theatre doesn't fall over forwards. This diagram and the one below are also on a scale pdf.

Frame diagram
This is a diagram of the assembled frame. The bolts (with wing nuts) go in the places indicated with blue arrows. They are in the same place on the right hand side.

Photo unpainted frame front
This is the completed frame, painted with a coat of MDF primer, in our garden in February.

Photo unpainted frame rear
It's still February, and here is the theatre from the back. See how many bits of wood you can spot that aren't mentioned in my written description.

Curtain strings
How to arrange the curtain string. Pull the left hand string and the curtains open; pull the right hand string and they shut. Tie weights - eg door knobs - to the ends of the string to keep it tight. Thread only one string through the curtain loops so it doesn't become tangled with the one going the other way.

Photo theatre front
Painted, assembled, curtains in place and at St James's. Shortly after this I made the bottom curtains a bit wider so you couldn't see the side frames.

Photo theatre rear
And here it is from the back. There seem to be two hoovers in action, clearing up after me.

 

Desert island church by John Parker. Contact me via the about page. Text and images copyright © 2016 John Parker www.desertislandchurch.co.uk.