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Packing a Punch 

Nancy Sander shares her life in puppet showbiz.

Puppeteer Nancy Sander, who has been performing around Cleveland for the last 29 years, has a bone to pick with the late Jim Henson. To her way of thinking, Henson led people to believe puppets were made only to entertain children, which puts a crimp in her style, since her puppet "troupe," Puppets With Pizzazz, is designed to entertain adults as well.

"Henson did such a darn good job at puppets for preschoolers that everybody began to think puppets were for preschoolers," she explains. "Then he tried to fix it with The Muppet Show and The Dark Crystal -- he realized what he'd done."

But Sander admits that Henson alone isn't to blame for what appears to be the demise of her specialty: Punch and Judy shows. A more adult style of puppetry largely unchanged since the 17th century, Punch and Judy focuses on the trials of domestic life, depicting Punch as a disgruntled man who thinks everyone is out to get him: the government, his wife, his kids.

"The problem that you have with Punch and Judy is the political correctness," Sander says. "So many people are against the murder of a wife or throwing the child out a window -- I mean, come on, they're puppets, honey!"

Now relegated to performing the shows only at Renaissance fairs and other anachronistic events, where it's acceptable to behave as did the savages of days gone by, Sander also sees a softening of Punch and Judy within the various puppetry guilds she belongs to.

"In effect, it's castrating this wonderful bit of history," she says. "Although I do many of the tamer routines around Christmas -- things that won't be offensive to the poor little things."

Sander rotates a core of four productions, including Punch and Judy and Jack and the Beanstalk; she will perform the latter this weekend at the Cuyahoga County Public Library in Chagrin Falls. She writes all her own scripts and makes all her own sets and latex puppets.

"It keeps me pretty busy," Sander admits. She got into the art after her daughter did a puppet show in second grade and then started performing backyard shows with a friend. When her daughter's friend quit, Mom came to the rescue with her son. "We were a family group for a bunch of years; then they dropped out, because they were going to college, and I stayed in."

Running the show by herself introduced her to the Punch and Judy style of puppets, which are hand puppets with nonmoving mouths. "I used to use mouth-moving puppets, but you really need two people to do that; otherwise you just have one puppet standing there talking, and that's not what puppetry is about."

Being solo also means none of her staff argues with her. "Every decision is mine," Sander says. "Anyone that disagrees with me goes right back in the box."

Speaking of Highlights

More by David Powers


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