Costume designer Cari Smith gets into puppet making for Theater Works’ production of ‘Children of Eden’


Based on part of the Book of Genesis, Children of Eden is about family relationships, deep love and dealing with the pain of letting go. This month, Theater Works Artistic Director Chris Hamby and Musical Director Jennifer Adams present this 1991 musical from John Caird and Grammy Award-winning lyricist and composer Stephen Schwartz (Nasty, the hunchback of Notre-Dame de Paris, Delighted) back on stage with 42 actors, dancers and singers, talented decorators, musicians and… puppets! So when the quest for a unique puppet ensemble began, this prolific costume designer expanded her repertoire. We sat down with Cari Smith to pick her brains out on the many facets of puppet making.

What prompted you to make puppets?
I am first a professional costume designer, mainly for large scale musicals. But first I started making costumes for children’s theater. As two crazy best friends, Chris Hamby and I started Vagabond Youth Theater in the late 1990s. We produced a few shows like The Honorable Urashima Taro which required puppets to animate the sea animals. Necessity is the mother of invention… so I made puppets! A few years later, Chris asked me to build some rod puppets for Theater Works Puppetworks. I’ve been building them ever since.

How did you learn?
Sewing was the first step and if I go way back… in 7th grade I took home economics and we made stuffed animals from a kit. I think that’s where my ability to turn something two-dimensional into something three-dimensional started. But my real education in puppet making from a real pro was working on Avenue Q, Jr. for Theater Works Youthworks. Chris Hamby brought in David Stevens, a remarkably talented and seasoned puppeteer and puppeteer from Atlanta, who mentored me through the process. I still use his processes for rod puppets today. I also evolved into other styles of puppetry. With these, I research a variety of possible creative and sculpting methods, then boldly embark on experimentation.

How long have you been making them?
It’s been about 10 years now.

Do you work exclusively with Theater Works or do you make puppets for other theater companies? If yes, which ones?
I have produced puppets for Childsplay, Valley Youth Theatre, Stray Cat Theater and Phoenix Theater as well as other corporate and private commissions. Some of my favorites are the Woodland Rabbits for Childsplay’s Rudolph the red nosed reindeer and an adorable set of blacklight aliens for Theater Works.

What types of materials do you use?
My materials vary depending on the type of puppet. Mainly upholstery foams, closed cell foams, thread, paint, thermoplastics and fabrics. Creative elements go into the decoration…spoons and buttons for the eyes, beads for the teeth, yarn and fur for the hair. Many puppets I created were for black light shows. Thus, all fabrics used had to be UV reactive or were painted with UV reactive paints.

Are you also a puppeteer? If yes, in which production(s) have you played?
I am not a puppeteer. I’m just a creator of things. I rely on my puppeteers and performers to inform me of adjustments and modifications to improve their handling.

What happens to the costumes and puppets after the productions end?
Puppets tend to be stored. Theater Works has a closet full of my work. Theater Works reuses some puppets or remounts a show, but I think it depends on the shows. Maybe one day they will be displayed somewhere. Even if, sometimes, especially [with] rod puppets, some are meant to be disposable… after a long show with a hot sweaty hand, it’s kind of like an old sock or shoe that can’t be washed… you can only lysolate them.

You can discover more of Cari’s work on carismithdesigns.com.

Production of theatrical works of Children of Eden runs June 10-26, 2022 at the Gyder Theater in Peoria. Tickets are available at theatreworks.org/events/coe or by calling 623-815-7930.

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