How the Iowa Insect Pageant will use jazz and puppetry to bring entomology education to life

Ronna Faaborg
Ames Tribune
Amanda Petefish-Schrag, associate professor of theatre at Iowa State, demonstrates a puppet she created, which will be used in the Iowa Insect Pageant.

A puppetry extravaganza featuring larger-than-life bees, butterflies and other insects will be held Thursday and Saturday in Ames.

The Iowa Insect Pageant, a free event open to the public, will be held at 6 p.m. Thursday on the Campanile lawn on Iowa State’s campus and at Bandshell Park 2 p.m. Saturday.

The stars of the show will be large versions of some of Iowa’s smallest creatures. The puppets have been created by Iowa State students, faculty and members of the community.

As much as possible, the puppets have been made from recycled trash and other repurposed items.

The inaugural Iowa Insect Pageant will be presented by ISU Theatre in partnership with the ISU Jazz Band and Iowa State’s Department of Entomology.

“For the past several years, ISU Theatre has really tried to think about collaboration in a new way,” said Amanda Petefish-Schrag, associate professor of theatre. “Certainly, in theater, we do a lot of collaborating within the discipline. But we’re really trying to expand that to think about who other potential collaborative partners are on campus in the various colleges and in the community.”

Because Petefish-Schrag’s department plans productions about a year in advance, they were also looking at projects that would be fun, engaging and could be held outdoors.

“Especially because the pandemic has taken all of us outdoors even more, but that’s been one of the really good things that has happened during this time,” she said.

Amanda Petefish-Schrag, associate professor of theatre at Iowa State, shows a monarch butterfly puppet created by a member of the Ames community, which will be used in the Iowa Insect Pageant.

Talking with Matt O’Neal in the entomology department sparked the idea of creating insect puppets. Not long after that, the director of Iowa State’s jazz bands, Mike Giles, came on board the project and wrote original music to be used in the production, performed by the jazz band he leads.

“It’s been a really interesting project in so many ways,” Petefish-Schrag said. “Particularly in the way you start to learn almost a new language as you talk between the arts and sciences and even different disciplines within the arts – talk about how we have these shared goals and how do we achieve them.”

How the tiny aphid became the largest puppet in the show

About 50 puppets will be used in the performance. Some were designed by Petefish-Schrag herself, who has a long history in puppetry and teaches a course about it at the university.

The puppets involve a large number of shapes, sizes and styles of puppets.

Puppet designers spent time interacting with entomologists, learning what the scientists themselves think are interesting details about insects, what they’re passionate about and what their research is, she said.

“From there, we kind of figured out, if this were a pageant, and we were thinking about unique talents and the unique life stories of these different insects, what would we focus on?” Petefish-Schrag said.

That question led to an aphid being the largest puppet in the production. At more than 10 feet long, the puppet reflects the huge impact the insect has, despite its tiny size in real life.

“A puppet is never going to be able to do everything a living organism can do. So to be effective, when you design a puppet, you’re really thinking about what makes it essential,” she said. “Then we’re going to focus on that and create their pageant persona around that.”

A giant aphid head waits to be attached to its puppet body. The puppet is the largest one to be featured in the Iowa Insect Pageant.

Petefish-Schrag and her students learned about aphids from O’Neal, who studies them in his lab.

“They are so small. But Dr. O’Neal is studying aphids, in part, because their impact is so large, which is hard to believe when you’re looking at this insect that you can barely see,” she said. “Then hearing about the magnitude of the impact of this very tiny insect was a concept we locked into and decided to look into its scale in a different way.”

Ames Public Library holds puppet event in tangent with Iowa Insect Pageant

The Ames Public Library will have a free event for all ages on Saturday from 10:30 a.m. to noon in conjunction with the Iowa Insect Pageant.

Attendees will learn more about the interdisciplinary project, hearing from project leaders about how the music and puppets were created.

Participants will even have the chance to make their own puppets during the library event and are then invited to take part in an insect puppet parade at the 2 p.m. Bandshell Park performance.

A collection of bee puppets line the wall in Amanda Petefish-Schrag's office at Iowa State. She created the puppets, which are among the 50 or so creations that will be used in the Iowa Insect Pageant.

Insect puppets are made from reused and recycled materials

All of the puppet designers worked from a similar recipe of using found and repurposed “trash” materials, Petefish-Schrag said.

The pageant bees she created incorporate candy wrappers, used clothing, old jewelry, wire hangers and discarded prom decorations. The puppets are filled with reused packing paper and dryer lint.

“Everything that people will see is constructed from things that for the most part are repurposed things that might have otherwise ended up in a garbage can,” she said.

The use of reused and recycled materials added another layer of meaning to the project.

“We were being really cognizant of the fact that we’re learning about insects, and part of what we’re learning is that there are ways that our human activity negatively impacts things like bees,” Petefish-Schrag said.

The notion of reusing materials in puppetry is an idea that goes back centuries, she said.

“Going back a long time, puppeteers were thinking about what materials are plentiful and what materials are things that people in this community will recognize,” she said. “Then how do we transform these materials to give them new meaning?”

Petefish-Schrag can't stay away from puppetry

Petefish-Schrag began her puppetry career at a very young age.

“I started working professionally as a puppeteer when I was four years old,” she said. “I happened to be born into a family of puppeteers.

“When I was about four, I started touring with my family and spent my days down in the basement workshop with my mom, building puppets and learning how to create — not just puppets — but how to help build a puppet theater.”

Growing up in Alexandria, Minnesota, she just thought every family had a puppet theater in their basement.

Amanda Petefish-Schrag, associate professor of theatre at Iowa State, shows two of the moth puppets created by students, which will be used in the Iowa Insect Pageant.

When she got a little older, she learned how to book shows and answer the phone for her family’s business.

“I can claim no credit, but I did get to have this really fascinating childhood,” she said.

Petefish-Schrag continued working with her family through her school years and even into college.

“When I branched out on my own, I thought I’d never have anything to do with puppetry again, and you can see how well that worked,” she said with a laugh as she pointed to several bee-shaped puppets in her office. “I think what keeps pulling me back to it is that puppetry is both an art and a science at the same time.

“Puppets are these little machines that have to work well, and the machine has to work well in conjunction with the human body, and then it also has to aesthetically tell a story. Which is really challenging but also really exciting to get to be involved in all that thinking. It’s a very engaging way to approach the performing arts. And it keeps bringing me back.”