Things You'll Need
- PVC pipe in two sizes
- Twelve PVC 90-degree elbow joints
- Six PVC "T" joints
- PVC adhesive
- Fine-toothed saw (hacksaw)
- Emery cloth
- Hot glue or wood screws
- Canvas, cardboard, thin plywood or composition board
Puppetry is a wonderful way for children to play out their fantasies as they develop creativity and a sense of humor. Helping you assemble a simple frame stage can make them part of the miracle. PVC pipe is a durable and inexpensive material that can replace more expensive lumber and hardware quite effectively when it comes to making a puppet stage.
Cut the PVC according to the height of your children. You will build three frames, each with a cross brace about 2/3 of the way down. One larger frame will anchor the face of the theater, and two smaller frames will form the "wings." You'll need six longer upright pieces and six shorter ones, with three 34" cross pieces for the front and six 16" cross pieces for the "wings." You'll also need about 4' of thin PVC (it has to be able to slip over the frame pipe) in the next largest diameter to make the hinges. For a 3' to 4' tall child, make the longer uprights 36" and the shorter ones 24" long. This will total about 48 running feet of PVC. Be sure to cut the pipe squarely (use a miter box or pipe cutter if you have one). Smooth the rough pipe ends with an emery cloth and wipe clean with a soft cloth.
Since the bond created by PVC adhesive is very fast and tight, pre-assemble or "dry fit" all parts before beginning. With "T" joints, join one short and one long pipe for each upright, and put elbow joints at both ends of each. Join the uprights together with the cross pieces, three to each frame, using the 34" pieces for the front and the 16" pieces for the two "wings." Check for fit and squareness. Make any corrections now, while it's easy to take the frames apart.
Make four "hinges" by cutting eight 6" pieces of PVC in a larger diameter (use the thin-sided type) that will slide easily over your frame pipe. Glue two pieces side by side so you have four double pipes, each 6" long. Allow to dry thoroughly.
Reassemble and glue the six uprights of the frame with long and short uprights, joined with the "T" joints. Do not glue elbows at either end. Slip hinges on each of two uprights to make two sets of two uprights joined by two hinges, one below the "T" and one above.
Glue elbows to the bottom and top cross braces, taking care that they are squarely attached. Working on a flat surface, attach the rear wing uprights to the hinged ones by gluing the (16") center cross pieces into the "T" joints. Glue the bottom and top cross braces to the wings. Be sure the frames lie flat.
Glue the center (34") cross brace between the center "T" joints. Again, working on a flat surface, attach the top and bottom cross brace elbow joints. When you set your frames up, you'll have a three-sided box. To keep your hinges from "floating" or sliding around and shifting, attach them to the front frame (not to "T" or elbow joints) with short wood screws so that they are perpendicular. Your wings will still move, but they will be more stable.
Cover your frame with material to conceal the puppeteers. If you're using plywood or composition board, cut a proscenium (stage opening on the front for the puppets) and attach them to elbow and "T" joints with wood screws. If you're using corrugated board (refrigerator and washer-dryer boxes are perfect) or canvas, attach with hot glue and cut your proscenium after attaching it. You can also cover your pipes with canvas using grommets and lashing if you're handy with rigging. Leave the center cross brace free from glue so you can hang puppets and props.
Finish the theater at the direction of your little puppeteer--you've been in charge long enough. Tie a rope between the wings at the top so they are not accidentally kicked open (and to use to secure the wings of your theater when it's folded for storage). Decorate your theater with tempera paint, wallpaper, contact paper or faux finishes with fancy lettering. String a curtain along the top inside. Children can stand behind the stage to use the theater for hand puppets or they can turn it over to use for marionettes. Just string a drape between the wing cross braces to mask the puppeteers' feet.
PVC pipe adhesive comes in two containers with daubing sticks in their lids. One compound cleans and softens the pipe and the second glues it tight. Most hardware stores will cut pipe to order for you, saving you work and allowing you to go straight to assembly. Although 46' sounds like a lot, PVC is fairly inexpensive: 50' of 1" or 1-1/2" pipe should cost you around $20. The elbows and "T"'s will be a bit more expensive. Since your frame is so sturdy, you can use cardboard or canvas for the surface of your puppet theater. Both can be replaced easily and redecorated. Use 1-1/4" or 1-1/2" pipe for your frame, and you should be able to find the parts you need at most stores that sell plumbing supplies.
Do not let children handle pipe adhesive. Set a good example and use gloves when assembling the pipe. Always dry-fit your project, even if it's cut for you beforehand.
An avid perennial gardener and old house owner, Laura Reynolds has had careers in teaching and juvenile justice. A retired municipal judgem Reynolds holds a degree in communications from Northern Illinois University. Her six children and stepchildren served as subjects of editorials during her tenure as a local newspaper editor.