Chariho High junior’s project shows the positive power of puppetry
WOOD RIVER JCT. — Chariho High School junior Alex Celico’s idol is Jim Henson, so it’s no surprise that his passion is puppetry.
Inspired at a young age by Sesame Street and the Muppets, Celico, 16, took advantage of his school’s offering of an independent study project for credits toward graduation this year and decided to write, direct and build his own puppet performance during the coronavirus pandemic lockdown.
“Not many people realize how much work actually goes into making the puppets and performing,” said Celico, who got a little help from his friends Nick Cozzolino, who is a junior at Westerly High School, and Lainey Sumner, a fellow junior at Chariho.
“I have always loved puppetry and I wanted to show others, through this project, that you can do something creative with puppetry and it’s not just for kids,” said Celico, who has been making his own sock puppets and drawing scenes of Sesame Street on his sidewalk since he was a preschooler.
He began working on the project at the end of May and finished it at the end of August. The result was an hour-long puppet variety show that Celico calculated he worked on for 439 hours, and it’s now being used by the school as an example of the possibilities of the independent study program.
“I’m proud of my accomplishment,” Celico said. “I think it shows that it is possible to create during trying times.”
Celico’s mentor for the project was Melissa Hayes, who was a puppetry major at the University of Rhode Island, and he also worked with Tyler Bunch, an experienced puppeteer who has worked for the Jim Henson Company, PBS and Sesame Street.
For his independent study project, Celico built, sewed and created five puppets based on Henson’s famous Muppets. He then wrote the variety show, which cast himself as the Muppets’ guest host. He sang and recorded the songs in the show and did the lion’s share of the actual puppetry for the performance. Cozzolino was his assistant puppeteer.
Between acts of the performance, Celico educated his audience about Henson’s life and legacy, who he said he admires not only for his puppetry prowess but also because of his positive outlook on life in general.
“He is a fascinating man and his life is very interesting,” said Celico, who said he has always had a special connection to Kermit the Frog.
Cozzolino said he learned a lot working with Celico.
“Puppetry is definitely not easy and it takes a lot more work and dedication than people think it does,” Cozzolino said.
Sumner did the majority of the filming for the project. She said she enjoyed being part of something that others will learn from.
“It was a lot of hard work and effort, but it was liberating to get out during the pandemic and be part of something that was fun and exciting,” Sumner said.
“I am so glad that I was able to unite students from other schools for this project,” said Celico, who also enlisted the help of his cousin, Elizabeth Balbat, 10, a fifth-grader at Monsignor Clarke School in South Kingstown. Balbat was the stage manager for the project and kept things on time and moving forward.
“I really enjoyed the collaborative aspect of the project and the creativity of it,” Celico said. “I learned a lot.”
Even though Celico enjoyed the experience of putting together the puppet show and learned many new skills, including how to hand-sew puppet clothing, he is not sure he wants to pursue a career in the field. Instead, he said, he is leaning toward pursuing music education and hopes to direct the musical he has written at Hope Valley Elementary School in the spring. He is still waiting on confirmation for that project, based on the status of COVID-19 restrictions.
Celico’s puppet performance can be viewed on YouTube at youtube.com/channel/UCb_RZMvUBQTCgz2lvJavReA or by typing “The Lost Art of Puppetry” in the search bar.