New Victory Arts Break: The Vanishing Elephant

It’s a brand new season of phenomenal shows at New Victory, and that means the start of another season of New Victory Arts Break! This week, inspired by The Vanishing Elephant from Cahoots NI of Belfast, Northern Ireland, we’ll explore puppetry as a team, find creative ways to advocate for endangered animals and uncover the true story of Harry Houdini’s legendary vanishing elephant illusion. Let’s go!

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New Victory Arts Break: The Vanishing Elephant, with a photo of a large elephant puppet facing a man in a top hat

Some of the videos in this Arts Break were filmed at the New Victory Theater. We acknowledge that New Victory resides on the seized homeland of the Lenape people and the intertribal territory of many First Nations. We celebrate and pay deep respect to all Indigenous peoples, past, present and future, and we encourage you to learn more about these vibrant communities.

Before the Show: Become a Puppet!

Before experiencing The Vanishing Elephant, let’s explore the art form that brings all the animal characters in the production to life: puppetry! There are many different styles of puppetry. Some can be performed by yourself or with a single partner, while other grander styles involve a whole ensemble of puppeteers! Follow along with New Victory Teaching Artist Spencer Lott as he uses a few everyday items—and a little help from his friends—to create become an ensemble puppet.

Materials: A long sleeve shirt, a pair of shorts, a pair of shoes, a table

Step One: Gather your materials and decide who in your ensemble will be the star puppeteer. The star puppeteer will lead the movements, while the other ensemble puppeteers will focus on the arms and feet.

Step Two: Standing in front of the table, the star puppeteer puts on the long-sleeved shirt, buttoned up, without putting their arms through the holes. Instead, they hold the shorts at chest height under the shirt.

Step Three: One ensemble member places their arms through the shirt sleeves, while the other holds onto the shoes, placed on top of the table beneath the shorts.

Step Four: Once all three members of your ensemble feel ready, practice moving in different directions along the table at a slow speed. The star puppeteer should lead the movement with their face, body and words. When you’re feeling ready, pick up the speed and find objects in your space to interact with. Remember to listen to your star puppeteer!

Try switching up your role so that everyone can take a turn as the star puppeteer. 🤩

Veronica, America and Spencer take turns switching roles as ensemble puppeteers

Great work exploring ensemble puppetry! How did it go? Was there a puppeteering role that you preferred?

Arts Break Bonus
Now that you’ve explored ensemble puppetry surrounding a star puppeteer in your ensemble, let’s consider ways to create ensemble puppets inspired by animals—like an elephant!

Step One: Collect some elephant gear. You could use:

  • A large grey hoodie
  • A grey bedsheet
  • A grey blanket
  • A long tube sock for the trunk

Step Two: Follow the steps from Spencer’s video, but utilize your elephant materials!

Siobhan and Kyla from New Victory Education used a grey cape and a grey tubesock to puppeteer the ears and trunk of their elephant ensemble puppet.

Siobhan pinches the corners of a grey cape that's draped over Kyla's head and shoulders, while Kyla stretches out her sock-wrapped arm like an elephant's trunk

Now it’s time to make your way to Stage 42 for The Vanishing Elephant, where you’re sure to notice some ensemble puppetry on stage!

On the Way to Stage 42: Did You Know?

While journeying to Stage 42, let’s talk about the true story that inspired The Vanishing Elephant. Did you know that a spectacle with a very similar title played on another New York City stage over 100 years ago? Play the video below to learn a bit about Harry Houdini’s legendary vanishing elephant illusion!

Facts and photos in the video were sourced from Wild About Harry, an excellent online resource of all things Houdini.

The Vanishing Elephant features puppetry rather than the live animals of Houdini’s time. Puppetry is a great storytelling tool that allows audiences to see and experience extraordinary things in a way that is safe, accessible, and preserves and prioritizes the safety of a real, live animal that might once have been utilized in the puppet’s place. As you make your way to the theater to see The Vanishing Elephant in 2023, discuss and reflect on the questions below:

  • Why do you think the artists who created The Vanishing Elephant would choose a puppet over a real, live animal?
  • What is an animal that you would like to tell a story about on stage?
  • If you could tell the story of that animal on stage, what would you use to represent that animal?

After the Show: Preservation Poster

We hope you enjoyed The Vanishing Elephant and noticed both the ensemble puppetry and the connections to Houdini! Another large theme in The Vanishing Elephant is, of course, the elephant herself!

Opu rests his head against Janu's face in THE VANISHING ELEPHANT
Photo: Melissa Gordon

The character of Janu is an Asian elephant, a species that lives in India and Southeast Asia. Elephants can be silly, playful, creative and courageous, but they are also a species that needs a little extra care and attention from us because there aren’t many of them in the world. This makes them very special, but also very vulnerable. In this next activity, we’ll create preservation posters in honor of animals, places or things that need protection.

Materials: A large paper or our poster template, markers, tape or glue and pictures of your subject (optional)

Blank poster template with a ribbon for writing a title in and a cameo-style frame to draw inside

Step One: Brainstorm and choose an animal, place or thing in the world that needs our protection—this is your subject.

Step Two: Now that you have the subject of your poster, brainstorm ways of sharing your message. What can people do to help protect or preserve your subject?

Step Three: Come up with an inspiring title for your poster that names your preservation subject and calls other people to help.

Step Four: Now it’s time to create your poster! Write your title at the top in eye-catching letters, and use the center of your poster to illustrate your subject and people doing the work to protect it. You can also cut out photos of your subject and tape or glue them to your poster!

Preservation poster entitled "Precious Giant Panda" with a cutout of a panda in the center, bamboo illustration, and prohibitory symbols containing the words "illegal logging," "poaching" and "encroachment."

Siobhan from New Victory Education has always loved pandas—an endangered species. “They’re not just cute,” she says. “They also need our need help!” Her poster encourages people to learn more about bamboo logging, habitat encroachment and other human practices that are making it harder for pandas to survive.

Preservation poster entitled "Save our ocean" with an illustration of the ocean and cutouts of fish and plastic waste. Handwritten callouts read "Reduce how much water you use," "Reuse plastic" and "Recycle now!"

Katherine from the New 42 Youth Corps visits the beach to relax. She hates seeing litter and other signs of ocean pollution and has read about ocean animal populations declining due to climate change and plastic waste. “The ocean needs us as much as we need it,” she says. Her poster advocates for reducing our water usage to prevent excess wastewater runoff and reusing and recycling plastic whenever possible to keep it from winding up in the ocean.

Be an advocate! Share your poster with someone and explain to them why your subject needs protection.

If you want to use your voice in support of endangered elephants, check out the National Geographic Kids story of three young people in Hong Kong working to raise awareness about the illegal ivory trade and learn what you can do to help.

And Beyond: Don't Forget!

We hope that you enjoyed exploring the themes of The Vanishing Elephant with us. We’ll be back soon for another New Victory Arts Break, but before you go check out the resources below!

New Victory Teaching Artist Renata Townsend
Tell a shadow puppet story with New Victory Teaching Artist Renata Townsend in an activity from our Puppetry Playlist.
New Victory Teaching Artist Curt James
Bring a bunraku puppet to life with New Victory Teaching Artist Curt James.
New Victory Teaching Artist Ana Cantorán-Viramontes
Practice creating voices for your puppet characters with New Victory Teaching Artist Ana Cantorán-Viramontes.

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