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In an electronic age, a low-tech way to entertain and create

Kathy Torkelson demonstrates how to make a puppet using glue, an air-filled balloon and newspaper to a group of children in the five-day puppetry workshop at The Barn Theatre in Willmar. (Tribune photo by Eric Ludy)1 / 2
McKenna Ulferts, 10, of Willmar models her puppet creation during day one of the puppet-making workshop Monday at The Barn Theatre. Children ages 8 to 12 explore making and performing with different types of puppets during the five-day workshop which is being put on by the Willmar Public Library and The Barn Theatre, ending with a Friday afternoon performance. (Tribune photo by Ron Adams)2 / 2

Beyond all the electronic stimulation of video games and laptop computers -- sometimes all kids need to be entertained is some paper, glue, and a little imagination, said Kathy Torkelson.

Her point was on display on Tuesday as a group of children ages 8 to 12 sat in rapt attention as she glued torn-up bits of newspaper onto an air-filled balloon at The Barn Theatre in Willmar. They were learning how to make puppets that they'll feature in shows of their own creation this Friday.

"It's a chance for them to do something and to be creative," she said.

As part of a summer reading program called "Be Creative At Your Library," Torkelson, the director of the children's section at the Willmar Public Library, has partnered with The Barn Theatre to create a five-day puppet workshop. It ends on Friday with a 3 p.m. series of puppet shows put on by the children at The Barn Theatre stage.

It's the first collaboration between the library and the theater, and Charlie Olson hopes there will be plenty more. Olson is The Barn Theatre box office manager and co-director of the workshop with Torkelson, and she said that the simple act of creation often gets lost in the hustle of a modern childhood.

"It's something we're really losing. The kids don't get a chance to do this kind of stuff anymore," she said.

Both Olson and Torkelson said the 17 children enrolled in the workshop were greatly engaged with the material. For their shows on Friday, they'll divide into groups and create hand puppet adaptations of old tales like the "Billy Goats Gruff" or "Little Red Riding Hood."

They also have the option to create stories of their own, said Torkelson. "We might have a couple who decide to do that," she said.

The idea to do a puppet show as a way to get children engaged with the library came out of Torkelson's lifelong interest in puppetry. She said she still remembers making puppets in the first grade. Later, while attending St. Cloud State University, she took a class called "Puppetry as Storytelling."

"It kind of just stuck with me," she said.

Torkelson said that puppetry is an especially effective tool for getting children who would otherwise be terrified to act on stage to still get a chance to engage in performance art. In puppetry, she said, it's the puppets that are visible to the audience, not the actors controlling them. It's almost like the experience of a school mascot, she said. Free from the public view, they can take on an entirely new identity.

"In puppetry, you can be whoever you want to be," she said.

The children's puppet shows are open to the public and will be held at The Barn Theatre stage, 311 Fourth St. S.W. in downtown Willmar, at 3 p.m. on Friday.