A Millennium Middle School teacher with a prestigious puppetry pedigree is preserving the art form with the help of her precocious pupils
Edna Bland knew she wanted to become a puppeteer after just one visit to the set of Sesame Street, the beloved children’s television show she’d grown up watching.
“I had never done puppetry, but I fell in love instantly,” says Edna, who remembers watching the show’s puppeteers moving around the iconic set. “It was the coolest thing I had ever seen.”
Now a veteran puppeteer with 25 years of experience, Edna teaches theater and puppetry at Millennium Middle School. How the Long Island, New York native came to be on the Sesame Street set all those years ago is an interesting tale.
It was 1994, and Edna was working for the New York Emmy Awards. That year, puppeteer Caroll Spinney, who played Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch on Sesame Street, was being honored for his 25 years of service in the New York TV industry, and Edna was communicating with him by phone. She remembers that one of Caroll’s home-phone answering machine messages was recorded in Oscar’s voice; the other was in Big Bird’s.
“And when I spoke to him on the phone, he sounded just like Big Bird, but with a lower register,” Edna says with a laugh. “It was awesome.”
Edna told Caroll that she’d been a devotee of Sesame Street and especially admired Dr. Loretta Long, an African-American actress who portrays the human character of Susan on the show. In fact, Edna was such a big fan that her mother took her to a local mall to meet Dr. Long, who was there signing autographs. Edna vividly remembers being greeted by Dr. Long with a big hug and a warm smile.
Caroll was charmed by Edna’s story and invited her to come visit the Sesame Street set, and she didn’t hesitate to take him up on the offer. The legendary puppeteer – who died in December 2019 – became Edna’s mentor, teaching her about basic puppet techniques and characterization.
“He really was an amazing person,” says Edna, a 55-year-old Sanford resident. “I think he mentored me because he saw the passion in me and the eagerness to learn.”
Caroll also emphasized to Edna that she had a unique niche to fill – that of an African-American female puppeteer.
“He said, ‘Work that niche, but just always be authentically you,’” Edna remembers, adding that professional African-American female puppeteers are still a rare breed.
In the years that followed, Edna honed her puppetry skills in the secular and religious realms, working with puppet guilds as well as church groups. Post-9/11, she decided to leave New York and move to Florida – first to Jacksonville and then to Central Florida.
Edna, who earned master’s degrees in entertainment business and entertainment creative writing from Full Sail University, now enjoys imparting the art of puppetry to future generations. She joined the staff at Millennium Middle in 2011 and started an after-school puppetry club eight years ago, which eventually morphed into a performance team. The Millennium Middle School Puppet Team performs in the community and at the school.
Four years ago, Edna was given the green light to teach a puppetry arts elective class – the only one of its kind in Florida. The class, which is open to sixth, seventh, and eighth graders, is so popular that it has a waiting list. Edna’s students learn about the many varieties of puppets, as well as character development and voices. The kids also build their own puppets and work together in small groups to create skits that showcase their clever creations.
Sixth grader Bailey McDowell is in Edna’s Puppetry 2 class this semester and is also on the puppet team.
“I love puppetry because of Ms. Bland – she is amazing,” says Bailey. “And, making puppets is just fun. It’s performing in front of an audience, but they don’t see you. They can see my puppet, though. It’s pretty sweet.”
For Edna, the behind-the-scenes aspect of puppetry is one of the things that appeals to her the most.
“I like to see how things work,” she says. “The whole point of puppetry is you are manipulating an inanimate object, and you are making it come alive and breathe.”
In addition to her work at Millennium Middle, Edna teaches puppetry at Penguin Point Productions at the Oviedo Mall and has conducted many workshops around the country. A couple of her original puppets have been included in African-American puppetry exhibits in Connecticut and South Florida.
Years after being mentored by Caroll, Edna had another full-circle Sesame Street moment. In 2003, she was given the opportunity to go on a mini-tour with none other than Dr. Long, the actress she had gravitated to as a child. On the tour, they used Princess – one of Edna’s custom-made puppets – to promote literacy.
“Here was this woman I grew up watching on TV, and as an adult, I got to work with her,” Edna says.
When she first began learning puppetry, Edna thought of her newfound love as just a hobby. But it wasn’t long before she changed her way of thinking.
“I realized that this is a tool, this is not just for fun,” she says. “You can really reach people, and I love what puppets bring out in others.”
Edna has seen puppets spark conversations between folks who otherwise wouldn’t have spoken to each other, and she has watched the inner child come out in adults who are interacting with the puppets. And for Edna personally, there’s nothing better than using her puppets to connect with an audience.
“Seeing a baby smile or an awestruck individual when they fixate on one of my puppets – it’s a great reminder of why I do what I do,” says Edna, “and it keeps me in love with the art form.”
To learn more about Edna and her puppets, visit LovelyDayCreativeArts.com.
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