By Matthew Stoffel

As the PR intern, there is plenty of opportunity to soak in the outdoors, but a majority of my time in Sertoma Park is actually spent in my office or in Thea’s, writing and editing stories, going through pictures, managing social media and planning for upcoming projects. While our naturalist interns are teaching the kids about nature, I am safe in the shadows.

For the most part.

This Wednesday however, while sitting safe in my office and settling into a project… I was ambushed.

“Matt,” I heard, and turned to see Natalie, one of the naturalist interns. She explained that nobody else was available to help with her T is for Turtle class.

More specifically: the puppet show.

The Outdoor Campus' puppet theatre
The Outdoor Campus’ puppet theatre
My heart doubled its natural rhythm, and everything became blurry. A puppet show? Me? Why not Reid? Or Cody?

But in the moment’s chaos, there was nobody else.

I swallowed hard. Deep inhale. Deep exhale. “Sure,” I heard myself say.

Now, at Augustana I’m a theatre major, so it may seem odd that The Outdoor Campus’ puppet stage should cause me to fret. But this wasn’t the type of theatre I was used to.

No warning. No audition. No rehearsal.

I stepped into the classroom. Though there were probably only 20 kids in attendance, my anxiety quadrupled the audience. Masking my hyperventilation, I ducked behind the wall of the theatre to encounter a volunteer: my partner in catastrophe.The turtle and beaver that performed in the show.

He nodded at me. “I’ve got the beaver. You can be the turtle.”

I looked down at the turtle through which I had to convey the magic of theatre. The turtle I had to find some connection to, to fit with voice and demeanor. But this character, this vessel of the stage, offered just one aspect I could relate to. If only I had a shell into which I could escape from peril, I thought as my shaking hand met the soft puppet frame.

I took my seat and began to glance over the script. The beaver would ask the turtle about being cold-blooded and how… No. The beaver wouldn’t ask the turtle. Not really.

It would ask me.

Deep inhale. Deep exhale. I can do this. I’ve performed 100 times in the last year alone.

But it was no use. Before I finished scanning the script, Natalie’s voice told the kids class would start with a puppet show.

The Outdoor Campus' puppet theatre... Backstage.
My fellow performer nodded and thrust his puppet past the safe cover of the curtain with confidence. As I marveled at his reserve, I realized my own hand was also extending past the curtain…

The beaver began to speak.

And the show started.

I remember creating his turtle voice on a whim. I remember demonstrating how he retreats into his shell. I remember, halfway through, realizing the script’s turtle was a woman.

But other than that, the performance was a blur.

I kept my head down as I exited the classroom. I did it to hide, but looking down proved ineffective in avoiding the eyes of four year olds.

After getting out of the classroom I stopped a moment, listening to the door click shut behind me. Deep inhale. Deep exhale. Then, I broke into a full sprint in retreat to my office.

To the safety of my shell.


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