Toy Story: The Great Arizona Puppet Theater brings magic to the stage

By Claire Spinner

Nancy Smith has always been fascinated by puppetry.

After receiving a set of puppets and a stage when she was 5 years old, the art form quickly became the center of Smith’s life and, later, her career.

In 1983, Smith founded a puppeteer touring company, which laid the foundation for the Great Arizona Puppet Theater, the largest puppet theater west of the Mississippi.

Reopened after the pandemic, the Great Puppet Theater is triumphant proof of Smith’s determination.

“I’ve always done puppets,” she says. “I can’t really remember a time when I wasn’t, because it really started during my childhood. There’s so much you can do with them, and if you were to ask me ‘why puppets?’ I wouldn’t even really have an answer. It’s like asking a dancer why they dance — because I have to.”

When Smith met her husband, Kenneth Bonar, in 1972, they were destined to go into puppetry. Smith says their combined skills set them up for success. Ten years later, they started a touring puppet company.

“I had a lot of knowledge about theater and production, as well as makeup and costumes, and my husband is a really good sculptor and visual artist, so we thought we’d try our hand at doing puppetry professionally,” Smith says. “The two of us together actually made the perfect puppet team.”

Smith studied theater and music as an undergraduate and graduate student. Her education nudged her to write her own scripts.

“When we started, we discovered that we really are storytellers, and we wanted to do those stories with our puppets,” she says. “We wanted to do classic stories that survived and spoke to people for one reason or another and really focus on that. I couldn’t find a good script for puppets, so I thought, ‘I guess I’ll just write one myself,’ and that’s how I started writing scripts.”

Success brought the desire for a permanent location. In 1988, five years after the touring company was created, the Great Arizona Puppet Theater found its first home.

“We wanted to open a place that was a venue to the public,” Smith says. “We leased an old fire station and turned it into our puppet theater. Some of the people that brought their children to that theater are now bringing their grandchildren to our current location.”

As a nonprofit, the Great Puppet Theater struggled to find a long-term home.

“It was just too hard trying to lease,” she says. “So, I would drive around every day looking for places. We wanted to be in the center of town to better serve the whole community.”

In Downtown Phoenix, Smith found a former Mormon church that had been closed for decades. The building was slated to be torn down for the I-10 in the 1970s, but, as the Valley’s oldest Mormon church, the neighbors rallied for its addition to the National Registry of Historical Places. Smith and Bonar purchased the building in 1996.

“No one had really been taking care of the church, so it was in pretty bad shape at the time that we bought it,” she says. “It took us three years of renovation before we could open up.”

When the theater opened, Smith knew she could truly promote the Great Arizona Puppet Theater’s mission, which is “to advance and promote the art of puppetry, to celebrate the great state of Arizona, to educate children and families, and to enhance Arizona’s cultural climate.”

“My goal was always to become so much a part of the community here that people wouldn’t be able to imagine life without it,” Smith says.

Since 1999, the puppet theater has staged shows five days a week. Smith and her staff teach kids about the environment, different cultures or history. Smith has a knack for creative storytelling, penning catchy tunes and sharing magical puppeteering.

“I think puppets are really a great way to educate, because it brings a really personal and unique touch to topics that kids can find boring. Making learning fun is something that we have always done at the theater,” Smith says.

The Great Arizona Puppet Theater was one of the first in the country to develop curated “puppet slams.”

When the pandemic forced the theater to close, Smith says she was unsure if it would bounce back. Schools and organizations prepaid for spring and summer 2020 shows. The theater wasn’t just losing revenue on performances, but it actually owed money.

“It was a scary time, but we persevered, because what else were we going to do? So, we came up with drive-in puppet shows,” Smith says.

Adult and children drive-in shows were staged in the parking lot, with FM transmitters broadcasting the audio. Smith and her team created three new shows, excluding the puppet slams, from scratch to create lively drive-ins.

“We just wanted to make sure we were still able to bring joy into people’s lives in a way that was fun but also sanitary and safe.”

The drive-ins were successful. After a year of parking lot shows, the theater is ready to allow patrons in the theater.

“We really love our audience, and I’m looking forward to being able to see those genuine reactions on kids’ faces when we bring out the puppets,” she says.

Smith encourages families, children and adults to visit the theater at least once a summer.

“I think everyone should experience the joy of puppets,” Smith says.

“They’re just fun, and it’s something unique and refreshing. It’s also a form of live performance, which I think a lot of people have missed. And I think we are going to put on our best shows yet. Every time I get on that stage, I always think, ‘I want this show to be the best one I’ve ever done.’ And that’s the whole company. We truly love puppets and what we do, and we’re ready to get back to it.”